What Librarians Can Learn from Nurses

Megan Hartline —  September 4, 2015 — 1 Comment
Woman in full nursing scrubs including eye protection, face mask, and hairnet

Creative Commons LicenseJosé Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez via Wikimedia Commons

Helping your staff help other people on a shoestring budget in a time crunch – sound familiar? Hospitals and libraries have more in common than you might expect. Nurses also serve community, providing assistance to as many people as possible – and nursing managers have the same challenges and opportunities as library managers.

We’re looking to the health care industry to see what library managers can learn from nursing leadership.

Leaders Set Workplace Culture

A positive workplace makes a huge difference in whether people like working at your library. Lynne Perry Wooten and Patricia Crane studied positive work culture in health care, with a stimulating call to leaders:

. . . nursing leaders should take on the responsibility of culture gatekeeper. This requires nursing leaders to be accessible and visible to their staff. In addition to visibility, an effective culture gatekeeper exemplifies the vision and values of the organization since they are role models for the other members. In health care organizations, this suggests that nursing leaders embrace a humanistic philosophy of caring that permeates to health care providers and ultimately manifests in both patient services and employee relationships.

As in health care, librarianship has strong implicit values. We all assume our library organization values access to information and community building. As leaders, we should be making that unspoken belief an explicit value.

Change Impacts the Front Line

Library services are perpetually in a state of transformation – and as it turns out, so are health services. For nurses as well as circulation staff, change hits the front line first. This puts middle managers in the role of facilitating change while managing the people impacted by that change. Two nursing managers, Lynne Hancock and Diane Hanley describe how a change might roll out in a hospital:

Another example of staff driven change is the implementation of bar code scanning for medication safety. Nurses know the work flow, so it should be the nurses who pilot and test the system. The organizational leaders need to remove the barriers and provide the resources to get the work done.

That resonates with the library experience, where a change in library software might be lead by administration or IT, but front line staff are the everyday power users. Hancock and Hanley champion the nurses who find the ability to lead from the middle.

Coaching is Key

We already know library leadership means coaching, and it’s true of nursing leadership as well. Rose O. Sherman, who blogs on nursing leadership at Emerging RN Leader, offers coaching tips for nursing managers. These strategies work as well for library managers and include connecting with your staff as people, offering professional development, and verbalizing the impact of work:

Leaders as coaches show that they value employees. Nurses want to know that their work matters and that they are contributing to the organization’s success in a meaningful way. This has to be verbalized.

Like nurses, people work in libraries because they care about the mission. Let them know how their work contributes to the mission. Even a task removed from direct patron service (such as tattle taping books) can be connected to the mission (protecting collections for use by all).

Leadership is More than Management

In libraries, we see the difference between leadership and management. Claudia Schmalenberg and Marlene Kramer studied nurse perceptions of leadership and management behaviors for seven years.They found that management activities (such as scheduling shifts) were much less valued by nurses than leadership activities (like creating teams and resolving conflicts with doctors). Kramer and Schmalenberg observed:

With the growing complexity of the nurse manager’s role, we cannot just keep adding more role behaviors. At some point, something has to be taken away. “Managing the unit” competencies—scheduling, patient assignments, routine employee paperwork—can be delegated to others. Leadership behaviors such as walking the talk, the instilling of values, are much more difficult to give away even if it would not be a good idea to do so.

It is a management challenge to delegate activities that are undoubtedly important (like creating the reference desk schedule) – but just like nursing managers, we as library managers can choose leadership over management.

Nurses in the Library

We’re convinced: nurses and librarians share a lot of workplace culture. In fact, Pima County Library (Arizona) recognized public health as such a strong strong community need, they embedded nurses in the library. However, you don’t need to colocate health services within your library to benefit from the wisdom of nursing managers. Let’s take a page from this helping profession, and choose positive leadership.

Megan Hartline


Megan Hartline (@awrybrarian on Twitter) is a librarian in Denver, Colorado. In addition to librarianship, Megan's background is in nonprofit leadership. She would love to visit your library to talk about management, workflows, or customer service.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Weekly Round-Up! | hls - September 18, 2015

    […] A friend passed along this link to library infographics, which are pretty nifty. Also I discovered Library Lost and Found thanks to Christina’s post this week. I really jived with the article about how librarians can learn from nurses. […]

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