The Corporate Library in Turbulent Times

It seems that almost every day we hear about another corporate library facing financial challenges, being downsized, or even eliminated entirely.  Having spent a good many years of my early career in a corporate library at AT&T Bell Labs, I was interested to hear from two leaders in our field how things have changed.  So I made the l-o-o-o-n-g walk to this session (the room was about as far away from everything else in the convention center as you could get!) and heard two pioneering and award-winning speakers give an outstanding presentation about how to identify warning signs of upcoming trouble and how to behave in challenging times.  It was an outstanding presentation, very well worth the long walk, and to say the least, it brought back many memories for me.

This was a joint presentation by Jim Matarazzo, noted former Dean of the Graduate School of Information at Simmons College, and Toby Pearlstein, recently retired from Bain & Co.  Matarazzo and Pearlstein have written a series of articles in Searcher on corporate libraries and how information professionals can survive in a time of upheaval by recognizing the danger signs and react to them.

Toby Pearlstein and Jim Matarazzo

The turbulence that corporate libraries are currently experiencing is the new constant.  We are always being asked to explain what we do and prove our value to the organization, which makes corporate libraries very different from public or academic ones.  We are having trouble thinking about what to call ourselves and what name to put to our skill sets.  In some organizations, we are trying to figure out who we work for.  This is an extremely challenging environment in which to work!

What did people do with the information they get from the information professionals?  Libraries are not well known in organizations.  If users knew what they wanted, their local information professional can find it.  But for things they do not know about, they turn to the library.  All they want to know is what has been done for them lately.  This is different for special librarians: you have to continually prove your worth.  Often, the person receiving the info takes it over as their own and does not credit the library.  Recent economic difficulties have caused this to change in other areas; now academic libraries are being asked to prove their value  (See a recent ACRL monograph for a detailed look at this subject).

Corporate librarians are in a constant state of having to do SWAT analysis: find strengths, weaknsses, threats, and opportunities coming from the threats.  The best defense is a good offense: you must get out ahead of this and not be surprised at what is going on at your firm.

For a number of years, Matarazzo has been tracking the number of advertised job vacancies in the information industry in New England.  The turbulence in the industry is obvious.

Jobs advertised in the information industry in New England

In the past, if you lost your job, there were many opportunities at new company libraries.  Now it is doubly important to keep track of the state of your firm because few new libraries are being opened.   There are also 40% fewer publicly held firms than there were in 1997.  It is interesting to note that the largest number of vacancies in New England were in law libraries.

We can be masters of our own fate.  Here is a predictive model of a way to think about what is going on in your own organization.  If you can answer “yes” to one of more of the questions, that should be a red flag to you.

This case study of a publisher’s library (the name has been changed) shows some danger signs.

Over 5 years, half the staff had left, and management bought into the recommendations of a consulting firm without consulting anybody in the library.  Are we paying attention?  We are all smart and can read the published information.  Sitting by and watching is not a viable course.  Don’t be caught by surprise–assess where you stand.

You will never have enough resources to give your clients all they want. Competing for scarce resources in a company is how you have to work every day.  As a manager, you must go out into the “real world” of your company and promote your value.  Be aware of where the money comes from and which budget (i.e., capital or expenses).  Get to know your financial people very well and help them understand what you do.

You are what you measure: customers, finances, internal processes, learning and growth metrics.  Look at every one of your services and see if your customers are satisfied with them.  Are people really using them?  If you stopped doing them, would anybody notice?

The SLA Alignment Project identified driving priorities and roles–what librarians want to do and what users want.  Don’t manage containers!  We cannot just do what we want to do or what we do well; we must do what the clients want.  Who are we serving?  Are the clients driving our actions?  You cannot allow a disconnect to continue in your organization because you will never be able to prove your value.  Service models include gatekeeper, intermediary, and facilitator.  There is no single right model of service.  You might play different roles for different customers.  Understand which is the most effective role for the situation.

Strategic planning brings imagination into focus.  Develop an internal vision statement, and refine it with stakeholder involvement (don’t take an “I know what’s best” attitude).  Create a 360 degree view of information needs (ask everybody), and identify and prioritize target audiences (don’t try to be all things to all people).

The well known recent case of the EPA libraries shows what can happen.  The early business case was irrelevant to agency management, and there was no unifying strategy driving roles and priorities.  But the data were all usage based.  The EPA was interested in results, not the numbers.  The call was for a business case, which was not made.  So the funding was jeopardized and some of the libraries were closed.  (Fortunately, protests got the funding restored.)

Scenario planning is a good sustainability tool. Be prepared to participate and position yourself to drive decisions.  We may be afraid of outsourcing, but we have been using alternate sourcing for a long time, so get into the decision process and use your expertise to drive the decisions.  If outsourcing happens, you want to be the one asking the questions about implementation.  Here are some steps to take:

  • Document what you are already doing
  • Brutally review your priorities
  • Honestly review who is doing what and why
  • Position yourself to drive decisions

You must assume every company (including yours) is for sale any time.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor


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