Sunday, April 14, 2013

Librarians should make this investment in themselves.

I was recently sitting in an airport gate and as often happens, I found myself waiting for a delayed departure.  These situations often lead to conversations between fellow travelers and that day was no different.  When the conversation turned to professions, I noted I was a librarian and I received the, not at all unusual response, of a grimace and the question: "Isn't that a dying profession?  I mean everything is online right?  Who wants a paper book anymore?"  

As a result of my years of corporate experience, I see this for what it is; an opportunity to sell my profession and the value of libraries to a person who will clearly benefit from what I'm selling.  By the time the conversation is done, I'm showing her WorldCat and telling her how she can use it to find the knowledge or information, in many different forms, not just books.  She tells me she is a frequent traveler and I show her how she can find out what library is nearest her that can connect her with the knowledge.  She bookmarks the site on her tablet, thanks me and we board the plane.  I hope I've helped to reshape her thinking about  the continuing value of libraries and librarianship.

As I reflect on the experience during the flight, it occurs to me that when these encounters occur and when I do public speaking engagements, I find myself relying on and/or recommending three works over and over.  It also occurs to me that I should make those recommendations more broadly known via this blog because I really believe these three books contain incredibly important information for every librarian to absorb, even though only one of them is written specifically for librarians.  The works are:

  • Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne.  There is no question this book was written for business people, but it's applicability to libraries makes it equally valuable for librarians.  As the title implies, there is "blue ocean" and "red ocean".  The red ocean is the result of bloody competition and the "blue ocean" is a place where organizations can live and prosper because they offer unique value to those that are customers/members of their organization.  Trying to figure out where and how we can offer differentiation for our users is a detailed process involving truly understanding who all are your competitors, what they're offerings do and don't offer, the appeal they have to your common users/members and where you can offer needed products and services to your users/members that they would value deeply.  At the same time the book walks you through making sure that what you do remains consistent with your the core mission of your organization so that you're users/members see it as all related and consistent.   When you get done reading this book (and you'll want to keep in handy as a constant reference), you'll have some valuable tools at your disposal for constantly thinking about how you rise above the commodity level of information/information access and where you can provide valued services on a continual basis.

  • The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser.  In my opinion, this should be required reading for every librarian.  Period. It's that important.  I find myself continually amazed when librarians note their members/users simply go to Google and just accept that's the way it is.  No, it's not.  Not unless you accept it and don't work to change it.  Of course to do that, you have to be able to explain to your members/users, why they're better off talking to you and/or using your discovery tools/approaches when they're looking to expand their knowledge, create new knowledge and how in doing that you'll bring them additional value and benefits that'll make it worthwhile.   Which is exactly why I recommend people read this incredibly important book.  It will help you understand why what we do in libraries is so VERY different than what Google does with their search engine.  It also explains the very dangers that exist to our society and future knowledge creation if we do NOT work to change users/members behavior in this regard.  (Now of course, I realize libraries are not going to replace Google, but we should become the more trusted source of information/knowledge access and creation).  Understanding that differentiation is also critical in being able to do what the Blue Ocean Strategy is telling you, which is to find where you offer unique value your users/customers need and how to extend and benefit from that differentiation.  Together these two books will sharpen your ability to weave a compelling "elevator pitch" that all library staff can use when interacting with library members/users and which can be built upon to offer real and valued new services for your users/members.

  • Finally, I recommend the The Atlas of New Librarianship by David Lankes.  Again, in my opinion, this work should be required reading for every librarian.  Although, I'll note that this work is not a light read in any sense of the word.  It's a massive book because it covers a massive amount of territory.  So, you won't be carrying it along on road-trips (although I have actually done so on occasion - it's very good exercise).  There are few works in our profession that I would consider more compelling, more invigorating or more inspiring than this one.  When you're done with this work, if you don't want to go out and change the world by convincing people of the value of librarianship, you're blood isn't red or your heart isn't beating.  If the size of the work intimidates you, then you can try his subsequent book, which is based on the Atlas and is called Expect More.  While written for supporters and/or board members of libraries, it covers a lot of the same themes, just with less depth.  Still it’s an excellent work as well (and you can get it as an e-book so it's infinitely more portable).  If reading isn't your thing and you’re a audio/visual person, then watch or listen to any of David's talks many of which are on his website.  I do so on a regular basis (my favorite is this one) just because they remind me what we as librarians are about and how we should do our work.  Collectively, David's works are some of the crown jewels of our profession.      

You'll be a better librarian after making this investment in yourself.  You owe it to yourself and to our profession.