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Rocking the Boat

by Karin Wittenborg

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

-Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532

Writing an essay on change and leadership seemed like an irresistible opportunity. I was sure it would be fun, not to mention easy. I accepted immediately, without thinking too far ahead or sorting out all the implications. In fact, this sort of spontaneous commitment has been a characteristic of my career, and it has brought about great opportunities as well as disquieting moments.

It turns out the writing wasn’t so easy,1 but it has given me an excuse to step back and reflect on the core qualities of leaders, on the advantage of an institutional culture that is open to change, and on how personal traits and prior experience have shaped the way I lead change at the University of Virginia (UVa). In articulating some of the challenges, issues, and rewards associated with institutional change, I am reminded that the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.

The leaders I most admire are visionaries, risk takers, good collaborators and communicators, mentors, and people with uncommon passion and persistence. They have personal integrity, they are assertive and ambitious for their organizations, they are optimists even in bad times, they think broadly and keep learning, and they build relationships and communities. They bring energy and a sense of fun to their work, they are opportunistic and flexible, and they are not easily deterred.

Leaders want to change the status quo. They do not seek change for its own sake, but rather to improve or create something. Leaders continually evaluate and assess their organizations with an eye toward improving them. While many administrators advance their organizations by tweaking a few things here and there, leaders aim for substantive change that introduces something entirely new or vastly improves a service or product. In short, leaders are dissatisfied with the current situation and are motivated to change it. What differentiates a leader from a malcontent is that the leader has learned and honed skills that allow him or her to move from dissatisfaction to effective action.

Achieving significant change also means rocking the boat, and this inevitably creates some degree of turmoil. Occasional or one-time leaders may be very effective in achieving change, but find the upheaval too uncomfortable or personally draining to sustain an ongoing climate of change. Institutional or personal reasons may also discourage such individuals from repeatedly initiating change. Persistent innovators accept that disruption is inevitable, have a notion about how to reduce the turmoil, and generally have strong support networks. They also had better have thick skin. In my experience, they are most likely to thrive in institutions that are entrepreneurial and flexible.

When I came to UVa in 1993, I found an institution open to new ideas. The staff-both in the library and beyond-was superb. Thomas Jefferson’s presence obviously still lingers at the institution he founded. UVa is a place where entrepreneurs can flourish, where innovation is valued, and where radical change can take place. It is an institution that is traditional yet inventive.

It’s often said that you cannot give a talk at UVa without quoting Mr. Jefferson. I quickly learned that it is also quite useful to invoke Mr. Jefferson when introducing significant change or seeking financial support. Fortunately, he was a prolific writer, providing innumerable quotations to support nearly any endeavor. For example, in 1810, Mr. Jefferson must certainly have been imagining the library’s digital initiatives when he wrote, “I am not afraid of new inventions or improvements, nor bigoted to the practices of our forefathers. . . . Where a new invention is supported by well-known principles, and promises to be useful, it ought to be tried.”2

Jefferson’s love of books and libraries is well documented and is shared by many at the university today. Best of all, UVa President John Casteen is a humanities scholar with an unusual understanding and appreciation of libraries. So, in many ways, the institutional stars were well aligned for change when I arrived in 1993.

I did not set out to be a library director, but I have always wanted things to be better. From the beginning of my career, I have tackled the things that dissatisfy me most and tried to change them. Sometimes I have been successful, sometimes not. Sometimes my contributions were appreciated, and sometimes not. I learned gradually how to ensure that the successes outnumbered the failures. My early professional experiences shaped my thinking and behavior in significant ways. In my first library position, as an assistant to the director and deputy director of a research library, I had an opportunity to observe the library administration, gain an understanding of the issues they were facing internally and externally, and observe the formal and informal leadership in the organization. Many entry-level jobs narrow your horizons rather than expand them, but this one imprinted on me a broad view of the library. It also stimulated my interest in the rest of the university and in higher education in general.

Several years later, after I had moved to another institution, my boss became a role model and a mentor. I learned from her to be ambitious for the department and for the library as a whole. She thought creatively and on a grand scale, never constrained by lack of resources. Instead of being inhibited by what might be possible, she asked for what she really wanted-and often got it. She was passionately committed to her work and wanted to have fun along the way, and she made a difference at the institution. She was not a champion of the status quo.

These early experiences also convinced me of the value of collaboration. I once introduced two researchers from different disciplines who were using the same set of machine-readable data, thinking they might find common ground. They were delighted to meet, decided to collaborate, and gave me an inordinate amount of credit for bringing them together. I was immediately hooked on facilitating collaboration.

When desktop computers were still rare in libraries, I was able to secure a number of workstations for my department. In truth, I had no idea what I was going to do with them, and some of the staff were less than sanguine about the opportunities that this equipment would provide. I did have the insight to know that I wanted to share the risk and to increase the chances of success, so I divvied up the equipment with another department head. It was risk management, rather than generosity, that motivated me, but it was abundantly clear that more and better ideas came from sharing the wealth. At that point, I became a true believer in collaboration.

Having a broad vision, the guts to go after what I want, and an understanding of the power of collaboration has served me well, but this is only part of the story. As the university librarian I may be a catalyst for change, but it is the leadership at various levels of the organization that makes change happen. When I interviewed for my current position, I had been impressed by the knowledge and dedication of the library’s professional and paraprofessional staff. By and large, they seemed to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. The personnel structure was also flexible, allowing for easy and timely restructuring when needed.

Within a week of my arrival, I realized that I had an extraordinary colleague in Kendon Stubbs, the deputy university librarian.3 He is brilliant and analytical, innovative and inventive, knowledgeable about academia, and committed to ensuring that the UVa Library is a leader in supporting the scholarly community. Knowing that we had an opportunity to transform the library, he and I recruited our superb human resources director to the senior management team as associate university librarian (AUL) for organizational development. Over the next few years, we recruited two other AULs, building a team that has been enormously influential. We have a common vision for the library, but we bring different perspectives and strengths to our work.

One of the most valuable things our senior management team does is to rigorously examine and critique ideas, plans, and opportunities. We all have a bias for action. We have spirited and sometimes uncomfortable discussions. We agree that leadership exists throughout the organization, including among the students. Good ideas come from everywhere, and one of our most important roles is to facilitate implementation of the ones that will have the most positive impact at UVa and on the scholarly community.

We can generally judge the impact because we have been seeking as much information as possible from our core audiences: faculty, students, and staff. For the past 10 years, we have been strategically collecting and analyzing data through surveys, interviews, and structured research. The data have been invaluable in guiding us toward what we must do and suggesting what we might stop doing.

We stop short, however, of letting data drive all our decisions and ideas. Some of our greatest successes have come from anticipating what might be needed or wanted, even though we had no data to support the new venture. We explore things together, even if we disagree. The library’s collaborative efforts with other departments at UVa and with other entities have produced better ideas, more expertise, a broader base of support, and sometimes even more resources than would have been possible had we decided to go it alone.

But perhaps that statement needs to be qualified. Sometimes you get more resources, but you can’t count on it, especially in higher education. The UVa Library has had a history of scarce resources. We have been underfunded and understaffed and have inadequate space, but we were used to that and found ways to work around it.

For example, when Kendon Stubbs started the EText Center (Electronic Text Center for Humanities) in 1992, he consolidated two collections to clear a modest room. He reallocated a single professional position, bolstered by student staff. The equipment was rudimentary. No one was demanding electronic texts in those days, but Stubbs was sure that a demand would surface when the transformational potential for scholarship became clear.

The EText Center soon garnered international attention, and we were able to secure greater institutional support along with much-needed foundation funding. Virtually all our other initiatives were started in the same way, that is, by reallocating funds and staff internally. While the library’s budget is now growing, it is still modest compared to our operations and aspirations. For us, the vision and the will are far more important than the resources.

When the library started its digital initiatives in 1992, many faculty and staff, and some university administrators, questioned the investment of resources in what they perceived as a questionable venture. Fortunately, we had allies. By 1993, a number of highly regarded faculty, who were either already experimenting with digital information or could recognize its potential impact on scholarly communication, lent support and credibility to our efforts. As one of the founders of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), an independent research center reporting to the university administration, Stubbs made sure that the institute was housed in the library. The library thus became the initial center for digital activity, and we created a community of people who shared ideas and expertise.

Now that our digital initiatives have been recognized, often imitated, and have attracted external funding, most faculty believe that we have gone in the right direction. Some remain opposed, while a few at the other end of the spectrum believe we should abandon our traditional activities.

We had, and still have, some skeptics among the library staff. At first, few people paid much attention to the digital activities that seemed to be occurring at the margins of library life. We encouraged interested staff from other areas of the libraries to volunteer a percentage of their time to work in the EText Center. There they learned about the new initiatives, acquired new skills, and augmented the center’s staffing. Word started to spread among the staff and others about the digital initiatives, especially as they began to draw the attention of the press. The usual mixed feelings surfaced: pride in being considered a leader, concern about being passed by or becoming obsolete, excitement about new opportunities, and fear about competition for scarce resources.

We developed the concept of the Library of Tomorrow, or LofT, to bring together all of our activities, digital and nondigital, under one umbrella. We wanted to emphasize the integration of traditional and digital formats and services and to communicate to staff that change would be continuous.

LofT succeeded in some ways and failed miserably in others. The LofT concept appealed to alumni and many donors, especially those interested in technology. Like the staff, some were energized by the notion and eager to help advance the LofT vision in any way possible. Some of our staff, however, wanted no part of it and opted out through finding other jobs or retirement. Still others lingered in limbo. Then the state’s budget crisis forced us to look hard at what we were proposing to invest in LofT and to resolve how staff were (or were not) going to be motivated by it.

Budget cuts and hiring freezes, though unwelcome, sometimes have a salutary effect. Priorities come under closer scrutiny and conflicts rise more readily to the surface when resources are in short supply. I realized that many staff did not share the administration’s view of LofT as an integrated enterprise. Instead, they saw our digital and traditional collections and services as being on two separate and competing tracks. Some believed we should focus our reduced resources solely on our traditional mission; others believed we should focus them on the future.

This was unsettling news for me, but it was also critically important. It meant that I had not effectively communicated the plan for how we were going to get from today’s library to tomorrow’s, and that many staff did not understand how priorities were set. While I remain convinced that we are heading in the right direction, the LofT experience taught me that our planning process is not achieving everything we want it to, and that our communications program, which had been directed externally, needs a stronger internal focus. Clearly we have work to do, and improving communication will be an ever-present goal.

The LofT experience also crystallized for me what is perhaps the greatest leadership challenge: helping people thrive in an environment of constant change. This challenge is particularly acute in today’s research library environment. Our staff are resilient, but many find it disconcerting to discover on a regular basis that their carefully acquired expertise has become irrelevant or is about to become obsolete.

People who thrive during periods of rapid, ongoing change tend to seek and enjoy learning. They are oriented to what the customer needs rather than to what they themselves know. Their identity is not too closely tied to a static base of knowledge and abilities. They get significant satisfaction from learning new things and delivering collections and services in new ways, but they also need compensation, recognition, and support.

As a public institution in the throes of financial cutbacks and hiring freezes, UVa has not been able to offer raises to its staff in the last three years. This can have a detrimental effect on staff motivation. Retention and recruitment of the best staff are critical to our success. Since the economic malaise has affected almost every university, as well as the commercial sector, we have been fortunate in keeping most of our staff. But we are focusing increasingly on creating an environment that will attract new staff members and encourage the best ones to stay. Such an environment offers, in addition to a competitive salary, training and educational opportunities, potential for growth and advancement, autonomy, and recognition of accomplishments. Most of our staff take advantage of our existing training programs, which draw on local, regional, and national or international experts. But we need to make significant additional investment in training and staff development.

A number of internal issues have surfaced, sometimes repeatedly, as we have implemented change. These issues include compensation, consensus, culture, control, and criticism.

First, compensation. As we have increased the number of staff with sophisticated technical skills, we have simultaneously created a wider gap in our salary structure. Many staff complain that traditional skills are not as well compensated as technical skills are, and they do not accept that this is a market-driven disparity. The problem is compounded by a tendency to confuse value with salary. People who are paid less often feel their work is undervalued as well. Comparing the salary of the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences with that of the football coach is the best way I have found to put this issue in context, but it does not always help.

I am often frustrated by conversations about consensus. Some librarians here and elsewhere believe that the word “consensus” means 100 percent agreement, rather than majority support. I think that efforts to achieve complete consensus create a barrier to change. Significant changes are controversial by nature, and they are guaranteed to provoke opposition. Discussion is essential, listening to contrary views is essential, and modifying plans on the basis of new information or perspectives is often wise. But I do not believe you can achieve 100 percent agreement on anything truly important. Having majority support is empowering and will often accelerate change. Spending too much time trying to bring everyone on board before starting, however, is a recipe for failure.

Like other libraries, UVa has experienced many culture clashes-far too many to enumerate. One common conflict is between the good and the perfect. I think the quest for improvement is essential, but it in no way implies a quest for perfection. In the past, libraries may have had the luxury of fine-tuning a service or product until it was (almost) perfect. The rate of change and the changing technology no longer permit this approach. Perfection is not only virtually unobtainable but often unnecessary. Settling for “very good,” or even “good enough,” can win the day. Nevertheless, many staff find it difficult to compromise their exacting standards.

The pace of change in academic libraries has accelerated in the last two decades and shows no sign of abating. For libraries with ambitious agendas, the change is even faster and the terrain rougher. As our responsibilities grow, it is impossible to control, or even know about, much that is happening in our bailiwicks. If we have good staff who exercise initiative, we may frequently be surprised by what they have achieved and how they have achieved it. Leaders throughout the organization must learn to be comfortable with exercising less direct oversight; they must focus on the goal rather than specify exactly how it is to be achieved. Chances are that the people most closely involved in a project already have a good idea of how to proceed toward the goal, even if the steps are somewhat different from those envisioned by the leader.

Leaders of change learn to be comfortable with very tenuous control, but even those who initiate change often find it stressful. I am fond of a quote from Mario Andretti: “If you think you’re always in control, then you’re not going fast enough.” Change is exhilarating, but unsettling. I would rather surrender a great degree of control than achieve only what is possible in a slow, methodical manner.

Constructive criticism is invaluable when an initiative is undertaken and at any time during its development when a direction can be modified. Open and timely expressions of concern, suggestions, and alternative opinions have strengthened our operations. The changes for which the UVa Library is known have been shaped and guided by such criticism. Even when a project is completed or an initiative has become established, reassessment and criticism can strengthen an organization. Finding out what could have been done better, or what may have impeded progress, helps inform future endeavors.

What is difficult is the criticism that is not constructive. We are all familiar with the detractors who speak up only after a change is made or who work covertly to undermine the organization. As Winston Churchill said, “Criticism is easy, achievement is difficult.” I don’t have much patience with individuals who stay on the sidelines expressing a litany of complaints and critiques. Inevitably, anything worth doing will have its detractors, and every library has some disaffected staff. Our organizational development program has made great strides in keeping the detractors and the disaffected to a minimum. Some people have revitalized themselves by changing positions within the library, others have chosen to work elsewhere. Still others have chosen not to move. I must recognize that detractors and disaffected exist and find ways for their concerns to be heard, yet not let them undermine morale, waste too much time, or interfere with progress. I feel regret when people who could make significant contributions marginalize themselves instead.

Achieving something significant is almost always hard. Enlightened optimism gives me the confidence and courage to go forward, even in the face of opposition and obstacles. I don’t like even to entertain the idea that I might fail, so I focus on how to make something happen rather than on what can go wrong. And when something does go wrong, I am eager to fix it or to inspire other people to fix it. The problem solving becomes a challenge and a game in which you must adopt a new perspective or a new strategy to win. And who doesn’t like to win?

Optimism also makes me much more comfortable with taking risks. Counting on success can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimism is particularly helpful in troubled times. Even when budget news is dire, I am convinced that the library can move forward, and I look for ways to turn the worst of situations to our advantage. I am always looking for victories, even small ones, that buoy our spirits and suggest better times to come. When my own optimism is shaken, I don’t let on.

I say this because I believe that fearlessness, or at least the appearance of it, is another asset in achieving change. The same spontaneous commitment that has sometimes made me take jobs that were financially disadvantageous or did not have obvious career paths has given me incredible freedom. For reasons not necessarily rational, I have been only tangentially concerned with job security and therefore have done some daring things that I might not have if keeping my job was foremost in my priorities. That lack of concern, along with geographic mobility, has also made it easy for me to move out of untenable or stifling situations.

Setting priorities necessarily means that some other things do not get done. Most libraries are short staffed, and we all have limited time. In choosing the things the organization will do, some irksome problems go unaddressed or some exciting opportunities pass by. It is not always clear to staff why this happens. I believe our evolving library planning process will strengthen staff engagement in priority setting at every level and that it should clarify what will and won’t get done. Of course, problems are solved and new initiatives are undertaken all the time without my involvement, but I feel some regret when those that might benefit from my attention do not receive it because I deem the outcome not to be worth the investment of time. We all make these choices-the tricky part is not feeling guilty or inadequate as a result.

We make the same choices in balancing external professional activities with institutional commitments. While I have been moderately active in professional organizations in the past, I now focus most of my energies on UVa. Because this is a place I feel passionately about and a place that is open to change, I want to accomplish the most I can. Retaining and recruiting the best and most diverse staff, providing the best services and collections to faculty and students, securing the library’s financial future, facilitating innovation, improving the student experience by building and renovating libraries, and participating in pan-University endeavors continually renew my energy and commitment. It is immensely interesting and rewarding to have the opportunity to influence university endeavors beyond the library and to collaborate with other parts of the university.

I have mentioned that stress and discomfort accompany change, even when you initiate it yourself. For me, both the motivation and the rewards come from making a difference in the university. For example, faculty regularly tell us that our free delivery service LEO (Library Express On-Grounds) makes them more productive in their scholarly work and is a powerful incentive in recruiting new faculty. Our digital initiatives have brought many of the library staff into collegial collaborations with faculty and graduate students. The staff are seen not merely as technical experts but as essential partners in conceiving, designing, and implementing a project. There is enormous satisfaction in making it possible for faculty to create work that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago, to share it with a wide audience, and to ensure its preservation and availability.

Not all faculty, of course, are engaged in large-scale digital research projects, and many of them are concerned about the commitment of time that is needed to use technology. In collaboration with UVa’s Information Technology department, the library has been working on ways to also help neophyte faculty who want to use technology in teaching. In their evaluations of the program, some faculty participants told us that they had conversations with graduates and students that would never have occurred in their traditional classes; others have reported that the use of their newfound skills would reshape their research. That’s pretty addictive stuff.

The library is now recognized as facilitating informal interaction between the faculty and students. In 1998, when we opened the Alderman Café inside the graduate humanities and social sciences library, we had many skeptics and even a few staff resignations. Fortunately, the Faculty Senate was an eager and formidable ally, and the café quickly became a magnet for faculty as well as for students. A number of faculty now hold office hours there, and one even holds a seminar in the café. We have doubled its size and plan to enlarge it again in 2004Ð2005, when we will provide more seating and daily newspapers. We are working on plans for an additional café for the renovated Science and Engineering Library as well. What can be more satisfying than facilitating interaction between students and faculty and reaffirming the library as a place for intellectual discourse? Loftier goals aside, the library benefits from a percentage of the proceeds from the highly profitable café.

Undergraduates are the heaviest users of the libraries as physical places, and the changes we have made on the basis of data and feedback from our Student Advisory Council have demonstrably improved the student experience. Recently, the vice president for student affairs told us that a consultant’s report on student life had revealed that an overwhelming number of students said that the libraries were the center of their academic lives outside the classroom. It was gratifying to hear that officially, even though our students are generous in expressing their appreciation throughout the year. That finding also prompted us to collaborate on space planning with Student Affairs, and we are exploring some radical ideas. The opportunities for positive change are infinite.

Perhaps most rewarding of all is watching the library staff develop and grow. They are smart, imaginative, energetic, and service oriented. They generate extraordinary ideas, they are resourceful even in tough times, and they are outwardly focused. Their relationships within the university and elsewhere keep us better informed, more nimble in responding to needs, and more visible to the academic community. They are exercising leadership now, and they will shape the future.

The past decade at the University of Virginia has been the most engaging and satisfying time of my career. In the end, it is all about the people. I found here a university administration that was supportive and gave me a high degree of autonomy; an accomplished faculty and student body who are a pleasure to serve; a library staff whose knowledge, intellectual curiosity, and dedication are extraordinary; and colleagues in the library profession and elsewhere who inspire me. There is still much to be done. Scholarly communication will continue to change in ways we cannot yet imagine. True collaboration with other universities, especially in digital matters, is not only possible but necessary. And while budget shortfalls have prompted us to be more experimental and creative, the next capital campaign will allow me to raise funds sufficient to support our current agenda and reduce our dependency on state funds. It is one of the most significant things I can do for the library and the university.


1 I am indebted to Charlotte Morford, director of communications at the University of Virginia Library, who improved this essay by offering kind yet rigorous criticism as it was in progress.

2 Letter to Robert Fulton, 1810. From The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, John P. Foley, editor, 1900. Available at See entry 4042, at

3 Kendon Stubbs had been at UVa since 1961. He started the EText Center and also Library Express On-Grounds, the free delivery of texts (print and digital) to faculty offices. He is also the founder of the Japanese Text Initiative (a collaborative effort with the University of Pittsburgh). In 1998, he received the Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest honor given by the University of Virginia. Other members of the library administration include Gail Oltmanns, who played a pivotal part as associate university librarian (AUL) for organizational development; Diane Parr Walker, formerly director of the Music Library, who is now AUL for user services and the new deputy university librarian; and Martha Blodgett, AUL for production and technology, who came to us from UVa’s Information Technology department. In 2003, Kendon Stubbs and Gail Oltmanns retired. In an administrative reorganization, Hoke Perkins, AUL for philanthropy and director of the Mary and David Harrison Institute, and Charlotte Morford, director of communications, joined our team. Jeanne Hammer (currently director of facilities and capital projects) served as the library’s first director of development and was instrumental in raising $37 million in the last fund-raising campaign.

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