Do you speak Library? (if you do, then maybe it’s time to learn a new language)

The University senior administrators world is one of KPIs, analytics and performance indicators, and they are typically focussed only a small number of strategically important issues at any one time – student recruitment, teaching quality, student retention, academic outcomes, research success – it is rarely library services.

Libraries, as we well know, deliver services and manage facilities that make a positive (often critical) contribution to all of the above topics and much more besides. On the face of it, this ought to be a win-win situation, but sometimes it is not because we have a tendency when talking about our achievements and plans for the future to do so using language that is far too modest about our role and impact, and couched in language that is too inward facing.  And this is a problem, because often, our world and the world of the senior administrators are very different and we don’t share a common language. This means we need to become “bi-lingual” – continue to speak library yes, but also be fluent in the language of the Vice Chancellor, Provost, Principal, FD, CFO etc because you can be sure they won’t want to learn library. In my experience, many library managers find this a difficult language to learn.

The story the senior administrator often hears of the library is a negative one; the library is expensive, takes up a lot of valuable real estate, and, if not exactly seen as a blocker or barrier to university developments, is rarely regarded as part of the solution to the bigger institution wide challenges referred to above.

Yet if we were tuned in to their language we would know that what they actually want to hear from us that is we can contribute positively to change, or at the very least, help reduce risk to the institution. We need to be bold and confident, and remind senior staff that we are experts in our field, professional, committed and good at delivering on promises. The challenge is to translate what we often find easiest to describe in terms of input, process and system developments into outputs that be defined in terms of the wider institution – macro not micro level deliverables.

But this is easier said than done. If I were to rank how successful I think libraries are at communicating and engaging with other groups I would probably say we are best at talking to other librarians, next with academics, researchers and students and place senior administrators at the bottom of the pile. And while we want to be good at getting our message across to all the above groups, the one with most strategic importance is the one we are least good at, because if we are not good at that then we reduce our capacity to have anything interesting or positive to say to the other groups!

This is only one aspect of communicating our value of course. The last decade has witnessed significant attention to the challenge of demonstrating value in a measurable/scientific way, and while a lot of progress has been made it still, for most libraries, remains more aspiration than reality. Perhaps understandably we have become increasingly fixated on the importance of this in terms of how we present and demonstrate our value to our parent institutions, but while the search for convincing ‘hard data’ continues, we must not lose sight of ‘just’ being a trusted partner, working at institution level, and operating in a way that senior administrators can relate to.

So the next time you need to develop a new service or safeguard an existing one, tell your senior staff that you have an interesting proposal to help with student retention, or estate space planning or research grant capture or whatever resonates with them at the time and see how the conversation goes!

Mike Berrington