Desperately Seeking ‘Senior’ Library Staffers

Gaz Johnson's picture
Dr Gaz J Johnson

The Development Officer discusses some ongoing work to better understand how the Collaboration might better support and develop senior library staff within the regional context.

There’s a proposal which has been under discussion in and around the Mercian Collaboration’s committees in the last few months [1], which is to investigate setting up a ‘senior library staff special interest group’. At a glance, you’ll see this is a slightly clunky term, and one of the reasons why as Development Officer I keep regularly placing the name in inverted commas. I don’t think we’ve found exactly the right descriptor for this potential group as of yet, although nevertheless, currently I’ve increasingly been referring to the Deputies & Senior Staff Group or DSSG for short: as much for reader convenience, as for any other reason. While the DSSG has nothing to do with Volkswagen gear boxes, I suspect should the group idea move forward, so too will its name’s evolution as part of the initial discussions.

This article aims to clarify the thinking of the Collaboration and to inform the conversation around this topic to a greater degree. Part of these discussions though are concerned with clarifying more about the fundamentals of this proposal. It’s clear though, there are likely a number of questions about this idea which require some measure of resolution before we can progress any further. In short is there a need, a desire and a value, or drawing from the earlier debates these could be phrased as:

  • (Q1) What do we mean by ‘senior’ staff?
  • (Q2) How would this group differentiate itself from the SCONUL deputies’ groups?
  • (Q3) What would be the purpose of such a regional group?
  • (Q4) How would such a group operate?
  • (Q5) What would make such a group useful to those who attend?

We tackled the first two questions at some length at the March 2019 Directors Board. It was clear the definition of seniority within various member staffing structures differed considerably. Moreover, as some directors highlighted, their ‘senior’ staff are not considered sufficiently ‘senior’ enough to qualify for participation in SCONUL’s deputy groups. Consequently, in terms of the Collaboration’s thinking, rather than attempting to create our own seniority qualification criteria, this has been left for each director to define [2]. In this way though, the Collaboration’s view is any DSSG would need to be as inclusive as possible, permitting senior staff from all members to participate. Having tackled two of the initial questions sufficiently, if not comprehensively, we can turn to consider the remaining questions.

Looking at question three, the purpose of such a group is an aspect we’re still in the process of defining. Drawing from the Board’s speculative discussions though, the DSSG’s outline conception centres around how it could act as a brains trust or think-tank for the Collaboration’s Directors. It could tackle, debate and analyse various topical challenges, and through drawing on a wide body of experience provide a more reasoned and informed output than any one institution’s staff might be able to reach. In keeping with the other SIGs, the DSSG would also likely have a strong professional development role, facilitating experience exchanges and developing serendipitous opportunities between attendees. Functionally too, the DSSG could serve as a ‘training pool’ for the Directors Board itself, with the currently absent representation of non-director level staff, providing a steppingstone for those with strategic career aspirations. Importantly, given the Board’s express wish to provide sufficient empowerment to the DSSG to shape its own contribution, the group’s initial purpose and function would probably develop into something unexpected: certainly, an exciting possibility.

These thoughts perhaps begin to provide some answers, or at least an outline shape, towards resolving question four: how would such a group operate? Again, this is a question where any DSSG participants in collaboration with the Board would likely focus their formative discussions. That said, there’s a useful body of experience in operating such a regional group within the highly successful NoWAL Senior Staff Group. We suspect too there would also be a fair amount of defining the group’s relationship to the wider Collaboration, and especially how the DSSG’s relationship and representation on the Board itself would be function.

Astute readers will have worked out I’ve been skirting around the crux of the matter, which appears in the final question: what would make the DSSG worth attending? While we could adopt the Field of Dreams approach [3], I suspect such a laissez-faire approach wouldn’t appeal to many people and additionally would take a longer period to reach a sufficiently performative and valuable operational state. Simply put, there’s little point in expending participants’ valuable limited time and energy trying meet a need which isn’t sufficiently matured. Any group which can’t offer its participants anything of sufficient value through attendance will likely have a severely curtailed life expectancy. While the Collaboration could define such ‘value’ as might be received and extol it to potential participants to achieve their engagement, I think we’d risk returning to the Field of Dreams domain.

Arguably, a more enlightened and effective approach would be to poll those staff likely to attend about what they’d like to see and what degree of interest they’d have in a group such as the DSSG existing. This latter point is a key one, as without a critical mass of people willingly attending and participating in the DSSG, it’s likely to turn out to be an idea deader than Davros [4]. I really welcome this more autonomous approach to specifying and constructing the group [5], and hopefully the membership’s ‘senior’ library staff do too. This point is crucial, as the Steering Group has just deployed a survey to all member organisations asking for their senior staff’s opinions on exactly the ideas I’ve been discussing in this article [6]. Afterall, like all our other SIGs, this new group will arise and thrive if we can identify a genuine need and enough willing participants to make it worth everyone’s while.

As a caveat, I should add, it’s not a foregone conclusion the Collaboration will instigate this group. We’re quite prepared for the collective will of the senior staff to be they don’t want or need it. That’s a perfectly fair and not unreasonable outcome to reach, given the myriad of other competing professional development activities alone. However, if nothing else, the survey results will help the Collaboration better understand where we might be best focussing our attention next, in terms of supporting, developing and enabling those potential ‘directors of tomorrow’ within the region.

Thanks for your attention, and I really look forward to reading your feedback in the survey.


  • [1] See DB:19/05(a) and SG:19/10(a)
  • [2] Apologies to anyone who started reading this and thought a SIG for library staff close to retirement was under consideration; although this perhaps is a discussion for another day.
  • [3] If you build it, they will come.
  • [4] As of season 11 of nu-Who at least. This is my permitted one Who reference per article.
  • [5] A stance which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read any of my academic publications or conference papers in the past few years
  • [6] Closing date 8th July. If you’re a senior library staff member within the Mercian Collaboration and you’ve not yet seen this survey, grab your Director the next time they venture out for coffee and ask them about it.