Libraries Need to Realign to Business

Libraries Need to Realign to Business by David Whelan Talk about a post title that is old news. Libraries have been talking about, and in many cases, moving towards closer alignment to the business goals of their clients. This is particularly important where the clients are supporting the library directly. This is clearest in law firms but even subscription or government law libraries have a funding stream that is, in many cases, discretionary. It is not that legal research is discretionary. Lawyers need to do research. The optional part is that they needed spend the money on communal law libraries if those law libraries are not adding value to their law practice. There are dollars available for legal research and law libraries need to show that they are the correct recipient of that funding, that they can provide more than a physical library with information in it. I was interested to see a bunch of blog posts today about the Special Libraries Association (SLA) Alignment process which is highlighting how out of whack librarian perspectives are with those of their own business leaders.

You can see more at the SLA Alignment page, Mary Ellen Bate’s blog (thanks to the hot shots at the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center), and Library Journal.  The most informative file at SLA is the second Powerpoint file, which has information about perceptions of library value, etc.

The poor economy has put a bigger squeeze on libraries, with jobs harder to find and some corporate libraries closing.  While some of our shops are less susceptible to complete closure, there is still the need to show value.  This means measuring what we do in a way that is meaningful for the organization or clients that pay for our existence.  This may mean that we are currently measuring the wrong things, or not presenting them in the right ways. 

There has been a lot of discussion in the public library worlds about creating qualitative, valuation tools that translate library usage into tangible tax dollars:  using an e-book is a $20 value, borrowing 5 music CDs saves the client $50, etc.  But those metrics rarely work for special libraries. 

In law firms, there is at least a billable connection where research can be tagged to a specific client matter.  In subscription and other libraries, that are in some sense “publicly accessible”, it is practically impossible to link usage and expenses to tangible value on the client’s end.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful ways to measure what we do and determine whether, in subscription libraries’ cases, each dollar coming out of a member’s pocket is going towards something useful to the member, as opposed to useful to the library.  Those can be the same thing, but the SLA research seems to indicate we are more focused on using those dollars to support our physical space and collections when our clients value something quite different. 

Another point Mary Ellen Bates and the SLA research points out is that people who work in libraries are able to provide these value added services that are oriented to the business.  It made me think about another topic that seems to cause a lot of hand wringing in the library world, and that is the role of the librarian, and who is a librarian.  It may be that, as we realign how we think of our services and our role in the organization, we have to be less strident about who is called a librarian (or one of the other names that the first SLA Alignment presentation suggests we might be using) and worry more about whether we have the right mixture of people and skills to provide the necessary value to our organizations.   When there are so many complaints about the quality of library school graduates, it may be that the library science degree is not the most valuable measuring stick for the people in our organizations.  People who have customer service or business experience and the ability to provide information services may have as much to contribute to the future library as anyone.

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