Libraries as bureaucracies: a SWOT analysis

Publication Date10 June 2019
AuthorChelsea Jordan-Makely
SubjectLibrary & information science,Librarianship/library management,HR in libraries,Library strategy,Library promotion
Libraries as bureaucracies:
a SWOT analysis
Chelsea Jordan-Makely
Whistler Public Library, Whistler, Canada
Purpose Bureaucracy in libraries is typically presented in terms of six banal characteristics originally
identified by the historian Max Weber at the turn of the twentieth century. In some cases, bureaucracy in
libraries is seen as a system that might be undone. These characterizations underestimate the power of
bureaucracy as a force external and intrinsic to libraries. The purpose of this paper is to reintroduce the topic
of libraries as bureaucracies such that library practitioners can identify, question and reform aspects of
bureaucracy in libraries.
Design/methodology/approach A review of literature from the library field and from the social sciences
is presented in the framework of a SWOT analysis, such that readers can see bureaucracy in libraries for its
strengths and weaknesses, as well as in regards to its external opportunities and threats.
Findings Bureaucracy is a largely misunderstood and overlooked topic, in all disciplines, including library
science. Generally, bureaucracy is presented as a negative and ineffective system operating in the public
sector only, though bureaucracies serve many positive purposes and functions in all aspects of society.
Bureaucracy cannot be dismantled, though opportunities exist to eliminate its less desirable aspects and
effects. In some ways, libraries exemplify bureaucratic thinking, yet in others, libraries are poised to offset or
challenge the harmful effects of bureaucracy in all other aspects of society.
Originality/value Bureaucracy is seldom considered in library research or in other fields. As such, it is a
grossly misunderstood subject. This extensively research paper synthesizes the literature that does exist on
the topic, and expands upon it using theory from the social sciences. As such, this paper stands to begin a
discussion about how libraries can restructure and respond to change.
Keywords Sociology, Agile, Libraries, Organizational management, Bureaucracy, Critical librarianship
Paper type General review
An article entitled Libraries as Bureaucraciesappeared in the journal Library Trends in
the Winter of 1978, which described the ways in which bureaucracy applied to the field of
librarianship. Its author, Beverly Lynch, disabused readers of any misconceptions that
bureaucracies could be characterized solely by inefficiency and red tape,and instead,
defined bureaucracies as organizations designed to control and stabilize environmental
influences,thereby maximizing efficiency (Lynch, 1978, pp. 260-267). The paper concluded
with the statement: libraries will remain bureaucratic in form(Lynch, 1978, p. 267).
In total, 40 years later, these claims remain true: the term bureaucracy is still used most
often in a negative sense, though bureaucracy prevails as the most common and effective
means of management and organization across most sectors, and including libraries
(Lynch, 1978, p. 260; Graeber, 2015, pp. 3-21). Yet, much has changed, within the profession
of librarianship and externally, since Libraries as Bureaucracieswas first published.
Bureaucracies can be defined, broadly, as any location where any number of people
gather to discuss the allocation of resources of any kind at all(Graeber, 2015, p. 21).
Dictionaries describe bureaucracy as a system for controlling or monitoring a country,
company, or organization that is operated by a large number of officials employed to follow
rules carefully[1].
Most any mention of bureaucracy to be found in library literature, or in the social
sciences, describes bureaucracies using the characteristics first named by the political
economist and historian Max Weber. In the article Libraries as Bureaucracies,Lynch
(1978) summarized these succinctly: Webers ideal type of organization is a bureaucracy
characterized by a hierarchy of office, careful specification of office functions, recruitment
Library Management
Vol. 40 No. 5, 2019
pp. 294-304
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/LM-03-2018-0019
Received 9 March 2018
Accepted 19 August 2018
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