Jane Cowell: Leading Public Libraries for the new normal

We are delighted to share the thoughts of Jane Cowell, CEO of the Yarra Plenty Regional Library in Victoria, Australia, about managing libraries through a crisis. In this blog, Jane discusses how to manage priorities and lead library staff during times of change.

(First published to Medium.com on May 6, 2021)

Library Managers across the world have been leading their service through a crisis. For my library service, with various branches in a number of different locations, staff with varying levels of technical skills, and a situation that was changing fast — sometimes multiple times a day — there were some key leadership priorities that enabled our library service to remain viable.

Leadership priorities in a pandemic:

Be clear about what you are trying to do and why: Communication needs to adjust to the audience. For my Library Service the communication with the Board was somewhat different to the communication to Library staff and the public. Key anxieties from each audience segment need to be addressed and as the crisis situation was so fluid, communication was short, to the point and often. Communication focused on: The Why; The What; The How.

Keep it Simple — Do not overcomplicate the answer. The innovative services that evolved over this crisis were all simple to deliver. Yes, staff and in some instances community, might need some upskilling, but it was essential to get some services up and running. Keeping it simple meant we could act quickly, with minimum preparation and market the new service easily. And yes, all libraries improved their skills, their presentation and their communication over the multiple lockdowns.

Safety foremost — All decisions made had to focus on safety first. Staff safety and community safety. We are not health experts so for our Library service the point of truth was the Department of Health and Human Services website, and the daily briefings from the Chief Health Officer.

User experience to be at the centre — The User should intuitively understand the solution. The newly developed service should address a need in the user’s life during the crisis. Caring Calls to Seniors, Storytelling for our toddlers, online Homework help for students who found themselves stuck at home — all addressed an immediate need in our community.

Do not let concreted in processes stop the solution — Libraries are often very procedural and it is important in a crisis to act quickly. Setting up quick decision points and allowing staff to work in a clear decision-making structure is essential. Leading very clearly back to my first point — if it is clear about what is to be achieved, it is also clear where the decisions can be delegated.

Innovation loves a crisis and we saw all types of Libraries step up across the world as the pandemic swept through communities. New ways of delivering — Click and Collect, new ways of connecting — Caring Calls to seniors, new ways of supporting students — Homework help online, became the norm. Libraries trialled and shared their stories, new services and the impacts realised, with each other across the globe. In Victoria, Australia, this innovation saw Public Libraries recognised as an essential Community Service and meant libraries could remain open for a contactless service in a lockdown.

Libraries’ role on the road to recovery


Library leaders now need to recalibrate for the new reality.

We now need to shift from crisis mode to the new normal; shift our focus from just today to a focus for planning for a positive future. Safety, for staff and our community, should always be at the forefront for library service delivery in this new normal as we move forward into a post-pandemic mode.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

It is time for Library leaders to engender hope in library staff and our community for a brighter future. There is power in empathy and compassion for our staff and our community and library leaders can actively listen to the challenges they face after the significant impact of the past year.

Leadership in the new normal

Be Calm — lessen anxiety — It is important for leaders to project a calm manner and take a calm approach. Staff will tend to keep the frenetic pace, that we have all been working at through the crisis, going. Bring a more calm approach to planning and remember to continue to openly communicate with all staff on the important new normal steps — tell the why.

Be Confident & Positive — about the future. This might be a challenge for leaders who may be facing budget cuts or staff shortages, but all leaders must be optimistic and show confidence that the library will get through any, hopefully, short term setback. They must also demonstrate how staff, through their service, can help position the library service in a positive way to advocate for further funding in the future if this is an issue.

Be Courageous — through the whole crisis library staff have been courageous. Trying new things, learning new ways of doing, new ways of being. Don’t stop now. Seek out some radical collaborations that will allow libraries to continue to deliver in new ways. Listen actively to the community and bring in new partners to respond to needs on the community’s road to recovery.

Be Empathetic — Staff need to recover too. Find ways to support staff, even if it is flexible access to leave, as they recover. Families have been affected, anxiety levels have been high, social lives have contracted. Remember to build in the ‘human’ into online interactions and actively seek to connect with staff over an online coffee if there are still face-to-face restrictions on staff movement. Bring a renewed focus on health and wellness initiatives and remember to involve staff in choosing these initiatives. Our role is to ensure staff can get back to their new normal too.

Be Clear & Purposeful — Set the Library Vision for where to in the new normal for the next year. For my library service we are focused on helping our communities on the Road to Recovery. Our focus is on the areas of economic recovery, social connection and health in direct response to the challenges being faced by our community.

This blog post evolved from a presentation I recently gave for the Australian Library Information Association. The In Depth Series: Leadership online event is part of its regular Information Online conference program. The In-depth series delves deeper into specific industry trending topics to stimulate thought and guide industry professionals and leaders through personal and industry growth. I was asked to present a lightning talk under the topic Thinking globally, leading locally.

Read more posts from Jane about a variety of challenges impacting libraries at https://janecowell8.medium.com/


Jane Cowell is an experienced leader and passionate advocate for public libraries. Prior to joining YPRL, she has held leadership positions at the State Library of Queensland, Caboolture Shire in Queensland and has worked with the AEC Group in Brisbane as their Manager of Community Research and Strategy with a focus on library service planning and reviews. Jane is currently on the International Federation of Library Association Public Library Section committee and has previous served on the Board of Directors of the Australian Libraries and Information Association (ALIA).

Comments are closed.