Building Project Management Skills as a Student

by Emily Powers Souza

As librarians’ roles evolve, project management skills are becoming increasingly significant to potential employers. Library students interested in technical and leadership positions may want to acquire project management experience while still in school. This can be challenging, since the nature of a project manager’s role involves levels of responsibility that may not be given to graduate students.

Some ways to attain this experience may include volunteering on digital projects, involvement with professional organizations, or taking a leadership role in group classwork. Internships and pre-professional jobs may offer access to relevant professional development workshops—I attended a 2-part project management course run by the project management office at my internship site, which gave me a valuable overview of project management concepts and practices.

For a look at one specific LIS student/project manager experience, I sent some interview questions to Chelsea Gunn, who managed a digital library project for a class we both took at Simmons College GSLIS. The class collaborated on a semester-long project and built a digital library showcasing materials from the Simmons Archives. This was a complex undertaking involving multiple working groups of students with overlapping deadlines and dependencies, and Chelsea made sure our deadlines and standards were met.

Can you introduce yourself, Chelsea?

Prior to attending Simmons, I studied English and Creative Writing in Pittsburgh, PA, and because of that background, I am particularly interested in working with collections related to the humanities. I graduated from the archives track in GSLIS in May 2012, and spent my summer as the library intern at the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. Currently I’m working as a Field Surveyor for the RHODI Project ( at the Rhode Island Historical Society. The RHODI Project is a year-long grant-funded project surveying the history and heritage sector or Rhode Island, with the intention of creating a comprehensive directory of those organizations and their programs and collections, as well as of assessing the needs of the sector within the state. I also work on a contract basis for the Digital Ark in Providence, doing project-based digitization for cultural heritage organizations.

Can you talk a little about your experience as a project manager while you were an LIS student?

I served as the project manager for the Simmons GSLIS Digital Libraries course, in which the class forms committees to digitize a scrapbook from the college archives and create a digital exhibit to preserve and share its contents. My main responsibility as such was determining the critical path of the project, and upholding the deadlines established for each leg of the work. I also set the weekly agendas for our classes, and facilitated the group meetings. It was an interesting experience for me because I had never been charged with looking at the “bigger picture” issues of a project in this way, and I certainly learned a lot from it.

What were some challenges you faced?

Because we were creating a digital library from start to finish in barely three months, a good deal of the committee work was interdependent and managing those overlapping deadlines was very challenging—within a short span of time, you want to be sure that each committee has enough time to do their work well, without cutting into the time of other committees who are waiting for that finished material in order to begin their own work. Enforcing deadlines while being sympathetic to the time crunch of the project, as well as students’ commitments to jobs and other coursework, was a difficult line to walk.

I have also noticed that when working on a tight schedule, technology likes to throw a wrench into things. In the case of our project, a scanner that we were using to digitize the scrapbook began to die, and compromised some of our master files. This meant taking the time to re-scan and re-edit the corrupted images in order to have them ready for our database committee. To some degree, planning for those kinds of problems is impossible, but I suppose it’s always important to remember that any problem is possible.

What are some things that you learned during this project that you’ve found professionally useful?

I would say that the number one lesson I took away from this is that specificity is incredibly important, both in creating deadlines and communicating with colleagues/teammates. After having the experience of managing that project, I can see the value in placing much more specific, step-by-step deadlines, whereas in the past I would usually focus more on the final, major deadline. Because my current position with the RHODI Project is grant funded and has a definite end date, rather than simply saying, “I need to visit and survey 250 organizations this year,” I have broken my work down step-by-step by the week. Likewise, when communicating my progress to my supervisor, I know that it’s much more helpful to give specific details of my progress, rather than a general or vague report. The more specific you are, the fewer surprises there may be in the final hour. As a the Digital Libraries project manager, I was always especially grateful for the groups that gave detailed weekly progress reports, and I try to keep that in mind whenever I report to my project manager now.

Thank you, Chelsea!

If you’re interested in learning more about project management, here are some resources I’ve found useful: