Bright Futures: Library Leader Interview with Jon Cawthorne

Megan Hartline —  October 22, 2015 — 5 Comments
Professional photo of Jon Cawthorne

Photo by Kevin Tringale

Jon Cawthorne is the Dean of Libraries at the West Virginia University Libraries. His research work focuses on helping academic libraries imagine the future through scenario planning.

Can you share your career path? 

I started my professional career at Ohio State University Libraries. It was a two-year minority librarian Internship. Often professionals, especially early in their careers, enter organizations in one position. This internship/residency position was a tremendous gift because it allowed me to move around to different positions, gaining experience and perspective across, up and down the organization. After rotating through all the areas of a major research library, I selected a focus on reference and East Asian studies.

I recall the exact moment I decided to gain the experience necessary to compete for library dean or university librarian jobs. I sat in the library director’s office, and he asked me, “Jon, what do you want to do in your career?” I said, “You know, I think I want to do what you do!” I will never forget his comment: “No, you don’t want to become a library director; you want to become a department head in a research library. They have a lot of influence and get things done.” I remember leaving his office, thinking and promising myself that I would make it my career goal to become a library director.

Since that time, I have worked in a major public library and held progressively responsible positions in academic libraries. Although I am from Oregon, I was never “place centric.” In other words, I moved around to get the experience I needed. So far the journey has taken me from Columbus, Ohio, to Eugene, Oregon, to Detroit, Michigan, to San Diego, California, to Boston, Massachusetts, to Tallahassee, Florida, and finally to Morgantown, West Virginia, to serve as Dean of Libraries. For me it was always being honest with myself about the skills and abilities I was missing. I attended as many leadership development and training opportunities as I could. I also began working on a Ph.D. at Simmons College in Managerial Leadership in the Information Professions in 2007 and finished in 2013.

What was expected, and what was unexpected?  

This question is tricky because we don’t know what we don’t know! I had an expectation of what being in the top position was like. I thought I knew about leadership. I thought I knew myself. Turns out I didn’t know much about either. When I started, I thought I knew everything and that the path to library leadership was simply about acquiring all the right skills and abilities. What was quite unexpected, and surprises me constantly, was the depth and complexity of leadership positions. These positions are not solely about books, electronic resources or library values, they are about people. What do all library employees see in the current environment? How does a leader inspire people?

Not only does a leader need the right skills and abilities but also, to be truly effective, I believe every leader needs substantive internal growth and considerable struggle toward self-understanding. The absence of this internal work affects a person’s ability to lead with emotional intelligence, develop character, empathize, communicate, and articulate an inspiring vision; these are qualities that are universally accepted in successful leadership positions in all industries.

Much of what I have experienced, both positive and negative, particularly in the last several library leadership positions I’ve held, has caused me to become much more humble about what I think I know. I know I don’t have it all figured out, but just as I did the difficult internal work to understand who I am and where I want to go, I’ve become quite passionate about creating an inclusive organization for people and communicating more positively about the amazing future we have in academic libraries. I certainly ask lots of questions to identify and understand and influence the change within the organizational culture. 

What’s your library leadership philosophy? 

As human beings who want to get things done, we all go through seasons and struggles. I think having a basic sense of empathy and respect toward others is extremely important. There are two books I often give to colleagues, donors, managers, potential and current leaders, that define my leadership philosophy:Book cover for The Nibble Theory

These two books address what I believe are the necessary ingredients for organizational transformation. A focus on and importance of self-empowerment and personal growth combined with a positive message about the future.  

We first connected when you visited my library to help us with scenario planning, which is based on your Ph.D. research in guiding libraries to envision the future. What initially drew you to this topic? 

I am always, always, always thinking about the future. I love academic library work and believe we have a bright future, yet as I think about the years ahead, I wonder if the decisions we make today will position us well. Are the decisions we make today helping position academic libraries for the future? I am not sure the current way we plan addresses all the uncertainty and change we must constantly navigate. Further, I sometimes wonder if the very way we conduct and implement strategic planning allows us to see all future opportunities or possibilities. I am excited about the potential of scenario planning because the process creates stories, narratives of plausible futures. If we are going to create flexible organizations, we need flexible planning tools. I think scenario planning is something more libraries should fold into their planning. We can all learn a great deal from reading more future scenarios/stories. 

Can you share a glimpse of your own vision for the future of academic libraries? 

First, I think it is important to say I believe academic libraries have a very, very bright future. We have extremely smart, talented people at all levels working in academic libraries. The future requires knowledge workers with interpersonal skills; it will also require an organization that is responsive to the future needs of users. Placing the skills and talents of librarianship to benefit the University loops back to the top leader in each academic library. What kind of culture is the top leader creating? How is this leader initiating, implementing and assessing new opportunities, new ideas or even changing organizational structures that help accomplish new initiatives?

Of course, each environment is different, yet I imagine library leaders will inevitably work together across institutions to resolve common challenges. The future requires flexibility, creativity and thinking beyond organizational boundaries. I think the best libraries will not only be connected, they will not be afraid to fail. Finally, they will think broadly about how librarianship influences publishing, scholarly communication and develops entrepreneurial solutions to common challenges we all face. 

What do you see as the most important skills or competencies for library leaders? 

As I started my career, I had no idea of the extent to which I was going to grow and change. If individuals want to pursue leadership, they should learn from examples, both good and bad, all around us. I think people follow leaders they respect. Leaders who promote division, fear and control only last so long. If library leaders are asking everyone in the organization to consider new opportunities, I wonder how comfortable and flexible the leader is with change? One critical skill is the courage to act, while another is the ability to listen and understand that the work of leadership is about changing the current culture. After arriving in leadership positions, has the internal work resulted in the maturity to accept people around them telling the truth? Because I’ve been in many organizations and gone through a great deal of self-reflection, I am convinced the path to a sustainable, compelling, inclusive and inspiring vision requires internal work and growth. I can honestly say I am a different person than when I started, but I am looking forward to learning, growing and constantly reconsidering what I think I know.

What are the biggest challenges or most exciting projects you have on the horizon? 

There are so many exciting things going on at West Virginia University Libraries. We are developing the talent we have and hiring some excellent people. Honestly, all of our creativity, our ideas will come from our people. You can track our progress and accomplishments on our website. I am very excited WVU Libraries has a university press and together we are members of the American Association of University Presses. The Diversity Alliance is an initiative to increase the numbers of underrepresented individuals with academic library experience. There is certainly more to WVU Libraries, but we are the third institution in the United States (Harvard, University of California, Berkeley and West Virginia University) to hire a Wikipedian-in-Residence. Recently, we joined the Greater Western Library Alliance. 

Any final words of wisdom for aspiring leaders or new leaders?

I absolutely love, love, love what I do. When I started, I imagined the job, but I can assure anyone that aspires to leadership, it is even better than I imagined! Trust, you will have to take risks, you will go through seasons of learning and you might even experience some self-doubt, but I would simply encourage the journey. Be open to learning. Relax. Everything will work out!

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.

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