Twenty-Five Years of Collegial Management: The Dickinson College Model of Revolving Leadership and Holistic Librarianship

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article describes the management system of Dickinson College Library. By treating this particular library as case study, the article describes the history, rationales, and relative merits of the library's innovative management structure in light of that structure's possible wider application in other contexts.

(Much of the substance of this article was presented as a paper at the University of Arizona's Living the Future II Conference, in Tucson, Arizona, April 21-24, 1998)

Organizationally, libraries have changed little in recent years. Even though librarians and library managers have talked a great deal about developing teams, empowering staff, and implementing innovative management strategies (TQM having emerged as the currently most popular), the actual organizational framework of academic libraries has remained largely static. College and university libraries today are openly hierarchal, just as they were decades ago, reflecting a managerial pattern that owes more to the corridors of the business community than to the halls of the academic world.

In an attempt to challenge this traditional structure, the library at Dickinson College developed more than two decades ago an altogether different model, a model that involved revolving leadership, collegiality and something of a holistic vision of librarianship. This article is a summary of that model and a frank assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. It is a case study of a single library's management structure, a candid look at how one library combined both collegiality and high-standards of professional quality. It is, in short, an example of one way of managing a library in a particular context--an example that, despite of its particularity, might well serve as a model for other institutions.

I. Disclaimers:

Before I relate the details and history of the Dickinson model, I offer two caveats. First, I firmly believe that there is more than one way to skin a cat, bake a pie, or run a library. I am not a propagandist. I do not begin to claim that how we do things at Dickinson is the way that you should do things in your shop. This is far from the case. I am only talking about our experience, because I believe that it is useful for all libraries and librarians to reexamine their way that we do things from time to time. If my remarks here enable professionals to take a fresh look at their library's own structure (finding things that you should reinforce or things that you should change altogether) then I have accomplished my purpose.

Secondly, I recognize that certain dimensions of the Dickinson model can appear bizarre to those in institutional leadership roles. Whenever I talk about the Dickinson approach to library management among library directors, for instance, I feel rather like a shop foreman or trade-union organizer talking with a group of CEOs or top businessmen. Or I feel like a Communist agitator attending a Rotary Club. The analogy may be overdrawn, but it isn't too far from the truth. I can only ask that those within the leadership of our profession, the library directors and managers, read this account with a degree of openness.

II. Dickinson's Model: why and how:

In 1975 the librarians at Dickinson did something that few small academic libraries have ever done. They scrapped the traditional hierarchical model of leadership, introduced a collegial pattern of management with a rotating chair, and implemented a holistic vision of librarianship. If this bold new plan for the library's management structure that I here describe appears somewhat revolutionary, if it sounds rather radical, or if it seems rather dangerous, it is because it was. The new system was extremely different from our old way of doing things. It was very radical, and if not pernicious, more than a little risky. It was a revolution--a reorganized structure of management, a newly-cast paradigm.

Like all revolutions, there were those who said that it wouldn't work. …