Libraries: An outdated service, or a strategic differentiator? Depends on your perception.

by Bryn Ferris on February 14, 2012

During a strategic planning event that we did for the Canadian Federal Libraries Strategic Network in February 2011, one of the participants asked the Senior Collaboration Lead his opinion on whether Federal Libraries could support incremental (gradual) or transformational (fundamental) change. His response sparked further discussion and eventually led to the presentation The Libraries of Tomorrow.  The text of the speech has been captured below, in the hopes that it might spark further conversation.

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We’ve talked about a lot of transformative change possibilities over the past two days. We’ve talked about embedded librarians and about librarians as consultants.  As a network, we need to say: “You know what – books don’t really matter. They don’t add value because, on their own, books don’t get the information to the people who are making the decisions that really matter.  So we’re going to re-brand ourselves to senior management that we are consultants, highly specialized and already “embedded” in your organizations. We know how to get the relevant information out of the books, off the internet, out  of specialty databases, and in front the people who need it, and we can do it faster and at less cost than anyone else inside – or outside – the organization. We are there to help policy makers make the best possible decisions. We are NOT people who shelve books.”

If we were to do everything possible to re-brand ourselves to say that we are the specialists who will make sure our clients have all the information they need to make the best possible decisions, THAT would be a transformative change. Not for us, perhaps, but in the eyes of our clients, absolutely it would be. And their perception of us is our reality.  We should tell our clients: “If you have a question, don’t ask google, ask us.”

We could choose to re-brand ourselves so that it’s not ABOUT the collection, but it’s ABOUT more effective decision-making.  THAT would be a transformational change in the eyes of senior management.  We are dealing with perception.  When we’re dealing with senior managers that don’t see the value of books on shelves, we say “No, the service we are offering is enabling this organization to make better decisions, faster, at a lower cost, and managing more potential risks.” This would be transformational for them and we would be transforming their perception of us and of the services we offer.

It’s not that we don’t add value, it’s that they look at the budget and say, “Oh, we spend this much on subscriptions. Why do we still have VHS tapes in the library? Does anyone in this organization even have a VHS player?“ But that’s not what librarians are about.  Librarians are about facilitating more effective decision-making.  Librarians are more than just the caretakers of information from the past that will never be used again. Our primary service is not running a rare books room. It’s enabling wiser choices based on more, better, complete, CURRENT information.

And that’s just one possible transformational change that could take place.

We want to get back to focusing on what really matters.  Technological change started in the library.  We made this change come about.  It was librarians who first showed people how to use the Internet.  Libraries were the first place many people went to use the Internet. As librarians, we were transformational and there is every reason for us to continue to be at the forefront of Information management and use.

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