Who qualifies to be the National Librarian?

Alarm in South Africa

Alarm bells started ringing in the South African library profession in late May 2019 when news broke that the National Librarian and CEO of the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), Professor Rocky Ralebipi-Simelang, who had been expected to serve a second term, had suddenly left the NLSA. Rocky, as she is known in South Africa and internationally, holds an MLIS from Pittsburgh and a PhD in Library and Information Science from the University of Minnesota.  A respected professional, who was serving as a Vice-Chair of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries (CDNL), she was on the cusp of being elected to IFLA’s Governing Board. The profession’s dismay was compounded when the vacant position was advertised by the NLSA Board shortly afterwards, with a closing date of 14 June. The qualifications for the position were set out as follows:

REQUIREMENTS:  MBA or equivalent. A PhD in Library and Information Science will be an advantage. At least 10 years of experience in a senior management position in a related field • Must be a South African citizen with in-depth knowledge an understanding of the PFMA, NLSA Act and government relations.
SKILLS AND COMPETENCIES: Proven track record in the successful development and implementation of turnaround strategies; strategic capabilities; ability to successfully mobilise financial resources; ability to drive the organisation to a performance based culture; proven mature leadership and management capabilities; tactful diplomat and above average negotiator.

What raised hackles was that an MBA “or equivalent” was stated as the primary requirement, with a PhD in Library and Information Science as “an advantage”. The Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) responded promptly and energetically. LIASA has in recent years has been devoting a great deal of energy to ensuring formal official recognition for professional LIS qualifications and saw this as a set-back to its efforts.  A letter of protest was sent to Chairperson of the NLSA Board and to South Africa’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture. The Executive Director of the African Library and Information Association and Institutions (AfLIA) joined in on 12 June with a letter arguing that, given “the status and role of the NLSA in Africa, as a pace setter in library development in Africa” the NLSA Board’s step would set “a dangerous precedent that other countries may think as the best and so follow to destroy the gains we have made in library development in Africa”.

A petition calling on the NLSA Board to reconsider its job advertisement was launched on Facebook. It attracted 3607 signatures. Interviewed on South Africa’s main morning news programme, SAFM, LIASA President Nikki Crowster pointed out that advertising for a National Librarian with an MBA qualification as the primary requirement “negates the professional requirements of this post and relegates this huge national responsibility to a non-librarian”.

The NLSA Board doubled down with a statement from the Board Chairperson, Mr Themba Thomas Cyril Dlamini, on 19 June:

The current needs and imperatives of the NLSA requires the caliber of candidate who is able to successfully deliver strategic and executive leadership; sound financial management; implement human resources transformation; foster strategic partnerships and effective stakeholder engagement; and promote a culture of research and innovation. The Board highly values the importance of the successful incumbent possessing LIS expertise, qualifications and experience. The application process is open to all suitably qualified individuals.

As the first incumbent of the position in question (1999-2003), I was at first minded to write a letter of remonstrance. The Board’s initial requirement of an MBA – in my not so humble opinion an overrated qualification – and the emphasis on management expertise smack of uninformed managerialism. But a reluctance to intervene in matters relating to a previous employer stayed my hand.

International practice

On reflection I realized that internationally a fair number of the world’s most effective and respected national libraries are directed by leaders who to my knowledge have no professional library qualifications. As a member of the CDNL (1992—2003), and particularly as its chair (1996—2000) I was privileged to work with many of them. For example, under Dr Wim van Drimmelen, an economist, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Netherlands was “punching above its weight” among the world’s national libraries, and Van Drimmelen was respected by national librarians everywhere. Another national librarian who played a leadership role internationally was Dr Brian Lang, a social anthropologist who served as the chief executive of the British Library (1991-2000) during the difficult years of the construction of that library’s new building. He subsequently became the principal of St Andrews University in Scotland. Lang was succeeded by Dame Lynne Brindley, who held professional qualifications and extensive experience in library management. She subsequently became Master of Pembroke College, Oxford University. The current chief executive is Roly Keating, who was a senior executive at the BBC.

It is not unusual for the position of national librarian to be occupied by career civil servants, such as Van Drimmelen, who have extensive senior management experience in other branches of government or in parastatals (institutions funded by government). Often these executives come from a background in cultural or heritage institutions. Others come from an academic background and are well-known as public intellectuals. Both of these career tracks are well illustrated by the French national library. Before its incorporation into the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1994, the much older Bibliothèque nationale was directed by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, an eminent historian and writer. During 1989—1994 a journalist and newspaper editor, Dominique Jamet, led the transformation of the French national library. Subsequent presidents were Jean Favier (an archivist and historian), Jean-Pierre Angrémy (a senior diplomat and academician), Jean-Noël Jeanneney (a historian and national media executive), and Bruno Racine (a senior civil servant and author). The current president, and the first woman in this position, is Laurance Engel (also a senior civil servant and author).  All of them have with impressive CVs. In France, senior civil servants are often members of the intelligentsia.

The French example illustrates that, since libraries are associated with culture and a nation’s literary heritage, it is not unusual for the job of national librarian to be occupied by a person of literary accomplishments. One of the most famous examples of this is the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, an internationally celebrated literary giant of the 20th century. From 1937 to 1946, to make ends meet, he worked as a library cataloguer in a public library. It was a time for him of “solid unhappiness”, but during this period he also wrote some of his most important short stories (Piper 2001).  His philosophically intriguing and influential short story, “The Library of Babel”, published in 1941 in the collection El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), describes a library consisting of an infinite number of interconnected hexagonal galleries containing all possible books, most of them pure gibberish, that can be written with random combinations of the letters of the alphabet.  It is sometimes interpreted today as a prediction of the infinite possibilities and problems of the Internet. In 1955, by which time he was already completely blind, he was appointed as director of the Argentinian Biblioteca Nacional and professor of Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Although any criticism of his leadership of the national library is overshadowed by his literary achievements, his eighteen-year tenure in the post has not been regarded as entirely positive for the national library or for Argentinian librarianship generally. It appears that he devoted a great deal of his time to his literary activities, and was in the habit of dictating his writings to his subordinates during the time he spent at the office (Sabor 1992; Rodriguez Pereyra 1994).

Another Latin American literary figure, Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna, a noted Brazilian writer and poet, whom I had to privilege to meet at a colloquium at the New York Public Library in 1995, took his responsibilities as the president of the National Library of Brazil (1990–1996) very seriously. He launched major initiatives for national public access to libraries, including the creation of a national library system comprising three thousand libraries, led by the National Library, and a national reading incentive system known as Proler (pro-reading) (Romano de Sant’Anna 1996). In 1996 he was dismissed. It was rumoured that his tireless advocacy for libraries had irritated his superiors in the Brazilian government.

The contrasting library careers of Borges and Romano de Sant’Anna illustrate two kinds of tension in the working lives of national librarians. One is the tension between the national librarian’s personal literary and cultural attainments – on the strength of which that librarian may have been selected – and the need to attend to more mundane matters of library management and leadership.  The other tension is that between the needs of the institution the national librarian heads, and the national library’s leadership role in the national and indeed international context.

This tension is also evident in the United States. There the Library of Congress plays a dual role as the reference library for the executive branch of government and as the national library, which requires a tricky balancing act. Can this role be better filled by a professional librarian or by a scholar and public intellectual with good political connections? In the USA the pendulum has swung back and forth. The current incumbent, Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first person of colour to serve as the Librarian of Congress, appointed in 2016, has excellent professional qualifications for the job and is respected in the library profession. She has a PhD from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago, has held a succession of  senior management positions in libraries, and served as President of the American Library Association in 2003–2004. She is the first professionally qualified librarian to serve in this position since Lawrence Quincy Mumford, the eleventh Librarian of Congress (1954–1974).  Mumford was succeeded by Daniel J. Boorstin, a lawyer and historian (1975–1987). The next Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington (1987–2015), was an internationally respected historian and an expert in Russian and Soviet studies. On his occasional appearances at the CDNL, Dr Billington impressed me as a somewhat Olympian figure, who mostly left the LC’s representation to his highly competent Deputy Librarian and Associate Librarian of Congress for Library Services, Winston Tabb. Dr Billington, an energetic and charismatic leader, left an impressive legacy at the Library of Congress, but his leadership came under mounting criticism in the years before he retired at the age of 86 – a reflection not so much on his achievements but on the dangers of continuing in the job too long.

The appointment of Dr Hayden reminds us that it is not unusual for national librarians to have master’s or doctoral degrees in LIS. This has been the case in South Africa since the 1960s. However, we may be in the minority. More often national librarians have professional qualifications in LIS but hold their PhDs in other disciplines. Among the members of the CDNL I can recall some outstanding examples, including Dr Klaus-Dieter Lehman, Director General of the Deutsche Bibliothek, who merged that library with its former East German counterpart Die Deutsche Bücherei and the  Deutsche Musikarchiv Berlin to create the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, and his successor, Dr Elizabeth Niggemann, who has played a leading role in European policy on library digitization. Both of them hold their doctorates in the natural sciences. A scientific background is of value in developing analytical thinking and intellectual discipline. A PhD in LIS should do so too, but not all national librarians with advanced qualifications in LIS have been equally successful.


National librarians have to provide leadership not only to their institutions but also to the library and information professions in their countries. They need to have a strategic vision for LIS in their countries, a vision grounded in an in-depth understanding of the role of LIS in their nation’s development and well-being. They should enjoy the respect of the LIS profession. These attributes empower them to be persuasive advocates vis-à-vis their governments and vis-à-vis a range of stakeholders in the book and information industries, in scholarly communication, and in the cultural, heritage, educational, and scientific sectors.

General conclusions

Let’s assume a contingency table plotting success against qualifications:

Contingency table: LIS qualifications v. Success

In the LIS profession we would like to argue that quadrants A and D will be most populous. My personal recollections do not provide adequate evidence to populate such a table, but I suggest that quadrants B and C will not be uninhabited either. There is much more to the job than professional qualifications. To conclude:

The national librarian does not necessarily have to have professional qualifications in LIS, but:

  1. Professional qualifications (at least a master’s degree) and experience at a senior level in LIS are a great advantage. These attributes, and the recognition they bring in the LIS profession, shorten the learning curve for the new appointee and allow her/him to “hit the ground running” and play a leadership role from the outset.
  2. The national librarian should have advanced academic qualifications, normally a PhD. The national librarian’s PhD need not be in LIS.
  3. The national librarian should be a person with an impressive track record in at least two of the following: in scholarship, as a public intellectual, and in a leadership position in government or in an institution comparable to the national library. The national librarian’s stature should be such that s(he) can gain the respect of the LIS profession, even if appointed from outside LIS.

It stands to reason that a person who combines the above three desiderata will be a strong candidate for the position of national librarian. A person who lacks more than one of them should not be considered.

For South Africa and Africa?

I’m aware that the general conclusions I’ve arrived at will not be to the liking of my colleagues in LIASA and AfLIA. However, given that librarians and information workers in many African countries are engaged in advocacy official recognition of their qualifications and expertise, I do support the position taken by LIASA and AfLIA that appointing a person without qualifications in LIS as South Africa’s national librarian would set a bad precedent.

Why? Here are some consideration to be taken into account in our region:

First, many of our institutions do not have the depth of qualified and expert staff needed to ensure continuity when a leader is appointed from outside the field. In wealthy countries with a long tradition of LIS (such as France, Japan, the UK, and the USA) the national library has highly qualified and experienced staff at all levels, right up to the level of the national librarian’s deputy. If a person is appointed from outside the field, there are good people in place who can guide the new appointee and ensure that the national library’s functions are carried out in accordance with professional best practice. In developing countries appointing an inexperienced and professionally unqualified person could have bad consequences.

Second, appointing a person lacking LIS qualifications as the national librarian would be demotivating for talented senior members of the profession who might aspire to this role.

Finally, in many countries nepotism and “cadre deployment” can result in ill-suited appointees who can do a lot of damage to the national library. As AfLIA argues, in South Africa we need to set an example for the continent. The job should not be given to some minister’s nephew, to a member of the ruling party who has made a hash of his job somewhere else, or to a senior but ineffective civil servant approaching retirement. In our region, appointing a candidate with advanced professional qualifications and experience in LIS makes a powerful statement that LIS is not for amateurs.

Outcome of the advocacy effort

In the September 2019 issue of LIASA-in-Touch, LIASA President Nikki Crowster reported to the profession that its advocacy effort had achieved some success. The Board of the National Library had revised its advertisement on 1 August with the requirement that LIS qualifications would be a requirement for eligibility. However, professional membership  of LIASA is not a requirement (Crowster 2019). The outcome of the recruitment process is awaited.


Crowster, Nikki. 2019. ‘From the President’. LIASA-in-Touch 20 (3).

Piper, Paul S. 2001. ‘For Jorge Luis Borges, Paradise Was Not a Garden but a Library’. American Libraries 32 (7): 56–58.

Rodriguez Pereyra, Ricardo. 1994. ‘La Biblioteca Nacional Argentina, 1901-1993’. Postgraduate thesis, Buenos Aeres: Instituto Torcuato di Tella. Available http://eprints.rclis.org/10025/

Romano de Sant’Anna, Affonso. 1996. ‘Libraries, Social Inequality, and the Challenge of the Twenty-First Century.’ Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 125 (4): 267–81.

Sabor, Josefa Emilia. 1992. ‘The Issue of Librarianship in Argentina’. World Libraries 3 (1). http://worldlibraries.dom.edu/index.php/worldlib/article/view/393.



About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.