Interviews with Library Directors Suggest That Political Capital is
Linked to Reputation
A Review of:
O'Bryan, C. R. (2018). The influence of political capital on academic
library leadership. Library Leadership
& Management, 34(4). Retrieved from
Virtual Reference Librarian
Rutgers University Libraries
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, New Jersey, United States of America
Received: 30 Nov. 2018 Accepted: 16 Jan.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons‐Attribution‐Noncommercial‐Share Alike License 4.0
Objective – To understand how library directors use political
capital to overcome challenges and reach goals in their libraries. The author
defines political capital as social power that is amassed through reputation
and alliance building. This social power can be used to influence decisions and
change at an organizational level.
Design – Narrative interview.
Setting – A large state university system in the Northeastern
United States of America. The system includes a network of 64 independent
campuses serving different communities with a total population of 460,000
undergraduate and 420,000 graduate students.
Subjects – 12 library directors from within a single state
Methods – The author conducted in-depth narrative interviews
with participants focusing on critical incidents throughout their careers and
recent events. The author used restorying, reorganizing the data into
chronological order before coding, and thematic analysis, using a software
program to code the data and then revisit all the data with finalized codes to
make any adjustments.
Main Results – Several themes emerged in the interview data
including interactions with administration, methods for building political
capital, applying and using political capital, and building reputation. Within
the interactions with administration theme, the author observed a strong
connection in the hierarchy of the institution. Directors expected a high level
of engagement and support from their direct reports and felt that providing
this type of work to University administration would provide a return on
investment for the library in terms of budget and support for new efforts or HR
challenges. The theme of administrative turnover emerged as a possible barrier
to establishing this relationship. In terms of building political capital, most
participants did not set out to do this purposefully but instead sought to
develop a reputation as a "team player" willing to participate in
campus-wide initiatives and who would return positive outcomes. Participants
expressed that it was difficult to know how much political capital they had
acquired until they attempted to use it towards a goal. Eight of the
participants provided narratives that included applying and using political
capital, with two reporting that their political capital diminished after they
had applied it towards a goal. Other participants suggested that applying
political capital increased their store when it was spent toward accomplishing
higher-profile goals. The importance of communication was clear in the building
reputation theme, several participants indicated that their communication
skills helped establish a reputation for competence and credibility in
interactions both up and down the chain of command. Communication was a key
factor in developing relationships across the institution, particularly with
high-level administrators, and developing relationships was another area of
importance for participants.
Two of the participants indicated that they had and
used political capital in specific areas and for smaller, day-to-day changes.
Eight participants used their political capital for bigger initiatives, such as
budget, human resources, and library space.
Conclusion – While a few of the directors explicitly linked
their activities to political capital and felt that applying their political
capital increased their standing with stakeholders, most participants did not
generally link the development of political capital to individual events.
Instead, they suggested that generally establishing reputation and trust
through excellent communication and relationship building would help them
achieve success toward their goals.
Positioning the academic library in the political
structure of the university is an area of interest in recent research. While
this article focuses on the individual political capital of library directors,
Adam Murray and Ashley Ireland (2018) surveyed university provosts with a
similar focus on effective communication as a strategy for accomplishing goals
in the library. A preprint in the New
Review of Academic Librarianship by John Cox (2018) also explores
communicating value within the university, with a focus on framing library work
through university goals. While these articles take different perspectives from
the topic article, all three describe securing power through relationship
building and effective value communication between university and library
When examining the article through the Glynn critical
appraisal tool (2006), population is an area of interest. The author used
purposive sampling within a limited community of library directors in one state
university system. That system encompasses a wide spectrum of academic
libraries, from community colleges to large research universities, and
information about which type of library the participant directors represented
was withheld to protect confidentiality. There is almost certainly a difference
in administrative structures and strategy between large university centers
represented in the system and much smaller, specialized colleges. The author
described a split between participants who spoke explicitly about political
capital and were intentional about acquiring and using it while others
indicated they did not view this process as a political action. This split
particularly could have benefitted from some exploration of the administrative
structures that these directors were experiencing. The author suggests that
random sampling should be done in future studies of this topic, but comparing
the way library directors perceive political capital between different academic
libraries of different types, sizes, and funding structures also represents a
gap in the literature. Participant information was controlled to protect the
confidentiality of the sample, but it would have been illuminating to show some
connection to participant demographics, since compelling arguments have been
made by researchers such as Barbara Arneil (2006) that our understanding of political and social capital
frequently leaves out diverse perspectives.
This research is relevant to academic libraries
redefining their role within the university, but it is unclear whether this
line of research can be generalized. The political structures of academic
libraries are defined by individual factors like budget, hierarchical
structure, and institution size. This is an important area of investigation,
and it is clear from this research that it is an area of interest for some
library directors, but further studies are needed before we fully understand
the role of political capital in the landscape of academic libraries.
Arneil, B. (2006). Diverse
communities: The problem with social capital. Cambridge University Press.
Cox, J. (2018). Positioning the academic library
within the institution: A literature review. New Review of Academic Librarianship. Advance online publication.
Glynn, L. (2006). A critical appraisal tool for
library and information research. Library Hi Tech, 24(3), 387-399.
Murray, A., & Ireland, A. (2018). Provosts’ perceptions of academic
library value and preferences for communication: A national study. College & Research Libraries, 79(3),