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Mission Bell Media publishes print and digital media for the library market with a focus on leadership. Publishing authoritative and empowering leadership content for libraries worldwide.

On Leadership

Leading Voices: Sarah Pritchard

Rolf Janke

We are pleased to have Sarah Pritchard from Northwestern University join the leadership conversation.  In her role as Dean of Libraries, Sarah is no stranger to the significance of leadership in today’s library and we hope you enjoy her candid insights.

 Thank you, Sarah!

Thank you, Sarah!


Name:  Sarah M. Pritchard

Professional Title: Dean of Libraries and the Charles Deering McCormick University Librarian

Organization: Northwestern University 

As the Dean of Libraries at Northwestern University, what does leadership mean to you in the sense of how you navigate a large library system through all the challenges that academic libraries face today?

Leadership to me is a combination of several elements.  It means being attuned to the big picture of your institutional context (where is the university going and what do the current academic leaders care about), to the new opportunities emerging in one’s own profession (a combination of drawing on one’s own past expertise plus staying abreast of innovation in libraries, technology and publishing), and to the unique “anthropology” of the library organization where one is working at the time.  These factors all have to be blended so one then is able to fix on what needs to be done, what it will or will not be possible to do, and how to orchestrate the steps.  Leadership requires the ability to translate these ideas and goals into two kinds of language, language that means something to the external stakeholders and language for one’s library colleagues, and these are never quite the same! Every leader is a filter or translator or hinge between the internal and external, the present and the future.  One has to at the same time push the boundaries out and coax the group to come along; one has to translate and align well enough to secure resources and commitment from the stakeholders while at the same time reallocating those resources internally to sustain ongoing work and foster new initiatives.  Shifting the resources (whether dollars or people or space or time) is the only chance to shape new directions but the leader also has to explain why this is good, help the organization reprioritize its work, set a shared tone and reassure people that they can tackle the change.  Sometimes you just sound like a cheesy salesperson – “trust me!”  It takes a certain amount of nerve and courage.

 Tell us about your perspective on the next generation of leaders in your library.  What characteristics would your “perfect candidate” need to have?

Flexibility and a can-do, problem-solving attitude are essential!  And although we want new leaders to come with some particular professional strength and skills, we also want them to be able to understand all parts of the operation, to be able to take over new areas if needed, and to have strong team-building and communication abilities.  The caveat I would make is that new leaders need to learn patience and compromise.  It is easy to get frustrated either with one’s colleagues or one’s institution when you feel you can’t move fast enough or get full support.  There are so many ways to move an idea forward if you phase it or pilot it or try some temporary approaches or take a chance on a person you hadn’t previously viewed in that light.  Project management, assessment, strategic planning and professional writing are skills that in many ways are more important than library science once one is in a leadership position; other team members can be the source of technical know-how but the leader needs to put these wider organizational skills into action.  These skills are the kinds of things that everyone thinks they know how to do, but that can actually require solid training in order to do well.  (Including writing administrative documents!)

Can you take us back through your career and give us an idea of any significant leadership practices, resources and/or people that enhanced your desire to be a library leader?

I never thought I wanted to be a director or a leader, but it sort of dawned on me along the way, certainly with the guidance of a variety of peers and mentors.  I started out at the Library of Congress in public services and collection development, and thought that I wanted to aim for a chief collection development officer sort of role – something I have not ever achieved!  I began to want more control over my own work – not more control over others – and thought about whether to pursue a PhD, but opted for the “bird in the hand” and sought a promotion at LC.  I realized I wanted to be in an academic library and that transition proved to be a little more difficult to accomplish, so I applied for the management internship offered by the (then) Council on Library Resources.  This was a real turning point for me; even though I had been active in ALA and ACRL, I really had never seen how library directors got things done via organizations like ARL and OCLC/RLG, and how directors interacted with donors, foundations and external boards.  Emerging from that, I was nominated for a position at the Association of Research Libraries, another transformative experience and one that I never would have thought to pursue if it weren’t for good advice from a mentor.  One learns a great deal spending a few years in a “meta library” organization like a consortium or a vendor, even if ultimately you return to a library as I did.  I will say that over the time I worked at ARL we were having some of the worst years of the serials crisis and I thought, all these directors are so depressed, I would never want a job like that!  My first directorship, at Smith College, was actually a nod back to my original subject specialty in women’s studies; but I found I had no time to explore research projects in the collections, I was too busy with management and technology and consortial planning and campus advocacy.  All of which, it turned out, were fascinating and energizing to me.  That set me on the path to where I am today.  When people ask me about mentors, what I’ve realized is that you need many, many people to help you, in different ways at different times.  You can seek special experiences and be open to learning from people without getting into a rigid model of expecting one person to fulfill your expectations of a mentor.  And even once you are an experienced director, bad and difficult stuff happens and you can’t share it with your staff, you have to go seek out personal advice, often cautiously and indirectly; you need to know where you can turn.  In my experience those may be other library directors, or it may be a faculty member or an administrator from another part of campus; once again, it’s about trust.

I think there is a strong connection between leadership and trust, and it is needed because there is also a direct connection between leadership and risk.

One last question: What leader are you keeping your eye on right now? Why?

Tyler Walters, dean of libraries at Virginia Tech, and just appointed as the first director of the SHARE initiative (a joint project of the ARL, the AAU and the APLU).  Tyler has been a very innovative library director focusing on new roles for libraries, libraries as publishers, and models for digital scholarship.  The SHARE initiative, which has been under development for some time, has the potential to be a real game-change not only for libraries but for faculty and universities overall.  It establishes a new model for university collaboration, library repository sharing and the management of access to research results.  It was established in response to the new U.S. government mandates for public access to data and publications from research funded by Federal agencies, but ultimately it will be transformative of the entire network of research repositories and data archives.  See more at  

Want more? Check out a round-up of all our leaders and innovators here.