Association of Research Libraries fellow Dennis Clark reflects on leadership and academic libraries
March 5, 2016
VCU Libraries' Dennis Clark is among the 28 librarians selected by the Association of Research Libraries to participate in the 2016–2017 Leadership Fellows program. Clark is the Associate University Librarian for Research and Learning. This executive leadership program facilitates the development of future senior-level leaders in large research libraries and archives. The program was created to meet an ongoing need to develop future leaders of ARL member institutions. “This fellowship is both an honor for Dennis and a commitment by him and VCU Libraries to the highest levels of continuing education and human resources development that builds more effective leadership in libraries,” said University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider. More about the ARL program
You’ve just begun as fellow and the program ends in spring 2017. What, exactly, will this entail?
The fellowship is based around in-depth experiences, both as a cohort and as an individual, as well as a structured agenda of web meetings. I will have the opportunity to attend week-long sessions at each sponsoring library (Colorado State, Duke, Alberta) as well as attend meetings of the directors of the Association of Research Libraries--the most significant research libraries in the United States and Canada. In addition, I’ll work closely with a director at one of the larger research libraries at his or her institution for several days.
Can you think ahead and imagine what you will glean from this opportunity and what you might bring back to VCU from this experience?
A lot! I will be able to learn about the challenges and opportunities facing research libraries from the best library leaders anywhere! It’s really exciting. I hope to bring back that experience to help our libraries to ensure we are embedded in the academic and research fabric at VCU.
Leadership development has long been a part of human resources management in corporate arenas and in large nonprofit and scholarly institutions. Can you put library leadership development in some sort of context?
Academic and research libraries have long supported strong programs to assist leaders in becoming better. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has long supported a program for early career library managers. UCLA has a similar program for decades that requires a long residency. The ARL fellowship is different because it takes place over time and in various places with different stakeholders, so iterative learning can inform the direction of the program. It also allows the Fellows amazing access to the senior leadership of all research libraries in North America. There’s a great deal to be learned from those individuals.
Libraries have historically been very hierarchical organizations with a linear structure. Leaders/managers act as “heads.” Decision-making is at the top. Increasingly, the trend in many modern work environments is to create circular cultures of teamwork and collaborative decision-making and goal-setting and problem solving. What’s your thinking on how libraries are structured and what directions make sense for the future?
I think most research libraries--about which I have my recent experiences--are finding new models for organization. I think that libraries must be focused on their stakeholders, customers, patrons, members, constituents--however we define the folks we partner with and serve. Libraries don’t have the luxury they once had of creating cloistered cultures. Once that focus is clear, then the model organizes itself. VCU Libraries has a University Librarian, essentially a dean, as its leader, and that makes working inside a large and complex research institution like VCU much easier.
What three books related to or inspiring of leadership or professionalism would you recommend that a mentee read?
Well, everyone has their own perspective. I give three that have made a difference for me.
Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell. This was written by a Disney executive. It helped me understand how to focus on the service experience.
The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf. It flips the traditional idea of top-down leadership onto its head.
The last isn’t a book, but a great TED Talk on leadership styles of the great conductors by Italy Talgam. My background is in music so I find it especially relevant. The talk shows how great conductors (leaders) have different and maybe equally relevant approaches for leading smart people with their own individual talents.
Many people and scholars would agree that a first step in becoming effective in an organization is self-knowledge. Beyond self-knowledge and self-awareness, what do you think are three critical attributes of an effective leader--in a library or any other organization?
That was actually part of our initial discussion at the first meeting of the fellows. My perspective is that leaders must have, at minimum, integrity, vision and optimism. If someone possesses those traits than the sky's the limit for what his or her organization can accomplish.