What Business Are Libraries In?

If you had to describe what libraries do in 8 words or less (because this fits on a business card, is a nice sound bite, can be remembered and repeated, and can be used in advertising etc) what would you say?

Why is this question so difficult to answer? Why are we not able to concisely and persuasively state what business libraries are in? We’ve been in the business long enough, why don’t we know by now? And why can’t we agree?

Alison Wallbutton wrote an excellent post about a month ago on the need for a collective conversation on what libraries are all about. Why is it so hard?

I think it’s because we’re looking for the perfect answer that encapsulates everything a library is, rather than the essence of what our customers want a library to be. So I’m going to give it a go.

I’d like to start by saying libraries are and can be lots of things. But they are nothing without librarians. Professionally skilled librarians. Librarians maketh a library, and you can agree or disagree in the comments (please do!).

With that being said, I don’t care so much about what business libraries are in, because I think that is a product of a more fundamental question: What business are librarians in?

Again, not an easy question given our diversity of roles and specialisations. But a customer doesn’t need to know this. All a customer needs to know is “what can a librarian do for me?” (Participants of my workshop will remember that a successful project solves a problem to the delight of the customer. :-))

Q: What can a librarian do for me?
A: Librarians find information that Google doesn’t.

The thought process behind this:

  • It encompasses all library sectors.
  • By naming Google, I’ve indicated who customers can compare us to and our point of difference. Whether we like it or not Google and Wikipedia are frequent destinations when customers are looking for information. Librarians are better than Google (or pedantically, Google users).
  • Find information can cover the whole gamut from database searching, readers advisory, reference interviews, and lending desk enquiries.
  • Find information also includes both an information literacy approach and providing answers to questions.
  • Find information that Google doesn’t includes all non-digital resources that are held within our libraries and our communities.

You might ask how this soundbite applies to collection development, technical specialists and other librarians behind-the-scenes. A customer doesn’t care about the research or procurement process involved in manufacturing playstation or Google’s search algorithms. A customer doesn’t care what happens behind the scenes in libraries either. They’re only interested in the end result not what’s required to make something available.

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? Is this the business of librarians? How does this fit with what a children’s librarian does?

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9 Comments

  1. Michelle says:

    As a children’s librarian, I can see Google doing more and more of my job if I’m honest. I’m no longer doing the homework help I did 15 years ago, because as you said, many queries can be answered by a Google search. Some of what I offer, such as Reader Advisory, can also be googled. “My son really liked the Cherub series, what else could he read that’s like it” can be answered by a google search – some library, somewhere will have posted a booklist of “Books like Cherub” on their website, accessible by a google search. I’m predicting that physical books will eventually be replaced by e-books, accessible not by Google but by the internet, and there will be less reason for customers to come into the library. 70% of our questions in the Children’s section are “Can you help me find XXX” – the patron knows the name of the book, just can’t physically locate it. On a system like Overdrive that’ll be easier – the ebook is either “in” or “out”, no physical location to find. So it’ll be the tricky reader’s advisory queries “My daughter is 11, she wants to read teen books but I don’t want her reading teen books with sex and swearing in them”; or “I want a picture book that teaches my child not to give up so easily” – those sort of queries are harder for Google to answer. Maybe that’s what’ll keep me employed til retirement 🙂

    1. Sally says:

      Thanks for your comments Michelle. I wish you well in successfully answering the tricky reader’s advisory queries 🙂

  2. Hi Sally, interesting post, and I am glad I found your blog, which I was alerted to through a comment you left on the wikiman blog. I actually lived in New Zealand for two years after undergrad prior to returning to the UK to study to become a librarian. Since then, however, I have not been following developments in NZ libraries too closely, so I’m enjoying reading your take on them, as well as the issues that affect information professionals globally.

    -Erin

    1. Sally says:

      Hi Erin, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the issues libraries and librarians face appear to be global ones no matter how unique we think *our* library is.

  3. Ali says:

    Hey Sally, well done for indeed giving it a go! I think you are right, there are two questions – what business are libraries in, and what business are librarians are in. I think we would probably looking at a range of positioning statements, depending on the type of librarian. For instance your statement, “Librarians find information Google doesn’t” might work better in an academic environment where there is (huge) value for students in looking beyond Google. In a public library environment, customers might say, “so what” because so many general (for want of a better word) queries are in fact answered by Google. For every positioning statement or slogan we come up with, we have to think “so what”. What value does that statement encapulate for our users. What do you think about a range of postitioning statements that describe the different business of librarians?

    1. Sally says:

      I like the idea of further questioning with “so what” and would be interested in further suggestions that may better reflect a public librarians perspective. Bring them on!

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