Comment on this article

Managing the Leaderless Small Academic Library

by Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, M.S.L.S.

Abstract: Small academic libraries may be more likely to have prolonged administrative leadership vacancies. Utilizing best practices of library advocacy, promoting strategic planning priorities, and leveraging alternative views on leadership may offer some stability when such gaps arise.

Staffing Challenges in Small Academic Libraries

Academic libraries of all sizes contend with numerous constraints: budgets, information resources, staffing, and space; and all of these constraints are felt more deeply at small academic libraries, where all of these resources, and more, are at a particular premium. Recent research bears this out. Numerous contributors to a recent monograph on small and rural academic libraries share their best practices for dealing with such parameters, and their concerns are echoed in a more recent book on small public libraries. (Kendrick & Tritt 2016; Real 2017)

Staffing at small libraries is particularly difficult - small libraries generally already have less staff who are tasked with generalist functions; some libraries in larger systems often relegate select functions (i.e. cataloging or acquisitions) to a central campus that is long distance. Recruitment to positions at small libraries is difficult for several reasons - undesired locations, lower compensation rates, and other challenges, mean that vacancies remain open for longer periods of time. Questions surrounding library value may also come into play, and a library’s unclear role on a campus may translate to formal (or informal) attrition measures when employees leave their positions.

Case Study - University of South Carolina Lancaster Medford Library

The University of South Carolina Lancaster is a regional campus of University of South Carolina system with an average FTE of 1,800 students. It serves a rural four-county area of the state and has about sixty faculty members. The collection is also small, carrying about 70,000 volumes. Collections and databases are augmented via a state-wide consortium.

In 2015, Medford Library’s director position was abruptly vacated, leaving two junior faculty members to manage the gap. Along with the library’s flat organization, the remaining librarians continued working against the library’s historic role of non-engagement on campus, a legacy of library staff and leadership working in silos, and a resistance to long-term planning. An immediate impact of the vacated position also was a delay in cross-training - an endeavor that is crucial to the daily efficient functions of a small library.


A vacated position is more sorely felt at small libraries, where one person manages several specialties or functions. As a result, in a leadership gap, stabilizing staffing is a primary concern. Since the remaining librarians were both moving towards tenure, scholarship and service obligations emphasized the need for support staff to keep the library building open and to continue collection management functions. Recruitment for regular temporary staff was implemented; moreover, other avenues that were traditionally discounted by previous formal library leaders were revisited. Specifically, a partnership with the campus’ Financial Aid Officer was solidified, and Work-Study students were identified for interviewing, hiring, and training.

Advocacy and Strategic Planning

An inherent advantage of a small library is an ability to be nimble; generally, decisions at smaller institutions are not bogged down as heavily by traditionally cumbersome academic communication groups and channels (i.e, task forces). Before the director’s position was vacated, junior library faculty were already engaged in campus outreach and advocacy efforts and had solidified consistent increases in number of library visitors and visitor retention. These efforts served the library well during the subsequent leadership vacancy and have been sustained and augmented by activities in several areas, including

Part of advocacy is promoting the need for strategic planning and succession planning. The library’s original mission statement did not reflect the work of modern information professionals; nor did the library have a vision statement. Thus, remaining library faculty began working on updating the former statement and creating an accompanying vision statement. Earlier this year, both statements were approved by campus administration; library faculty consider both statements a viable basis for strategic planning and implementation when the library director position is filled.

Leading Anyway

Formal leadership is important for libraries - those in formal leader roles often do the heavy lifting of developing the library’s external relationships, keeping a close eye on fiduciary matters, and associated big-picture or detail-oriented tasks. However, informal leadership proves just as effective - and even more adroit - at meeting daily and short-term goals. Unencumbered by the political trappings of formal leadership, informal leaders are freer to ask questions, suggest ideas, and test and implement innovative solutions.


Leveraging informal leadership requires the trust of library users; to that end, library faculty work consistently to deliver on and implement plans that have been created with the input of campus and community stakeholders. Projects focusing on space improvement and service expansion have sought to anticipate user needs. The library’s visible commitment to asking for and acting on feedback has been rewarded with increased student engagement with the library space and upticks in collection and services usage. In the absence of a formal leader, the library has continued existing services and offered new or expanded programs and events, including


Medford Library remains without a director; however, leadership and advocacy efforts have resulted in several positive outcomes that have staved off the usual ill-effects of leaving such a position vacated. Despite the ongoing vacancy, library faculty have garnered:


The absence of a formal leader does not mean that leaders are not present. Enacting the basic tenets of library advocacy through traditional and innovative channels can help small libraries manage the vacancies of important formal roles, and motivated employees who take advantage of relationship building and ethical-decision making can leverage their informal leader roles for  the benefit of all library users.


Kendrick, K.D. & Tritt. D. (2016). The small and rural academic library: Leveraging resources, overcoming limitations. Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries.

Real, B. (2017). Rural and small public libraries: Challenges and opportunities. Bingle, UK: Emerald Publishing, Limited.

Copyright 2018 by Kaetrena Davis Kendrick

About the author:

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, M.S.L.S., is Associate Librarian and Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina Lancaster. She is the co-editor of The Small and Rural Academic Library: Leveraging Resources and Overcoming Limitations (ACRL 2016) and author of Kaleidoscopic Concern: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography of Diversity, Recruitment, Retention, and Other Concerns Regarding African American and Ethnic Library Professionals and Global Evolution: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography of International Students in U.S. Academic Libraries (ACRL 2009, 2007).