Project Management as a Core Competency for Librarians

A Project Underway

A project underway in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Projects—and the need to manage them—permeate libraries. We migrate catalogs and implement new discovery services. We start new chat reference services and new training programs for our front line staff. We establish new campus delivery services and shift the collections. We convert staff spaces to user spaces, and then back again. Small libraries are not immune nor are large ones. Public libraries, academic libraries, school libraries, special libraries—we all have projects. Project managers, whether they call themselves project managers or not, work throughout the library—in reference, circulation, reserves, interlibrary loan, systems, cataloging, acquisitions, special collections, administration—on a daily basis. Projects are underway throughout all of our libraries and in all parts of our libraries.

Why, then, aren’t our library schools preparing our new librarians to manage these projects? Perhaps our library graduate programs believe that managing projects is instinctual: you either have the skills or you don’t. Or, maybe the collective wisdom is that new librarians won’t be asked to lead new initiatives. Perhaps project management is the province of only information technology and construction projects. Or maybe there is simply not much to learn about managing projects. Perhaps these reasons, and more, are why a 2005 analysis by Winston and Hoffman of library curricula found project management mentioned in courses at only 3.7% of the 56 programs studied.

From my perspective in the field, I believe that all new librarians should be taught basic project management skills. Managing projects is a learned process that can be taught in a classroom and then improved upon with experience. New colleagues are frequently called upon to lead projects large and small. Project management processes benefit all kinds of organizational and service changes, not just those related to technology and construction. For any intended career path, learning project management skills make new librarians competitive in finding jobs and more successful throughout their careers. Project management should be part of the core curriculum in library graduate programs.

My definition of what a project manager does might be a bit different from yours, especially if you envision extensive Gantt charts and complex network diagrams. My definition of a project manager, adapted from Web Project Management in Academic Libraries (Fagan and Keach, 2009), is:

“the person who directs the execution of …[any]… initiative through its lifecycle, including defining the project, collaborating with stakeholders and team members, facilitating meetings, managing the timeline and deadlines, and overseeing all aspects of communication among the technical team and within the organization.” (p. 8)

Project managers, in other words, “plan the work and work the plan” from start to finish.  In these times of rapid change, reduced budgets—and prevalent projects—project management becomes more important than ever.

For instance, project managers attempt to define a project and identify goals before jumping into implementation. Defining a project allows library management to understand and prioritize the project alongside others.  Taking the time to articulate what a project hopes to achieve, and then sharing it, also informs the whole organization so that similar projects can be coordinated with each other. By helping your organization decide if it should really embark on a new project and aligning similar projects, you save your limited money and people for the projects that bring the biggest impact.

Project management fundamentals also encourage managers to identify the project sponsor. The project sponsor is the person who can approve a project plan, answer thorny questions, and sign off on the end result. The project sponsor is not always the person who requested the project and it’s usually not the person who is leading the project. When every possible choice in a project is unpopular with some, this simple concept becomes a powerful one. It becomes the difference between a project that is completed according to the stated goals and a project that is never complete.

When you define a project, you also typically begin to document the individuals or groups who need to be informed of the project, who need to provide input for project success, and who need to be an active participant in decision making. By identifying these stakeholders and participants early—and then following through on plans to communicate with them—the project manager can identify potential challenges and reveal important information early rather than too late. In identifying those who should be involved in decision making, you avoid wasteful meetings that are missing the key players. By communicating with the right people, the project manager also prevents surprises and disagreements down the road.

Project managers also plan work by creating a list of tasks and assigning them.  Gantt charts and complex schedules can document precise schedules but a simple list or spreadsheet can often be enough. Without a list of tasks, the implementers need to come back to the leader after each task is completed to ask “what next?” With it, implementers get the work done and know what everyone else is expected to do. The project manager monitors progress and keeps communication lines open. Creating lists of tasks—also known as work breakdowns—is a smart way to delegate and yet one more way to use resources wisely.

Finally, project managers also archive project documentation for institutional knowledge. In times of retirements and high turnover, more than ever we need to record what decisions we made and why so that we build on our past endeavors rather than starting each project anew. Although our environment is changing rapidly, the old decisions are still of value. In five years or twenty, the organization will want to understand why you did what you did. By examining past projects, we can learn what worked and what didn’t instead of repeating past failures.

Project management principles can and should be taught within the curriculum of library science programs. Doing so does not require an entire course dedicated to the topic. It could be included in the context of a broader management class. Even better, basic principles of defining a project and planning the work could be incorporated into any introductory class that requires a group project. By teaching how to define a project, how to specify an end result, and the value of documenting and assigning tasks required for success, everyone involved in the group project gets a taste of the challenges and the benefits of project management. And, all libraries will benefit as we hire these new, project management-proficient librarians to help to lead our libraries project by project into the future.

Works Cited

Fagan, Jody Condit, and Jennifer A. Keach. 2009. Web Project Management in Academic Libraries. Oxford: Chandos.

Winston, Mark D., and Tara Hoffman. 2005. Project management and libraries. Journal of Library Administration 42 (1): 51-61.

This article was previously published  in a slightly different form as “Change is Good: The Role of the Librarian as Project Manager” in Library Management Today, 1(3).

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3 comments

  1. jodyfagan

    I agree that library schools should offer a class in PM. What library wouldn’t want to have job candidates with project management experience!! While some organziations and insdustries might be able to use project managers who aren’t affilitated with a particular functional area, I think libraries aren’t there yet (if we will ever be). Right now it seems like our projects are context-specific enough that functional experts need to help plan the project and communication about it.

    • Keach

      Howdy Jody and thank you for your comment! I think you’ve hit upon an idea for a future post: when does an organization begin to have a need for a dedicated expert in a broad-based skill like project management. Perhaps that happens when the organization notices that the cost of the mistakes start to exceed the cost of an expert!

  2. Pingback: Project management skills for Librarians | Project Management 641

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