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Feminist leadership, libraries and Covid-19

08 March 2021  
Feminist leadership, libraries and Covid-19

Dr Adele Patrick

Dr Adele Patrick is co-founder of the Glasgow Women’s Library which was established in 1991 and now has more than 20 paid staff – including a librarian, an archivist and a museum curator as well as a 100 volunteers, and is run on feminist principles. Here she talks about how the Clore Leadership Fellowship programme helped her focus on her own professional development and assess what it means to be a leader.

In 2019 Adele completed a Clore Leadership Fellowship, a programme set up to develop and strengthen leadership potential across the cultural and creative sectors.

Around 25 Clore Fellows are selected every year for seven to eight-month Fellowships that are individually tailored with each Fellow supported by a mentor. Adele’s was Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library.

Adele said: “I have been a lifelong library lover, but have no formal training as an information professional. I began my career teaching at Glasgow School of Art; I had studied to become a designer there in the late 1980s. In the 1990s I taught Gender, Art and Culture as my day job in Historical and Critical Studies, but was also investing much of my time in grass-roots activist projects including a women’s self-build housing scheme and campaigning to ensure women were included in Glasgow’s Year as European City of Culture in 1990. The latter project, called Women in Profile was where the seeds of Glasgow Women’s Library were sown.”

She said: “Over the years I have been consciously trying to bring all aspects of my personal and professional life into alignment in terms of values and the idea of ‘living my feminist life’. Clore had been on my radar for some time before I was encouraged by my line manager on the GWL Board to apply.”

In this Q&A she explains how the fellowship has changed her leadership

Can you describe what you learned on the fellowship and how it related to libraries?

After almost three decades working at Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) and having been involved in a range of women’s and feminist work in activist, voluntary sector and academic settings since the early 1980s, a Clore Leadership Fellowship enabled me to take a deliberate period of conscious reflection on the evolution of GWL, an organisation I co-founded, and to think about how leadership has figured in my personal, activist and professional life.1

The 2018/2019 cohort was comprised of people from very varied cultural organisations, practices and perspectives; I was the sole Fellow from a library.2 The learning was, for me, less about the specifics of library management and more about how cultural resources and more about how cultural resources and institutions are structured, how they function, their fitness for future purpose and how leadership plays into this.

How has it changed your approach to leadership?

During Clore I was able to critique both the idea of leadership as it is expressed in the structures of many cultural organisations (literally in the form of, for example, institutions’ organograms, or through interviews with international leaders) and for the first time in any depth, the idea of my feminist leadership approaches at GWL. A Fellowship secondment3 meant my living and working in London for the first time, an experience I found both stimulating and challenging (not least in grappling with the discomforting reality of the London centrism of culture in the UK). I gained knowledge and insights from colleagues during research visits to Brazil, Italy, Kenya and the US 4; perspectives that had a profound impact on my thinking about leadership and fuelled a deeper process of self-enquiry, a review of the past, present and future of GWL.

How has it changed your approach to leadership?

Shortly after lockdown I made a video for Clore that linked my Fellowship learning directly to the Crisis 5 but as it has deepened, shifted and intensified, I have had plenty of cause to reflect on how lucky I had been to be able to have a year of “investment” in my thinking, and this “productive pause” from daily challenges and be fuelled for the changed circumstances of managing in a pandemic. I made firm bonds with a wide cohort of Fellows whose skills, knowledge and support I am continually benefitting from. I created my own feminist leadership toolkit; a distillation of the essence of my Fellowship learning; I am using this to navigate through Covid Times and resist “defaulting” to ingrained ways of thinking and working.

What were the important lessons that were useful for the immediate crisis?

The critical nature of keeping the focus pulled on a values-led approach to leadership seems to me to be more acutely relevant than ever. I have been keenly nurturing leadership skills in others across our team as they step up to the challenges they face. Pre Clore, I had eschewed the idea of claiming a leadership role, now I trust that aspects of leadership and ‘eldership’ are ones I can ‘own’ and share, acknowledging that in a crisis others might need leadership as at no other time. I have certainly sought and found it within the GWL Board, staff and with others. However, deploying leadership needs to be done with care, keeping open to learning and, vitally, involving others in decision making that impacts on their sense of safety and wider lives. I am trusting of my instincts on when to be actively listening, when to ask for help, and judging when, personally and organisationally, the pace needs to be slowed or further reflection and wider, deeper consultation is needed.

It may be a long time before things get back to normal – with the possibility of an economic crisis. What are you doing to prepare for this?

The current strategic aims of GWL are ambitious ones for a fairly small, independent library.6 Part of my own leadership approach has been to try to unleash the creative potential of the whole team whether someone is contributing as a cleaner, board member, volunteer or librarian. When the crisis shifted to lock down, we chose not to furlough believing that everyone could resources from an online SurThrival Kit to bespoke, freely distributed reusable masks, programmes (including an exhibition showcasing Covid Times donations to our collection)7 and communications. I have been overwhelmed with the ingenuity, up-skilling and skill sharing across the team and this gives me huge confidence in the future.

As the staff come together with the Board to review our Strategic Plan in 2021 I have no doubt that we will be attuned to the changed needs of the communities we are funded to serve locally and the audiences and networks we seek to speak to and with globally. In so many ways this crisis illustrates the need for intersectional values and paradigm shifting we have been advocating since our inception, so motivation is high regardless of the scale of the ask.

Library leaders were looking forward to an end to austerity but now face something worse. How important is stamina in a leader – and how do you know if you have it?

I was lucky enough to secure funding to undertake Post Fellowship Research after the Clore adventure and chose to explore feminist leadership further.8 One strand I am now focussing on is the concept of endurance. I think that work with any collection requires qualities of resilience, determination and a sense of the pleasures and satisfactions to be derived (alongside frustrations and exhaustion to be overcome) from the forms of ‘longitudinal’ work that characterises much librarianship, from classification to digitisation. The challenges of being a feminist working in a library, museum of archive setting still seems formidably challenging and requiring huge amounts of stamina; sexism and intersecting inequalities are still pervasive within collections, in institutional structures and in working environments and practices. Stamina is disproportionately demanded of anyone encountering daily challenges whether they come in the form of racism, class prejudice, ageism, disablism, homophobia, transphobia and, or sexism.

Those managing such challenges in their day-to-day experience in the sector can paradoxically equip us to ride the waves of precarity thrown up by the pandemic or, coming as it does in the wake of austerity, may be the final straw. Libraries need these qualities and perspectives if we are to survive and thrive into the future. Possessing stamina feels akin to me to having an unquenchable passion.

I know so many library workers and volunteers that have this in abundance!9 I have faith too in the idea of libraries and in librarians as agents for change and of our resources as exceptional places for people (both users and staff) to both heal, learn and convene. Of course, the combination of confronting barriers and being driven by a passion requires an acknowledgement of emotional, physical and health costs and recharging batteries is critical when so much energy is required on so many registers, sadly often seen as a luxury that few can afford.

What have you been doing in Glasgow and what changes have you seen in erms of your staff behaviour and your library member use and behaviour?

Although solution-focussed thinking, mutual support and commitments to reflection and communication were already aspects of the GWL ethos, we have had to evolve and innovate in so many respects. Of course zooming became ubiquitous. Zoom had been used in specific ways pre Covid 10 but ensuring everyone in the team was comfortable with this, and the array of platforms we have also deployed from Webex to WhatsApp represents a revolution in GWL and the sector.

With lockdown lifted we have addressed an array of issues that are new to us: how do we ensure that staff who are not able to return to work feel as connected as those who are back staffing in the building? How can we resist fragmentation and digital ‘clustering’ and encourage the serendipitous forms of information exchange, collaboration and support that would randomly occur after meetings, or waiting for kettles to boil? How can we ensure that the ‘easiest to ignore’ in our society – who are our priority learners, especially those without broadband, digital kit or experience – are not left behind?

In a general sense we have deepened, expanded and refined our modes of communicating and sharing organisationally: weekly bulletins to and from senior management and staff; new, open topical reading groups on for example, anti-racism and green issues; a new layer of small Focussed Group meetings that are aimed at averting tensions or hot spots developing and for management ‘overview’ in addition to Team (whole staff) and Support (one-to-one) meetings, a non-work team WhatsApp etc.

Throughout, our audiences, users, visitors and enquirers have given us their invaluable support via the raft of social media platforms, in anonymous feedback on our new mainly digital programming and in donations of all kinds.11 Early in lock down Staff team across the organisation crafted three ‘Peg’ documents to ensure that our own and user needs and safety were being met; our Guiding Principles12 our Phased Return Plan and a specific Risks and Opportunities Register. The last two are continually adapted as circumstances change. It was critical for us that the organisation navigated Covid knowing that operations and strategy wasn’t ‘top down’ or a management dictat, but that everyone’s concerns and needs were brought into the decision making and the documents were used and ‘owned’ by all.

Do you think leadership training in the sector is adequate now?

Clore was a significant investment by the GWL Board (backed by my colleagues) in my own personal and professional development. I am well aware that time out for Fellowships and even sabbaticals may be rare for colleagues in the mainstream library sector. Seeing things and oneself from another vantage point I feel is invaluable to be able to contribute, keep motivated and bring back fresh knowledge and networks. One of the lasting benefits of the Clore Leadership Fellowship for me was an introduction to coaching. I was coached throughout, have retained a coach and was trained in coaching as a method. I have found this to be an inherently feminist approach to helping others find their own agency, solve their own ‘stuck’ areas through Active Listening and for me to better ‘hold space’ for individuals to gain confidence to lead, in whatever sphere. I managed to source funding for anyone in the GWL team to be trained in coaching (currently paused until the Covid challenge subsides) and feel this form of training (for leadership) would be invaluable for many library colleagues. A critical, inclusive, self-reflective approach to leadership can only benefit the sector as we gather our stamina for the challenges ahead.

What is in your Feminist Leadership toolkit and could it be useful to anyone else?

My personal Feminist Leadership Toolkit is something that I corralled together at the conclusion of my Clore Fellowship. It is a live and continually developing compendium of specific advice to myself, methods and approaches collected before, during and after Clore often in the form of reminders that help me to say “no” to some asks in order to be able to say “yes” to things that are closer to my sense of my core purpose; to extend my list of “go-to people”, (especially those that have experiences of marginalisation or have encountered barriers to accessing collections and cultural resources); have monthly inventory days (fiendishly difficult to prioritise!); and to be regularly checking-in on whether I am keeping true to my values and my demands of myself as a feminist leader. You can find some of my current demands here.

I find having a Toolkit can be a support in efforts to change habits, create movement, manage change or be braver in situations. I now feel I understand better the value of getting to know yourself. I know I have to work especially hard on separating facts from feelings and accepting that I am a person who can hold seemingly opposite qualities in productive tension. I am keen to be someone who can change their views (but again alongside a belief in a core ethos) and celebrates the fact that others know more and that I can learn from then. I hope that this is clearly expressed in my leadership approach. In the past I have felt frustration when my passion or conviction in conveying that an idea hasn’t landed or been heard. I have learnt how to better maintain my confidence in my authentic voice even when my message is not being picked up, and know that sometimes the ripples from what we might say or bring may be felt or be comprehended with more impact in the future. I am still finding myself regularly at sea, and Covid has as thrown up new and deep challenges but having a toolkit and a cohort of support established before and during Clore means that I have a great place to harbour.

References

1 The Fellowship took place over seven months starting in September 2018.

2 Janine Downes, working at the Hive Worcester (a unique integrated public and university library) is currently undertaking the Fellowship. Each Fellow was allocated with a mentor. I was fortunate to be mentored by Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library.

3 I was based at Museum of London.

4 Meeting remarkable colleagues staff at for example, New York Public Library, in the public library system in Rio de Janeiro, in our sister Women’s Library in Bologna at the inspirational Book Bunk in Nairobi and the Collins Memorial Library in Puget Sound

5 Feminist Leadership

6 In summary: Setting the highest standards of innovation and excellence in delivering programmes of creative learning, public events and activities; building a world class collection with accessible associated resources; developing GWL’s role as a change maker and influencer and ensuring Glasgow Women’s Library is sustainable.

7 Collecting in the Time of Coronavirus

8 Moving Mountains: Visioning Intersectional Feminist Leadership by Adele Patrick

9 Adrianne Maree Brown expresses this for me in her book Emergent Strategy when she talks about aving a ‘North Star’, a personal vision that may (and should) shift and change but symbolises our drive to effect change and the belief in the purposefulness of our role over and above the job description.

10 For example in our meetings with sister organisation Book Bunk, based in Nairobi.

11 Our current exhibition offers up a sample of GWL’s Covid Times collecting. Our website is illustrative of the array of programming we have developed for local and global audiences.

12 Our Phased Approach to Re-opening GWL


Header photo is Dr Adele Parick photographed by Suzanne Heffron


Published:8 March 2021


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