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Thinking Like a Public Manager

Bo Kinney

When Nancy Gershenfeld mentioned the possibility of earning a concurrent MPA in LIS 500, I thought to myself, “That is the last thing I would ever want to do.” I wanted to be a front-line reference librarian in a public library, and I could not see myself ever being interested in management.

Librarianship as a Public Service

But when I did a little research about the program, I started to get interested. I realized that public administration classes could give me an opportunity to think about librarianship through a different lens. I’ve always felt that the I-School’s categorization of librarianship as a subfield of information science is somewhat inaccurate. In my experience, libraries are cultural institutions that provide a broad range of services, from reader’s advisory and cultural programming to research assistance, literacy education, and study spaces. Information services are crucial component of the mix, but they are only one of the many types of services that libraries provide.

I thought the MPA might help me imagine librarianship as a type of public service, rather than as a type of information service. It also occurred to me that many of the public administration skills I would gain could be useful even if I did not actually become a manager.

Turns out I was mostly right: Public administration has indeed been an enormously useful lens through which to look at libraries, and public administration skills are very beneficial for front-line librarians. But the main reason for this is that front-line librarians are managers.

Librarian as Public Manager

It didn’t take long after I started at the Evans School to figure this out. One of my readings in my first week of classes was from the book Creating Public Value by Mark Moore, a Harvard public policy scholar. Moore argues that managers of public organizations must be concerned with how their organizations create value for the public.

Moore’s first example of a public manager is a town librarian. He writes:

The…librarian is a public manager. What makes her such is that a bundle of public assets has been entrusted to her stewardship. She is responsible for deploying those assets for the benefit of the town and its citizens. Presumably, one of her tasks as a manager is to find the most valuable use of those resources.

So even if you’re not a “manager” in the traditional sense, if you are a professional librarian, you’ve got to be thinking about how to make decisions in a way that is valuable to the public you’re supposed to be serving.

Every class I’ve taken at the Evans School has been relevant to the public management aspect of librarianship, and many of them have addressed librarianship explicitly: an exam question from my financial management class asked us to analyze a public library’s collection development budget; an assignment in my statistics class required me to investigate factors related to library use among King County residents; and my public policy analysis professor often used public libraries as examples of organizations tackling complicated policy problems.

Being at the Evans School has given me the added bonus of seeing how people in other areas of public policy tackle similar issues to those that librarians have to face. For example, natural resources policy deals with familiar tensions between preservation and access; education policy grapples with getting books and information to underserved people; and of course, every area of the public sector faces similar budgetary challenges.

Libraries as Value-Creating Organizations

I’m still planning to become a public librarian. And I have found my MPA classes extraordinarily valuable in understanding the public part of public librarianship. But you don’t have to earn an MPA to think like a public manager. The underlying philosophy of creating public value is not difficult to grasp, and thinking about librarianship in this way will go a long way toward helping you make decisions that best serve the public interest.

Moore argues that public managers should be able to integrate three strategic elements into their decision-making:

  • Substantive judgements of what would be valuable and effective,
  • A diagnosis of political expectations, and
  • Hard-headed calculations of what is operationally feasible.

As a librarian, simply remembering to keep all three of these elements in mind—the substantive, political, and operational aspects of librarianship—can help you to stay focused on the purpose of the work you do and the means to best achieve that purpose. And more than anything, my Evans School experience has taught me how important this is for public-minded decision-making.

January 10, 2009
Vol. XIII Issue 2

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