Knowledge and the Librarian

Larry Prusak’s interview in the most recent Special Libraries Association (SLA) Information Outlook jumped out at me for a number of reasons. For one, I loved a book he wrote on social capital. It has had a long term impact on how I think about my role in whatever organization I am in. It has helped me to look past the “what” that I do and think about who I interact with and how I can extend that reach. For another, the role of the librarian is fluid and the shift to a knowledge environment and away from a strictly information world is a current issue. His thoughts on how we might make that shift are worth thinking about.

If you’re an SLA member, you can read the article online here.

The interview is interesting, although if you’ve read either Prusak’s In Good Company:  How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work or Seely Brown & Duguid’s Social Life of Information, you’ll be familiar with much of his thinking.  Two ideas in the interview struck me as particularly interesting.

Legal Research is Not That Important to Most Lawyers

First, he disagreed with the role of the librarian or information professional as a gatherer of information that is eventually distilled into knowledge.  His perspective was a corporate environment but it applies the same to the legal world.  Lawyers do not make decisions based on case law or statutes alone.  They talk to their colleagues inside their firm – even if that’s the bunch of solos who get together for lunch – and tap other resources.

When I look at how lawyers use our electronic resources – and how often – it’s clear that it is just one of many information sources, and not always an important one.  While it is probably malpractice not to use LexisNexis or Westlaw when dealing with court documents, it may be that peer input – or a good continuing legal education course binder – is good enough for most transactional situations.

That does not mean legal research is not important, but placed in the context of a law practice, it is a small part.

Low Value Librarians Need to Change Their Perception

This leads to his comment about the lack of respect librarians get.  Despite never-ending hand-wringing and regular articles on how to market and promote ourselves, we frequently do not have a place at the table.   Prusak says that, if librarian’s don’t change, we will slowly become “functionary clerks.”

I have a slightly different take, because by the time librarians are perceived as functionary clerks, management is probably zeroing out their budget line.  For those who champion librarians as a profession, the functionary clerks will be other people who can manage the low value gatekeeping that is in the umodified future.

Another blog that I follow – Designing Better Libraries – talked about a similar concept and referred to article that the blog author, Steven Bell, had written in the August/September 2009 American Libraries, called From Gatekeepers and Gate-Openers.  Gatekeepers are the folks holding the fire hose.  The point is, anyone can hold that fire hose.  As the graphic included in the Outsell-inspired Quantum Dialog paper called Creating Value-Added Research and Analysis, page 7, suggests, gate-keeping does not add a lot of value.

As we attempt to meet our customer’s needs, which a 2008 LexisNexis survey of lawyers suggests is as comprehensive as possible an electronic resource (and implicitly is unmediated), we increase the likelihood of being gatekeepers.

How do we climb the value-added continuum?  It’s tricky, as some of my public-facing law library colleagues have reminded me, due to unauthorized practice of law statutes.  By staying away from legal advice, and focusing on the information, we stay on the sunny side of the law.  But we also solidify our position as keepers of physical spaces filled with physical objects, as experts at online legal research that isn’t perceived as necessary to most lawyers, most of the time.

Bell’s article and the Prusak interview both talk about how it’s not so much that we hold the fire hose, but that we have relationships with the people who live in the burning building.  The value isn’t in our knowing A or B, but, by knowing both, being able to connect A to B, backstopped by our information expertise.

Prusak talks about getting out of the library.  Here’s a great post from the Embedded Librarian about the Prusak interview, for those who want to get a perspective from someone who is embedded.  One of my former mentors – now retired in Arizona, soaking up the rays – used to tell me to stay “in the mix”.  Less embedded, and more like Prusak’s suggestion, it is to get out of the library and touch other people inside and outside the organization.  This works whether you’re at a corporate, a non-profit, or an academic or other library.  And it’s not about marketing:  you’re the key, not some branding exercise.  It’s about taking the opportunities that are presented, whether they are directed to you or not, and working on them.

Like what?  How about:

  • Shooting an e-mail to an IT colleague or someone in finance – groups you may not normally work with – on a topic that you think might be useful to them.  I liked this September 2009 blog posting by Michael Schrage at the Harvard Business Review, where he uses the term “forwarding quotient”.  This is not the mechanical setting up of an e-mail alert for somebody, or even the slightly better human-intermediated e-mail alert that has some additional tailoring.  This is something immediate, out of the blue, that shows you’re thinking about what they are doing and that you’re available to help.
  • When you hear – often not directly in the chain of command but, as Prusak’s In Good Company, through the informal organization network (read=grape vine) – about someone asking a “how can we do X” problem, and X is something that your group can handle, put yourself in that person’s path.  You may not do it directly, but find a peer and have them help you.  They may get a benefit from being able to offer you as a resource, since they’re helping to solve the problem.  Note:  if the library takes the position that “we don’t do that”, you’re going to miss opportunities.  Some of these opportunities are going to be unusual, relying on the capabilities of just one of your team.  So what?  Get them in the mix and see where it goes.

This is along the lines of proactive reference.  While the library director or information center manager should lead, there are opportunities for librarians at all levels.  The more staff within the library are connected to other parts of the organization, the more aware they will be of opportunities, and the more likely SOMEONE in the library will be “top of mind” when an opportunity comes up.

The difficulty is that we need to transition while still managing the expectation of handling the fire hose.  But where providing access to the collection and reacting to reference inquiries might have been our primary roles, we need to shift how we are perceived so that collection management is where it should be – behind the scenes – and activities valued by our organizations, whatever those might be, are out front.