As promised, I’m back with a second blog post about SLA 2014, this time focusing on a particular session I attended at the conference that really inspired me. The session was called ‘Leadership in a Time of Disruption: Reconnecting Intellect and Practice’ and was delivered by Christina Neigel from the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. I daresay that from attending her session, looking at her blog and finding out that she’s currently working on a doctorate on how leadership is conceived in LIS using post structuralist feminist theory, Christina can definitely be classed as Someone Who Knows What They Are Talking About when it comes to management and leadership. A blog post written by Christina on the same topic can be found here, for those who are interested in reading more.
Before I continue, I should probably add a disclaimer that the ideas discussed in Christina’s session come from the perspective of working in the academic library sector, and the majority of my experience comes from working in academic libraries too. Therefore, some of the points raised may not feel completely relevant to those working in very different and specialist library sectors, but I hope you will find it an interesting read nonetheless.
So, why is this session the one that seems to have stuck with me the most? When I was listening to Christina talk I found myself agreeing with pretty much everything she was saying and felt like a lot of the issues she raised were applicable in our workplaces, and in society generally, here across the pond too. The session opened with the assertion that leadership is an “essentially contested concept” (Dowding, 2011) and it is crucial that we consider different perspectives and not just accept current management and leadership practices as definitive. Christina also discussed how the dominant neoliberal culture in the West has created societal structures that favour those who come from privileged backgrounds, and we are effectively trapped into a culture of inequality that many now see as ‘natural’. It leaves us in a position where we are only able to adapt to change from one perspective and, in my view, this only serves to increase the inequalities in society.
“Our culture has become dominated by the language of austerity. It is increasingly difficult for us to imagine ourselves operating in any other way other than as economic entities.” (Neigel, 2014)
As a new professional and a young person, the idea that neoliberalism is embedded so far into everything in our culture distresses me and I don’t like it. I believe there are other ways to do things that will benefit our society in a much more healthy and democratic way. But what on Earth does all of this have to do with my career, SLA and the Library and Information sector generally? In the blog post that inspired Christina’s session she states:
“One of the limits of leadership is that it continues to operate in the library field in a hierarchical fashion that is often position-based.” (Neigel, 2014)
This made me think and I realised that I, myself, have contributed to this culture by not doing things or speaking up at work, at conferences or in sessions at Library Camps because I felt like my opinion wouldn’t be seen as important enough. I’m just a lowly Library Assistant, what do I know? Who will value my opinion if I am at the bottom rung of the ladder? Surely this only means that I am absolving myself of any responsibility to have some say in the direction of my profession and leaving it up to the privileged few to steer the course.
Christina then went on to discuss ideas around distributed leadership and how we should strive for a collective responsibility and flexibility, rather than focusing on our individual careers, and how this can help us address the pressing issues facing our profession. The American Library Association’s Core Values include things such as ‘democracy’, ‘intellectual freedom’ and ‘social responsibility’ and CILIP’s Professional Knowledge and Skills Base has ‘Ethics and Values’ right at its core. It can be difficult to speak up or fight for what we believe is right if we are waiting on one leader, one ‘hero’ or even one organisation in the profession to take the lead. The hierarchy of many workplaces may mean that even the library manager or director feels unable to speak out, as they are trapped within the structures of a much bigger institution. If we use the talents and voices of the collective, I believe that we can achieve so much more and become more powerful to be able to defend our services against public sector cuts, outsourcing and the stripping away of a democratic and equal society.
“There is simply more force to defend democracy and intellectual freedom if the profession is able to call upon the diverse knowledge, interest and expertise of all of its members. Without it, we are not much of a profession at all.” (Neigel 2014)
That conference session, above all of the others, is the one that I enjoyed the most and got the most out of. It was amazing to be in a room with so many like-minded people and to hear someone with such passion and knowledge speak about something they really care about. I would just like to say a huge thank you to Christina Neigel for a fantastic session and again to SLA Europe and the Leadership and Management Division for giving me the opportunity to attend the conference so I could share my experience with everyone else. Until next time!