Humans of LIBER Interview — David Tréfás, Head of Modern Collections, Basel University Library

Posted: 08-12-2023 Topics: Humans of LIBER

This interview is the final installation of our Humans of LIBER series. During this series, we have featured real people working at the research libraries that make up the LIBER community. By highlighting our community and the people who work in LIBER libraries across Europe, we aim to inspire, connect and strengthen our network – and emphasise the value of being a LIBER Member. We hope you enjoy each of these personal stories from our research library network.

We interviewed David during the LIBER Annual Conference 2023 in Budapest, Hungary. 

I’m David Tréfás. I work at Basel University Library where I am head of Modern Collections. I am also a subject librarian for history and I am part of the senior management team at Basel. I’ve been working there for 14 years now.

I’m a trained historian, and I came to the library because I saw an open position as subject librarian for history. The funding was running out on my research project, so I had nothing to lose. I always enjoyed being in libraries as a user, but I couldn’t really imagine what it would be like on the other side. But once I went through the application process for the job at Basel University Library, I knew that it was exactly what I wanted. I never regretted it. It was a great moment of change in my life – I really love working in the library field.

Working at Basel University Library

There is no ‘normal’ working day, because I have several different tasks and every day looks different. I have meetings on several different levels – dealing with donations, or requests for books, reorganising the team in the library or appointing new people. As part of the Senior Management Team we also develop the strategy and try to steer the organisation accordingly. So, it’s extremely varied. What I like about it is that every day looks different, and I am involved in many aspects of what happens in the library. I can really see how vast and varied this field is.

Challenges in the Library Field

If you don’t act proactively, you will have to move in the end, but everyone else will already be there.

One of the biggest challenges everybody’s talking about is digital transformation. Of course, we try to not just respond to these changes but also to develop proactively. Our goal was to react to the digital transformation by creating an environment where every employee, every librarian in this department, can develop and find a new possibility for themselves. You always have to be at the helm of changes. Sometimes you have to convince others that we need to move now. If you don’t act proactively, you will have to move in the end, but everyone else will already be there.

There are people in the library who have worked there for 30 or 40 years and they have such a long-lasting relationship with the library and the field. Others are new and bring in new perspectives. Those working in medical science often react differently to digital transformations than those working in Humanities. It is good to have that contrast, because some people are inclined to run ahead, and others would just stand still as long as they can. But by bringing these voices together we have a kind of a motion that is not too quick, not too slow. It’s sustainable. It’s a constant walk rather than a sprint. If you start walking on time and find a good pace, then I believe you will get there at the right moment.

I want people in my team to be curious, open-minded, and trusting. If people judge too quickly, good ideas fail to get through.

I think the core skill someone must have to work successfully in the library field is an open mind. Otherwise, you will always be afraid to try new things or to try something again even if it didn’t work the last time. You also need an environment of trust, a good team – and good managers! Building trust in a team doesn’t come overnight. To lose trust you need two minutes, to build it up you need two years. That’s why I want people in my team to be curious, open-minded, and trusting. If people judge too quickly, good ideas fail to get through.

Tackling Challenges as a Library Leader – LIBER Emerging Leaders Programme

Taking part in the LIBER Emerging Leaders Programme was a fantastic experience. I was introduced to a group of 20 like-minded people from all over Europe at the same professional level, with the same curiosity, the same outlook. It was great to discover how we all got to this point and how we had all faced similar challenges to get there.

The seminar with Jan and Roger [trainers in the Emerging Leaders Programme] was phenomenal. The value they brought was not just in the content – the management literature and the exercises – it was in creating a group of like-minded people. Now, a year later, coming back together at the LIBER Annual Conference 2023, it is like a school reunion!

If you have a group like that which is so consistent and so helpful, then it doesn’t matter so much what you learn, but that you learn it together. We have a psychological safety where we can just talk, also about the difficult issues.

During the course, we found out that one of our cohort did not feel comfortable coming to the Annual Conference in Budapest due to LGBTQ reasons. As a group, we were quite active in discussing that issue. We took everyone’s views on board, and not everyone was in agreement with the decisions that we made – and that is OK. In difficult situations like this, we were all able to reflect on what our role was as a leader. How did we want to react in this situation? It was a very important moment for us as a group.

If you have values, you must show them also when it’s windy and stormy.

In my opinion, you can go wherever you want in the world if you declare why you are there. We are currently in a country where LGBTQ rights are under pressure. So, when you host an event here, you have to recognise that, but show the values that you stand for as an organisation. That is the lesson I learned from all of this; if you have values, you must show them also when it’s windy and stormy. You have to show up and declare what you do, and why you’re there.

It takes some courage to stand up and declare the reasoning behind your decision. As a leader, you need that courage.

Since the LIBER Annual Conference I was asked to speak about this experience at the upcoming LIBER Journées, and I’m glad that LIBER is serious about hearing what I learned during this time. I am also grateful that I could join the Leadership Working Group, and I’m looking forward to contributing to its work.

Applications for the LIBER Journées Programme 2024 are open until 30 December 2023. Learn more and apply here

Life outside of work

I love to be with my wife and my children. And I love to play the cello. I don’t have so much free time, to be honest. But when I do have it, I love cooking and hosting guests.

This interview was conducted by Rosie Allison in July 2023. Do you have questions about any of the topics mentioned in this interview? Contact Rosie Allison at 

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