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Project management for librarians

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Projects and the librarian

What is a project?

A project is a planned undertaking which delivers a specific outcome using pre-defined and often specially allocated stocks of time, money, resources and equipment. The outcome may be a product or a service, and will require a business case to justify it.

Projects happen outside the normal operations of an organization and have specific start and end dates, and a unique end result. Success in delivery lies in the ability to produce the outcome to the agreed quality, within budget and within the agreed time-scale. In practice, however, there may need to be some trade-off between these three, for example if the deadline is tight and unmovable the budget may need to be increased to pay for extra resources, or some quality sacrificed.

Librarians and projects

Librarians in every sector are increasingly dealing with discrete projects, often with a large technological component, over and above the ongoing services they provide. Many of these projects involve digitizing all or part of the collection, and making services available to their users online. The move from print to digital has caused a huge sea change in the way librarians work: they are no longer custodians of knowledge and need more than ever to follow user requirements in a rapidly changing world.

For example, the British Library has an extensive ongoing digitization project, which includes such initiatives as the Researchers’ Information Centre, which facilitates collaboration between researchers, and the National Digital Library, which is about archiving digital content. In the Umeå region of northern Sweden, five municipalities have pooled their resources to create an integrated library system, enabling users to borrow from and return to different libraries, order from a combined collection of 25 libraries via the website, , and write book reviews and other content.

Many organizations conduct systematic reviews to make sure they meet user needs and keep ahead of the game. In many cases, they also need to improve their level of service on the same budget, or one that has not increased in proportion to service requirements:

  • Chia (2001) describes how the National Library Board (NLB) of Singapore conducted a study designed to create a service that was convenient, affordable and accessible to the people of that country. Partly as a result of new libraries placed in shopping malls for accessibility, visits had increased fivefold and loans had doubled. The budget had not increased by the same amount, so the NLB had to rethink its service paradigm and innovate out of a situation of over-crowded libraries and dissatisfied customers.
  • In 2004, the library of the University of Western Australia launched a strategic plan in an attempt to maintain and improve services during a period of rapid change. This involved breaking down silos in the library so that there were no artificial barriers, and providing training for staff, including a generic training programme for new recruits, so that much-needed new skills could be acquired rapidly (Kiel, 1007).
  • The objective of the Umeå library project was to improve service levels by creating a far larger and more accessible library system, by linking together all 25 libraries in the region, but without increasing costs.

As libraries undertake more and more projects, they need to become familiar with the tools, techniques and methods of project management.