Mapping a New World Bravely: Thought Leadership and Public Libraries

Brendan Fitzgerald is Director of Library Consultancy 641 DI. He works on library and NFP strategy with a particular focus on library infrastructure, Digital Inclusion, and understanding loneliness. 641 DI is working in partnership with Civica to produce “The One Thing” a Thought Leadership project for public libraries globally.

Uncertainty has quickly become the new global norm. What was new and exciting prior to COVID-19, now feels like a distant memory. Challenges we thought we had control of, are now renewed with a degree of difficulty we hadn’t thought possible.

For libraries uncertainty is a difficult “address to be living at”. Libraries mostly inhabit a world where change is met in a measured way, and it is often slow and hierarchical. This is partly because libraries are built largely on conservative practice. One which incorporates careful consideration and thorough research as the norm. In essence we collect and preserve for the future. Every item has its place assigned, is shelved accordingly, and when borrowed, recorded so that in time it can be returned to its place. This approach has mostly served us well, but now feels different.

We liken it to standing on your own street corner and finding, in the blink of an eye, that someone redrafted the map of the neighborhood you’ve always known, leaving you seeking the comfort of familiar sights that stay just out of view.1

Just as it's true that the future is uncertain, as Jim Morrison sang in the “Roadhouse Blues”, it is equally true that “the end is always near”. Mostly in the scheme of things they are smallish endings. Endings that happen regularly as part of the cycle of growth and change. They are often endings where we navigate to something new or different. A format collapses; a different one emerges. An old library branch closes; another one opens, and it’s a Digital Learning Hub with shared services and Makerspace! A significant career ends with an honoured retirement; or in the case of the emergence of the COVID-19 in New South Wales where some older staff resigned from one library, fearing catching COVID-19, and also understanding the risk that they may pass it onto users.2

It’s probably not, but this time we are in, feels a lot like a big moment of change. A moment where some things, and maybe quite a lot of familiar things will end. We know that our customers are displaced, and we have identified gaps in our skills. We know that reading habits are shifting quickly to digital, and recognise that both our digital and bricks and mortar infrastructure is under more pressure. We have a new unresolved tension as we try and remain a place of social gathering in a time of social distancing. It could be indeed be the end of libraries as we know them.

With the degree of uncertainty gripping the globe, it’s no wonder that there are a number of initiatives looking at how we navigate to new futures. Driven by the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, Libraries worldwide have turned to a range of strategic planning methods, online conversations and learning opportunities with sharpened focus and a serious intent.

With the aim to seed broad dialogue for change within the library ecosystem, Civica has engaged Australian Library Consultancy 641 DI to lead a “Thought Leadership project for the library sector”. Entitled “The One Thing” and drawing on library leaders from around the globe, the focus is on critical or emerging challenges for the library sector. The project will deliver a series of short articles or “Thought Pieces” to be published progressively through 2021 and into 2022.

The pandemic has sharpened the focus on the need for strategy and planning for uncertain futures, however some of the challenges we face have been with us for a long time. As a result, there is presently a keen interest in thought leadership and strategic planning initiatives surfacing. While “The One Thing” comes from within the commercial part of the library ecosystem, others, such as the recent LIANZA hosted IFLA Asia Pacific SDG webinar, or the “Changing Lives Seminar Series”, run by CILIP, are being driven by industry perspectives, and professional development needs.3

So far, the library leaders commissioned to deliver the initial Thought Leadership pieces include:

  • Dr Matt Finch (UK) on the need for scenario planning.
  • Stephanie Chase (USA), on adaptability and flexibility and challenging hierarchies.
  • Dr Sadie-Jane Nunis (Singapore) on the mental health challenge facing the library profession.
  • Trish Hepworth (Australia) on why our core values and ethics, and flowing from that, kindness in connection need to be now critical elements of our professional development and skills for the future. 
  • Jane Cowell (Australia) on how to be both global and local, and the need to “return yourself to the library” and the library to the community.

Arriving at a definitive definition of what “Thought Leadership” is a slightly complex task.4 To some, it centres around trusted sources able to inspire and influence others through ideas and action as “informed opinion leaders and go-to people in their field of expertise”.5

For the purposes of this project “Thought Leadership” can be defined as the act of influencing a narrative by understanding what needs to be done to meet challenges with confidence. And it is that last bit we intend to focus on through this project.

Even if the term “thought leadership” has a degree of fuzziness, it can work alongside other strategic planning tools, to inspire a healthy debate, creative solutions and an organic conversation across the library sector that fosters positive impact.

Finally, what's my one big thing to lead this series off? Well apart from taking time for a beer (maybe not first thing in the morning), family and friendship, perhaps it's time we approached our library ecosystem with a different mindset.

With the increased uncertainty we face as a result of the pandemic, maybe it’s time we moved away from modes of operating that effectively compartmentalizes the library ecosystem, and move to one that adopts to a shared value approach. How can we work with publishers, artists and authors; commercial agencies such as IT companies and library consultants; Community and Not-For-Profit sectors; and government and funding bodies in a way that works to solves social issues?6 Shared value is an attractive response to current uncertainty we face, as it embeds the value that libraries offer within the value of others.



1 Curtis and Cotton, “Fjord Trends 2021: Emerging Trends in Business.”

2 Fitzgerald, Brendan., and SLNSW., issuing body. NSW Public Libraries: the COVID-19 Response: Report of a Survey into How Library Services Adapted to a Pandemic / Prepared for the State Library of NSW by Brendan Fitzgerald. 2020. P.43

3 Roberts, “IFLA -- Report on the RSCAO Asia-Pacific Webinar on ‘Libraries and the SDGs’, 26 February 2021.”

4 Prince and Rogers, “What Is A Thought Leader?” Forbes, 2016

5 Brousseau, “What Is a Thought Leader?”

6 “What Is Shared Value?” Accessed 11 June 2021

Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.