The idea of leadership has (unsurprisingly) come up in my class on library management, and it’s reappearing this fall in my class on academic libraries. It’s a common question, What makes a good leader? And there’s usually not one universal answer, as leadership is often defined by how someone reacts to a situation, particularly a crisis. (Which I first wrote about last spring.)

Lately I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s (2018) book on Leadership in Turbulent Times. She takes the knowledge she’s gained by studying the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, and she shows how they demonstrated leadership through their early lives, career setbacks, and political crises like the Civil War and the Great Depression.

Photos of Abraham Lincoln before and after the Civil War
[Image description: Photographs of Abraham Lincoln before and after the Civil War. No one had history and stress written across his face quite like Lincoln.]

As I read through Goodwin’s conclusions about lessons to be learned from Lincoln, I was struck by how her points (pp. 213-216) were similar to those raised by scholars in the library science community:

Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.

The first point is basically accepting that change may be necessary. While change management has been discussed in library management for at least close to 20 years (Hiatt & Creasey, 2003; Cameron & Green, 2004), it became a center point of the ideas that Casey & Savastinuk (2007) proffered in their work imagining Library 2.0. Rather than create policies etched in stone, authors like Casey & Savastinuk and Mathews (2012) argue for constant change at the library.

This doesn’t mean that there are no rules. It just means that the library evaluates programs and services on a regular basis, to determine what should be kept, what should be adapted, and what should be discontinued. How do we need a change in direction to meet our patrons’ needs?

Gather firsthand information and ask questions.

Lincoln gathered firsthand information by talking to his soldiers, his cabinet, and sometimes anyone else that found their way into the White House. He may not have referred to this as vertical communication or a vertical team, like Casey & Savastinuk (2007), but the premise is the same: Put decision-makers in the same room as those that will be most affected by the decision.

While Goodwin’s example of Lincoln illustrates how the best leaders use a collection of opinions to inform their decision, the teams concept goes even further to empower people throughout the hierarchy. In his discussion of the teams-based model for libraries, Budd (2018) cites Neal and Steele (1993) when arguing for vertical and horizontal communication: “‘The organization must promote and support unit-level and inter-unit discussion of improvements to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of services and operations,'” (p. 157).

Find time and space in which to think.

When you have a serious decision to make, you need time to reflect and consider your options before making a decision. Moran & Morner (2018) incorporate a thorough section on decision-making when discussing organizational planning; they note the importance of “[d]eliberation, evaluation, and thought” when making major organizational decisions (p. 98).

Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power.

OK, deans or directors of libraries aren’t determining how to move forward during a war, or how to avoid economic devastation for an entire country’s economy. But at the end of the day, library leaders do have to sign off on decisions that affect a great number of people, like closing a library branch or incorporating new technology (Moran & Morner, 2018, p. 98).

Peter Stearns argued in 1998 that people should study history because it develops “moral understanding;” by studying how people have weathered adversity in the past, we can be inspired to tackle the challenges we face today. This is a key factor in my interest in history – to contemplate what it must have been like to be Eleanor of Aquitaine (rebelling against sexist social mores as well as her husband) or Thomas Jefferson just after the Revolution (who somehow argued that all men are created equal while owning slaves) or myriad others who have come before us. Regardless of the differences in our situations, or the fact that I may disagree with their opinions, there are lessons that can be applied to the challenges I face in my work, my family, and every day life.


Brady, M. (1860). Abraham Lincoln [Image taken by Mathew Brady]. Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Budd, J. M. (2018). The Changing Academic Library: Operations, Culture, Environments (3rd ed.). Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association.

Cameron, E., & Green, M. (2004). Making Sense of Change Management: A Complete Guide to the Models, Tools & Techniques of Organizational Change. Kogan.

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service. Information Today, Inc.

Gardner, A. (1865). Abraham Lincoln [Image taken by Alexander Gardner]. Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Goodwin, D. K. (2018). Leadership in Turbulent Times. Simon & Schuster.

Hiatt, J. M. & Creasey, T. J. (2003). Change Management. Prosci Research.

Mathews, B. (2012). Think like a startup: A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism.

Moran, B. B., & Morner, C. J. (2018). Library and Information Center Management (9th ed.). Libraries Unlimited, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Stearns, P. (1998). Why study history? American Historical Association.