Project Management & Libraries

Below is an excerpt from my portion of a presentation two of my colleagues and I gave at the Michigan Library Association’s May 2014 Academic Libraries conference.  Actually, I could not be there, having recently had a baby, so my colleagues read a script I had written on my behalf.  I wanted to share that with you all to keep the knowledge circulating!  My part was the introductory part, but I still think it’s useful.

Let me know if you have any thoughts!

First, I want to start with the question:  What is a project?  Why do I even start with this?  I think in the library, we’re so busy doing lots of things that it can be really hard to implement any project management techniques unless we can fairly easily identify a project as it starts up, as it is underway, and as it finishes, as distinct from the routine processes critical to the operations of libraries or larger programs, which are collections of related projects and processes.

Projects have two key features.  Like a snowflake, a project is both temporary and unique.  (I’d also add beautiful as an adjective that projects and snowflakes have in common!)

Projects are temporary in that they have end points.  Ideally, each project has a defined start and end time, date or milestone.

Projects are also unique, as opposed to processes in which the same set of functions are triggered by some event or action.  Projects also require a specific set of resources (human, organizational, institutional, research, fiscal, etc.) brought together to accomplish a set of well-defined, unique goals.

Given this definition, I think more people in the library work on projects than they realize.  And because of that, project management practices can help library workers be more efficient and have better outcomes for their projects.

Okay, so what is project management?

I once had a collaborator who had a post-it note stuck on his computer monitor to remind him of his little mantra.  It read:  get stuff done.  (Actually, I’m replacing the word he used with “stuff.”) In some ways, that’s not very useful… but, I would argue that project management is a method to do just that (get stuff done), and to do it well if not the first time then better and better over time.

Robert Wysocki, who wrote a very helpful guide to “Effective Project Management” calls project management, “organized common sense”:  Or, in other more descriptive words:

Project management is all about directing activities to execute a project while controlling limited resources (again, human, organizational, fiscal, technological etc.) efficiently & effectively, ensuring the end goal is successfully achieved.

This involves:

  • Understanding stakeholder needs
  • Planning what must be done, by whom, when, to what standards
  • Building, motivating & coordinating a team of people
  • Monitoring work being done
  • Managing changes to the plan, and
  • Delivering (successful and effective) results

As for types of methodologies, I’m not going to talk too much about the different methods, but I wanted you to just be aware that “project management” is not one approach – and not all of these will work in all library contexts:

Traditional Project Management dates back to the 1950s & 60s.  It relies on a strict sequence of phases (define, plan, execute, close) with key tasks identified in each phase.  If you’ve ever heard of a “work breakdown structure” or “gantt chart” – these tools capitalize on this kind of project management approach by organizing the tasks that need to be done by certain times and how long they will take.  This approach is highly linear & rigid.  It’s very:  “do this, then you can do that, then you can do that”.   Once the plan is written, it isn’t altered much throughout the project.



Agile Project Management has been around for about 25 years.  It’s quite well known in software development environments.  Agile project management emphasizes people & interactions over processes & tools; work products over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiations; and responding to change over strictly following a plan.

Just a quick aside, Menlo Innovations right here in Michigan has an Agile Project Management Workshop if you are interested!



Extreme Project Management is useful for highly iterative and risky research & development type projects.  It is the least structured, and most creative of the three models presented here (there are others out there though).  The failure rate is high.  These projects are fast & change a lot over their course.  There are high levels of uncertainty in these projects (will this work?  maybe, maybe not!) and so they are highly iterative:  There is an emphasis on a sequence of repeated phases, with each phase is based on a limited understanding of goals & solutions.  And so as the project progresses, the team might rethink the scope or plan; and assess the project along the way.


In general, project management approaches all do have some elements of planning or scoping, running and assessing the project.

So, how are libraries engaging with project management?   

Hiring Librarians is a popular blog that often interviews both library candidates and library hiring managers and publishes those as blog posts.  In December 2013, the blog manager looked at all responses by hiring managers in libraries to the question “What coursework do you think all (or most) MLS/MLIS holders should take, regardless of focus?” for which they could select any number of options from a 25 option list (26 options if you count “other”).

Out of the 25 options, “Project Management” was chosen 65% of the time out of 305 responses.  In other words, 199 out of 305 hiring managers listed project management as a coursework topic that all or most MLIS holders should take.  Interestingly, it was the 3rd most popular option (behind Reference & Collection Management).

So I think this shows – at least a little bit – that project management skills and understanding are valued quite a bit in libraries.  But, it is not necessarily clear that library workers (or those coming out of library schools) are adequately trained in project management.

The rest of the presentation discussed the wonderful project management community of learning (our special interest group) we have developed over the past two years to talk about addressing this issue of how to create professional development opportunities around project management.  Our hope is that other libraries can take this presentation and begin their project management networking and professional development groups to learn more about this subject and how to apply it successfully to library work.


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