Interim Leadership in Libraries

Book cover featuring Interim Leadership in Libraries: Building Relationships, Making Decisions, and Moving On, edited by Jennifer E. Knievel and Leslie J. Reynolds text displayed over a background scene of desert dunes

ACRL announces the publication of Interim Leadership in Libraries: Building Relationships, Making Decisions, and Moving On, edited by Jennifer E. Knievel and Leslie J. Reynolds. This collection gathers the expertise and experiences of interim leaders in a variety of roles and institutions and helps address the unique challenges of these roles and ways to make a lasting impact. 

Learn more about Interim Leadership in Libraries in this excerpt from the Introduction by the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

What is Relevant to You? Question Your Assumptions

This book details the experiences of different kinds of library leaders: deans, directors, branch leaders, and more. The particular position under discussion in each chapter is less important than the circumstances and challenges, which are broadly applicable and vary widely from chapter to chapter. Librarians from around the world and from a variety of libraries share their experiences as interim leaders and challenges they encountered during their temporary stint as a leader.

This book is grouped into segments; however, it does not require a linear reading, and chapters or sections may be most useful based on your interests or your circumstances. While the majority of authors are from academic institutions, those from public and special libraries will find details that resonate in their context. The relevance is broad for our academic readers as well—the chapter about public libraries, for example, provides some excellent reflections on stepping into a fraught management situation, the chapter about law libraries includes analysis that is equally relevant to other kinds of libraries, the chapter about federal libraries describes bureaucracy that might influence decisions in many organizations, etc. Those from outside the library discipline may also find topics that resonate in their own contexts. The universality of some of the experiences point to their relevance to current and future positions as well as to organizations that need them or will need them in the future.

Accurate (Probably) Assumptions About Interim Leadership

Most of this introduction is exhorting our readers to question their assumptions about interim leadership. However, in preparing this book, we have identified half a dozen assumptions that potential leaders and their organizations would indeed be wise to make.

  1. Interim roles take longer than planned. If there is one assumption anyone can make about an interim role, it is this one. It is almost universally true that an interim role lasts longer than anyone estimates. Planning timelines for filling permanent roles is usually overly—sometimes unrealistically—optimistic. Unplanned delays take many different forms and happen at many different stages. With so many potential reasons for delay, interim leaders and their organizations should assume that at least some delays will happen. Interim roles are frequently a lot longer than the original estimated length of time. Be prepared for what that might mean for the leader and the organization.
  2. Interim roles breed interim roles. If you are an interim leader, you probably aren’t the only one in place. The organization often must function for a long time with several interim roles and temporary responsibilities that cascade down the hierarchy, and that’s normal. Since interim roles proliferate, it is important to think critically about the other interim roles, too, in order to allow everyone completing interim assignments or responsibilities to be set up to succeed.
  3. Clear expectations are essential. Make sure everyone understands the expectations. The interim leader, of course, needs to understand what is expected of them, both by their own leadership and by the people they lead. It is equally important for others to understand the expectations of the interim leader. There cannot be too much clarity, and the longer the position lasts, the more important this becomes.
  4. It is challenging for interim leaders to know what to do. Interim leaders wrestle throughout with which decisions they should and shouldn’t make and whether the decisions they are making will or won’t be appreciated by their colleagues, their leadership, and the future permanent leader, whoever that might be.
  5. Interim leaders question their abilities. Most interim leaders will make mistakes and wonder whether they really are up to the interim assignment they’ve been given. Leveraging the expertise of colleagues may reduce the internal questions related to making the right decisions.
  6. Interim leaders have seen behind the curtain. Former interim leaders understand the role in a way no one else in the organization can. The knowledge they have built as an interim leader uniquely prepared them to effectively support the eventual permanent person, not only by providing insight and advice to the new leader, but also by explaining to others in the organization the pressures, obligations, and restrictions the leader faces.

Impact and Reflection

Most interim deans serve around one year, though longer terms are pretty common. From a leadership, organizational, and personal perspective, it goes by fast, and it is unrealistic to make an ambitious plan to accomplish; however, electing to not make a plan or set goals for the organization is a mistake—not making a decision is a decision of its own, with potential impact beyond your interim term. Regardless of how long one serves in the temporary role, there are opportunities to have an impact on your organization. As an interim leader, it is best to select one or two initiatives that are important to you and can focus the library’s or unit’s energy in support of the university’s mission. Moving the needle forward on your initiatives matters and you will have made a lasting impact on your organization. Consider what impact you would like to have while you serve in your interim leadership role.

As you read this book or serve in an interim leadership position, take the time to reflect and consider if an interim role sparks your interest in doing something similar permanently. Consider how you might impact the organization’s politics or culture. Examine if the library’s expectations for the leader are realistic. Some interim leaders represented in this book no longer carry the interim title—some have moved into permanent versions of their interim roles, some have returned to previous roles, and some have moved on to new organizations and new positions. Think carefully if your lifestyle aligns with the real time commitment and off-hours expectations of the permanent leadership role.

The chapters in this book demonstrate the thought processes, reflections, lessons learned, and some strategies to be an effective interim leader. Ponder how you might handle the challenges and opportunities presented in the chapters of this book.