An Interview with Dr. Aisha M. Johnson, Advocate, Educator, & Scholar

When we think of leadership in professional development, we need to think about different approaches and styles, and how to grow as a leader in the library field over time. We spotlight professional development trainers and experts in librarianship to talk about their work. In this blog post, we interview Dr. Aisha Johnson for her thoughts on leadership and professional development.

Aisha Johnson

Dr. Aisha Johnson (she/her), Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Outreach at Georgia Institute of Technology Library, is a revelator of Southern library history, information access, and literacy. Formerly MLS Program Director for the School of Library and Information Sciences (LIS) at North Carolina Central University, continuing as adjunct, she stands on her commitment to enhancing LIS through service, practice, and curriculum to produce librarians and archivists who become scholar-practitioners and leaders.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us! Can you briefly tell us about your work as a library leader and your professional development interests?

Aisha: I’ve been working in libraries for since 2006, starting as a circulation assistant for a public library. I have worked in a variety of libraries/archives (and departments) including academic (public and private), federal, and public. More specifically, I have worked progressively in archives and library leadership for more than 10 years. In these different roles, I have experienced different styles of leadership, some I didn’t agree with and some I did. Oftentimes, I found myself in the position of not receiving the type of leadership I needed; people leadership. Those experiences helped me become the people-leader that I am today, with a toolbelt for situational leadership.

My style of leadership is strictly about people and professional development. As an educator, I always say I love to be the vehicle to someone’s epiphany, and I mean that for students and professionals. That’s my leadership! That is what I focus on, advocacy and professional development. When we better understand that people need to feel seen, valued, and heard for a true investment in the well-being of the organization, I think leaders – and those in managerial positions – will better understand emotional investments.  Currently serving as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Outreach at the Georgia Tech Library, I have been able to employ a variety of leadership skills from my toolbelt that has helped me be an inspiring leader and scholar-practitioner.

What do you think are the challenges in engaging library workers at all levels in leadership development activities?

Aisha: Organizations (and state politics) that restrict engagement with policy and funding. We know, everything DEI is under attack, but the reality is we have had to shift over the decades in a variety of ways due to political challenges. Our very core of intellectual freedom is challenged. But we are information professionals! We are and will continue to become more innovative in our approach to language concerning foundational activities and people. I encourage everyone to learn educational policy as it relates to your organization and follow the ink, if you will. Discuss it and see where it’s going so you are ready without surprise. Learn the policy, learn the game. We got this, for the communities we serve. They need us and we need them.

Also, people. People are a challenge, sometimes. The “we’ve always done it this way” people. A good leader seeks to bring everyone along. Sometimes, we only focus on new and/or mid-career professionals. And while it may be challenging, it is not fair to neglect your seasoned and veteran professionals. They have institutional and professional knowledge. While it may take some maneuvering, do it. You won’t regret it and they will appreciate it.

Challenges will always exist, and it is leadership’s job to curve the challenges so that your library workers have a smoother day serving the patrons. That’s leadership.

What are some trends or areas in the library leadership field that you are seeing?

Aisha: The leaders that are doing it right are invested in the development of their people…even if it means the person outgrowing the organization. Be invested in your people for the profession. We want to retain professionals for the LIS field, not just one organization. Bright minds should have bright futures.

I do not care for boxed-in departments, you know those that do not allow for the people to explore the work of others or engagement. I love when leaders are open and allow the natural curiosity of library workers to explore and engage. I think that is a wonderful “trend,” but really it should be the culture. It breaks down barriers on a variety of levels and builds understanding of how various parts of the big machine works. It gives way for empathy and appreciation of your colleagues.

Also, I wouldn’t call community engagement a trend. It’s a part of our core values; serving the community in social, recreational, and educational ways. I love that! It is one of the most exciting things when the library is meeting the community where they are in a fun and intriguing way.

What resources or opportunities would you like to share to highlight the people-leadership skills?

Aisha: Talk to people, communicate. Ask about experiences and seek guidance. This profession is filled with kind people who want new leaders to emerge and develop. No one will turn you away or not share their experiences. At least, I never do. The saying is “closed mouths don’t get fed,” and I have extended that to half open mouths don’t get full. Talk to people.

Invest in your own professional development. Seek leadership and management training through professional organizations like Association of College and Research Libraries, Association of Southeastern Research Libraries, American Library Association, Society of American Archivists, state library associations, etc. Even webinars and seminars provide helpful insight. You can learn leadership skills from a variety of places.

Get involved in the profession. Leadership needs to be seen. People need to get to know you and your platform. Seek to build partnerships and collaborations that add to the LIS platform of advocacy. Become scholar-practitioner. You have something to say, write about it. It helps build the LIS curriculum.

Get outside of yourself. Believe it or not, I am introvert. Yes, yes I am. But it was my passion and love for the profession that evolved me into the advocate that I am. I knew in order to get things done, I had to put the shyness to the side and build this platform. Not to say I do not get exhausted, but it does get easier. Now advocating – for libraries and archives, librarianship and archivists, leadership and professional development, representation, and inclusion – is my favorite thing. Advocate to the point that others are advocating for you and the platform. I’m really good at that and I only do what I am passionate about. It’s the easiest way to remain authentic. Also, when it gets to the most frustrating moments, it’s the simplest way to recall “the why.”

Leave. Sounds absurd, right?! But be ok leaving. First let’s be clear. People do not leave organizations; they leave leaders that are not invested in growing the individual. Always have a plan and be open to relocation. Especially early in your career, know that three to four years of impact is enough time for you to make a difference. Grow or Go. Be impactful for the profession, and sometimes (often times) that does not mean staying in the same location for 5-10+ years. As long as you are building on an impactful platform, this will not hurt your career.

Pay attention to the leaders of the field, look at those CVs and resumes. Build the path for you while learning from others. Have a goal that highlights and uplifts the profession.

Thank you for speaking with us! Anything else you’d like to share that we didn’t get to talk about?

Aisha: For library leaders, see your role beyond the library. The library is the soul of the schoolhouse, so commit to partnerships and collaborations across campus and community that highlight the services, collections, and people as resources. That’s how we remain relevant as a primary resource. It will only strengthen the advocacy for students, faculty, and the community. Talk to people.

For those who aspire, leadership goes beyond a title. Leadership is innate, but it is also a taught skill set refined with experience. Even if you do not hold a titled leadership role within your organization, you can get involved in the profession and develop as a leadership, mover, and shaker. Leadership is a life skill that is transferable.

One thought on “An Interview with Dr. Aisha M. Johnson, Advocate, Educator, & Scholar

  1. Hosea Tokwe

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    I truly enjoyed this interview. So touching the way its conducted and I love the way the Doctor explains on style of leadership. A leader is there to lead not manage. Centering on developing self, growing up in the profession and being engaged in professional programmes is the key as it affords one networking and knowledge sharing and rising up and grabbing all opportunities that come with engaging in professional activities at different fora.

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