Bibs & Blather
Thinking about Leadership
How could I not? After all, that’s now my primary source of income—not leadership as such, but managing the PALINET Leadership Network (henceforth PLN). For several weeks in November and December 2007, I was editing (a little), marking up (a lot) and reorganizing (wholesale) some three books’ worth of content to get PLN in shape for its 2008 ALA Midwinter formal launch. When you’re editing material—and particularly when you’re adding subheadings and deciding what categories the material belongs in—you tend to read the material.
I’ve never been much for reading about leadership. That was 190,000 words ago—or, to put it another way, 72 individual and group essays by library leaders and 15 monthly collections of abstracts and comments on leadership material (and related library material) from a variety of sources.
At times during the process, particularly when assembling the 15 monthly collections and starting to parcel pieces back out into categories, I felt like I was in one of those old Westerns I’ve been watching: Lots of bullets, some hitting the mark. Five hints for… Eight guidelines to… Seven ways you should…
It has been and continues to be fascinating. I’m probably picking up lots of useful ideas, most of which would have been more useful (for me) a decade or two ago. I’m certainly reading interesting commentary from a range of library leaders—and starting to take steps to inspire more such commentary. The second phase of getting PLN going is probably the toughest for me, and it’s dominated my mental energy to an extent that’s probably evident in this odd issue of Cites & Insights. (The first phase was before my time, when PALINET set up the wiki and made arrangements for all that third-party content.) That being the case, I thought it reasonable to offer some comments on the process I’ve been going through—and to add thoughts that may also show up on PLN as an article: “Who’s a leader?”
If you consider yourself a library leader—present or future—you should be reading and contributing to PLN. It’s not just for PALINET members. That organization is paying the bills, but PLN is open to anyone who reads English and thinks it would be useful.
Point your browser to pln.palinet.org, click on “Log in/create account” in the upper right hand corner and fill out the simple form—a username, password, institution (“retired” or “freelance” or whatever is fine if you’re not employed by an institution), email address and your real name. The real name is optional, but there’s a penalty for not providing one. The email address must be real: As soon as you finish entering the account form, PLN sends you email with a link. You need to click on that link to open your account and be able to read all of PLN. (If you never get the email, you probably mistyped the email address; try again.) It’s better if you use an institutional email address, for reasons that should become clear.
The steps above—which take less time to do than to write about—provide read-only access to PLN. PLN will work better when people participate—commenting on articles, responding to existing articles with new articles or creating new articles because they’re worth writing, in some cases adding to or refining articles, participating in forums. However, as most anyone who’s dealt with wikis knows, there are two problems with participation: Spam and vandalism.
Thus the second step. Once you click on the link to open your account—or, rather, “a while later” (on a cyclic basis)—another email goes to a special list, one that currently consists of me but will eventually have other PALINET people on it. We (I) look at your email address, institution name, username and real name. If they look “plausible” (institutional email addresses almost always do), we send a reply. That reply authorizes your account to edit and create articles, and you get email to that effect. Usually, that step takes place the next business day after you create an account, although it might happen sooner (or, with vacations or problems, later). It’s possible that you might get email asking for clarification—but, at least for now, my bias is toward approval: So far (as of this writing in late December 2007), I haven’t turned down any account authorization request.
As already noted, there’s quite a bit there with more on the way. The first 190,000 words came through a continuing arrangement with Frank Hermes’ Library Leadership Network. We’ve already started adding new content—a PLN Challenge Panel of librarians responding to monthly questions, solicited articles (which may have originated as blog or list posts) and so on. Even before I started putting existing material in shape, I started thinking in terms of new material. Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress gave an exceptionally interesting luncheon keynote during the 2007 PALINET Annual Conference (my first real encounter with PALINET people). At the end of one section, I jotted down “Great stuff for PLN.” Sent her email a few weeks later asking for permission to use it, which she provided immediately. You’ll find it as “Planning for innovation: Experience at the Library of Congress,” along with a link to her full speech. I also found myself reading Jeff Scott’s Gather no dust with an acquisitive eye—and when he signed up as one of the earliest PLN users, I asked for (and got) permission to use some of his posts. (I have a small stack of other similar cases and will be watching for more.)
As readers of Walt at random already know, I raised a question on November 8, 2007 about essays and the “wiki way.” Here’s the post; you can go to the blog (walt.lishost.org) for the 20-odd comments.
I have a serious question, particularly for those of you who contribute to or maintain wikis:
Does it violate the “wiki way” for signed content pages—that is, essay contributions with prominent signatures—to be locked against edits (but have open Talk pages)? As a wiki user, would you be offended by such locked pages?
This isn’t a hypothetical. I’m working on a fledgling wiki that should become a major resource. It’s clear that much of the content will consist of signed essays. Some of those essays will be contributed directly to the wiki. Others will be contributed indirectly (by people who’ve already written them or are unwilling to deal with wiki markup). Still others will come from third-party sources and those must be locked (as a general rule).
Every locked page will have an open Talk page, open for contributions by anyone with an account on the wiki. We’ll try to make the Talk content more visible in a number of ways. When people have substantial alternative viewpoints, we’ll link to those content pages from the locked pages.
What do you think?
* As a writer, if you contribute something that should be (and is) signed—anything in the first person, anything with a strong voice, anything that’s primarily opinion or your own experience—would you prefer that page to be open to edits by others or would you prefer it locked, edited only by the wiki’s editor(s)?
* As a wiki user and contributor, would you be offended by frequent locked pages when they’re always accompanied by live Talk pages?
The “fledgling wiki” is the PALINET Leadership Network. I paid attention to all the comments and to an excellent email response I’d received from Meredith Farkas (who I not-so-jokingly call the Queen of Library Wikis) when I asked her the same question. As far as I can tell, most people who run wikis in the library field don’t see a problem. A few people thought I should blend the wiki with a blog or use a different platform entirely. I also checked a few wikis in the field and found a blend of editable and protected pages to be the rule rather than the exception—although it’s clear that some wiki purists regard this as anathema.
We refined the site design somewhat based on the responses. The “wikiness” of PLN has been downplayed—it’s still MediaWiki software, but it’s really a portal based on wiki software. There’s a very clear flag [protected] near the top of each protected article, along with the author’s or editor’s signature and publication date. That flag links to a page explaining the policy. Every protected article ends with a “Your turn: Talk about it” subhead linking directly to the talk page that accompanies the article. (Thanks to John Houser at PALINET for making the structural changes to help make this work—including changes so the word “talk” is consistently used, not a mix of talk, discuss and discussion.)
Anyway, when you join PLN and start reading, you will find that many items are protected, so you can’t edit them—but you can always comment on the talk page. If you have a lengthy commentary, write another article, linking from the talk page. Chances are, I’ll move that link to the original article’s main page as a “Related article” link.
There’s the sales pitch. PLN has a lot of good material. More will be coming. We hope it will be a vibrant, active community affair. The formal launch is during 2008 ALA Midwinter, but you can sign up any time. Now, back to the original discussion.
I discussed the beginning of this process last time around: Bibs & Blather Perspective: On Charting New Courses, Cites & Insights 7:13 (December 2007). What’s happened in the intervening weeks between when I wrote that section and when I’m writing this?
Ø I looked at existing content and structure and where I thought things could go long enough to build a sense of PLN’s gestalt—and yes, I think “gestalt” is the best word to describe it.
Ø Each existing article needed some reworking—to use consistent formatting for contributed essays, to insert the [protected] flag, to clean up minor problems and do light text editing, to rethink category assignments.
Ø That process helped refine my sense of what the basic set of categories should be. The full set of categories will (or should) grow over time, but most new topical categories will be subcategories of the basic set. (There are some categories that aren’t topical—e.g., categories for recurring features such as the PLN Challenge Panel.)
Ø I got back to being comfortable editing content I profoundly disagree with, to make it as readable as possible without changing the writer’s intent or voice. I was good at that when editing the LITA Newsletter. It just requires a little inner voice saying “This isn’t your platform—you’re just the editor.” What I can do in such cases is what I would and will do for others when they have alternative or opposing viewpoints: Add a link to their (or my) alternative viewpoint at the bottom of the existing article. So far, that’s happened twice.
Ø With that process nearly done (for the initial phase—we’ll keep importing and marking up content, to be sure), we revised PLN’s basic template so a sidebar of “topics” matches the base categories—and, after thinking about it, those topics link to category pages rather than separate topical pages. That way, each topic page automatically includes a complete up-to-date list of all articles related to the topic (category), in addition to highlighting a handful of recent articles and one or two earlier articles.
Ø Then, I did something that will send shudders down the spines of experienced wiki folk: After reformatting, recategorizing, editing and moving most articles, and rebuilding the high-level pages pointing to those articles, I deleted several dozen redirect pages that were now superfluous. If there had been significant numbers of users, that would be a terrible thing to do, since article-level URL links would no longer work. That phase is done; I don’t anticipate breaking URLs in the future.
Ø With that phase done, I removed a temporary “Under Construction” banner from the home page, cleaned up the home page as much as possible and began the soft launch of PLN through a post at Walt at Random inviting people to join. Several dozen people joined during the first week. Seventy-nine joined between the beginning of the soft launch (December 7, 2007) and December 27, 2007, and they’re still coming in slowly.
Ø The next phase was odd indeed. Leslie Dillon has been contributing excerpts and comments on a wide range of sources under the heading “Leader’s Digest.” She does this on an irregular basis through a blog. PLN automatically displays the most recent items from the blog using a feed. But older material simply disappears—and a lot of that material deserves to stick around. So I gathered up each month’s worth of posts, changed the markup from HTML to wikitext, did light editing for consistency, and saved one cumulative article for each month. Then—the part that’s still happening—I copied some chunks to standalone pages, either in related groups or singly, assigning categories to those pages and increasing their visibility.
It’s fair to say I’ll probably never love wiki markup. It’s certainly fair to say I’d rather write in Word or Wordpad or Notepad or even the “oops, there goes another paragraph break” WordPress editor than in the MediaWiki editing box—but, of course, I do much of my direct PLN work within that editor, like it or not.
I’m still learning and expect to continue learning as long as I’m working on PLN. I’m certain it benefits the library community and delighted it’s open to a broader community. The “community” aspect of PLN—direct comments, new articles generated by users, activity in the forums—is just starting and I hope to see it thrive. I’m also acutely aware of the 90:9:1 rule for this kind of application.
If I’m temporarily writing a little less than usual—well, you know, that could be a good thing. I’m certainly reading more (for PLN and on my own), and that’s definitely a good thing.
When you’re managing something that calls itself a “leadership network,” you’d like to know who your audience is. Theoretically, you could restrict the audience to “leaders”—but that would require some reasonable way to verify that someone is a leader.
So who’s a leader?
Are managers, directors, other bosses leaders? Maybe, maybe not. Ideally, every manager and director should be a leader—but I’m sure many of us have had managers who didn’t qualify. Some of us may have been managers who weren’t much at leading. I’m inclined to believe that may have been true of me, back two decades ago. And, indeed, at one point I said, “Well, I can be a neutral party in PLN because I’ve never really been a leader.” That turns out to be nonsense—or at least I hope it’s nonsense.
Are only managers, directors, other bosses leaders? Absolutely not.
Consider two of the most obvious cases within organizations:
Ø Project leaders may not have managerial roles as such, but do take the lead for a particular project.
Ø Team leaders may not manage their teams but provide the primary contact point and organizing hub for the team.
And there are other kinds of leadership. For example:
Ø Professional leaders—committee chairs, organizational presidents, all sorts of other leadership roles. I was president of LITA in 1992/93, and I think I was a pretty effective leader at the time. (Similar roles exist in all sorts of other organizations—community, church, charitable, hobby, whatever.)
Ø Innovation leaders—people who bring up good ideas and, more importantly, make them relevant and workable, bringing them into the real world.
Ø Thought leaders—a tricky phrase, but it applies to many nonfiction writers, some speakers and others who provide leadership for ideas.
That’s a partial list. I’d like to believe I fit in at least two of those three categories.
This incomplete list doesn’t cover the territory—because it leaves out two groups who are important but also somewhat amorphous: Future leaders and emerging leaders.
PLN directly targets one group of emerging leaders—those in ALA’s Emerging Leaders program. We hope that relationship will be mutually beneficial. Naturally, PLN should also be useful for those who expect to be leaders in the future.
“Everybody is a star” was a great lyric (and a great song—make sure you hear the 1969 original, with three Stones and another band member trading off lead vocal lines, making everybody a star).
Is it a reasonable sentiment in the real world? Can everybody be a leader?
Can, yes. Will—probably not: Some people are content to follow.
Should everybody be a star? Should you be a leader in some area at some point? That’s a tougher question. I’m inclined to believe that, at the very least, every professional librarian and a lot of us other library professionals should exhibit leadership in some areas at some points.
Maybe everybody in the library field is eligible for PALINET Leadership Network and could benefit from it. It would be nice to think so. As it stands, we’ve opened up PLN to “everybody”—with the caveat that all material in PLN is in English and anonymous or pseudonymous users might not get editing privileges.
A sidebar about pseudonymity: Yes, there are instances in which it makes sense for a PLN essay or comment to be pseudonymous—in fact, there’s already one pseudonymous essay on the site. We’ve made provision for “indirect contributions”—articles that come to PLN via .doc or .rtf or .txt attachments, or just plain email—to email@example.com, PLN@palinet.org, or firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s mostly for the benefit of people who don’t want to learn wiki markup, but if someone has good reason to want an article or comment to appear under a pseudonym and makes that case and request, we’d honor it.
There’s a flipside: I don’t believe it makes sense for anyone to be a full-time leader in all aspects of life—to lead all the time in everything they do. I think that’s hard on the soul, albeit possibly good for the ego. I’m convinced that effective leaders must also be effective followers. Which brings me to the final chunk of this wayward essay:
One sure sign that a manager isn’t much of a leader is when that manager’s employees flee as soon as the chance arises—transferring to other groups or quitting for other jobs.
If nobody follows you willingly, you’re not a leader.
You say you’re an innovation leader because you espouse shiny new things? Are people taking your suggestions and providing useful new services, solving real-world problems? If so—if you have willing followers—you may be an innovation leader. If not, you’re either a voice in the wilderness or a crank.
If nobody follows you willingly, you’re not a leader.
I’d almost go so far as to say that leadership is defined by willing followers—that the quality of leadership can be directly mapped in the quality of followers. But maybe that’s too simplistic.
There’s another aspect of this: Leaders aren’t necessarily out in front. Just as I was writing this (that is, between writing sessions, during PLN work sessions), a colleague I’ve never met sent me a note about “leading from behind.” It’s an interesting concept, one I hope this colleague will expand into an article.
We’re off to a great start in providing and organizing thoughtful, interesting, varied content on many aspects of library leadership and leadership in general. But that’s just the start.
I’ll continue to look for “outside” content that makes sense for PLN, discussing it or importing it as appropriate and possible. We’ve started the PLN Challenge Panel and hope to see it continue, and to see each set of responses kick off additional discussions and maybe new articles. We’ll continue to get some content through other arrangements.
But for PLN to be as effective as it should be, the leaders (of all types, present and future) need to participate. Comment on existing articles: There’s always a talk page, even on essays you can’t add to directly. Respond to or expand on existing articles through related new articles. It’s easy to write a comment, include “I have more to say in [[Name of my new article]]” (with the double brackets), save the page, click on the new red “Name of my new article” and proceed to write the article on the page PLN just created for you—or to import and mark up text you’ve already written. (It’s also easy to send me the text and tell me what it responds to: I’m not from the government but I am here to help.) Poll other users (it’s amazingly easy to set up a poll!) and respond to polls. Get involved in the forums. Participate.
We’ll all benefit.
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Comments should be sent to email@example.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2008 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.
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