Too Bad “Librarian” Doesn’t Meld Well into “Entrepreneur”

So I stopped into the Uncontrolled Vocabulary live discussion forum only to be told that they were previously discussing my “We Asked for 2.0 Libraries” post from a few days ago. Besides being a bit surprised (though after today I have discovered that the post has potential to beat out my “no brainer” posts for most visited post ever), it was an interesting experience because I got to be part of the epilogue to the discussion and then had to go back and listen to the podcast to hear what was actually said about me.

There were alot of good points made, none of which I could really argue with. In fact, many were echoing some of the things I was trying to say. For instance, we are getting to the stage where Library 2.0 (for many) is going to die out as a buzzword. As one person noted, “maybe we should stop talking about the 2.0 thing and just get back to doing it” (rough quote).

There was one point, though, that could have been covered a little bit more, because it is essential to my argument. Basically, the most important change that Library 2.0 brought about was a change in [some] librarians. As I thought about it today, I thought — hey — it’s almost as if librarians are finding their own niche markets and acting like entrepreneurs.

The Librarian Entrepreneur?

It’s not an uncommon thing in the business world for employees to see opportunities that their organizations are not willing to jump at, break off and start their own businesses. It seems to me that librarians are doing something quite similar to this. To be realistic, there are some important differences:

  1. 2.0 Librarians are not exactly making money from their entrepreneurial activities.
  2. Most of the librarians are not quitting their day job.
  3. If anything, librarians are spending their own time and money to make these neato things happen.

Take the Uncontrolled Vocabulary podcast as an example. Someone (namely Greg Schwartz and Mary Carmen Chimato) recognized a gap in professional development — namely that librarians do not have the opportunity to discuss library-related stories and articles in real time. So they take a few Web 2.0 tools and turn them into a radio-talk show. Or a seminar class that works 10 times better than most I’ve experienced in University. This is entrepreneurship at its best — only better because it didn’t cost me anything to participate. 🙂

Librarians have many the same frustrations now as have existed probably since the times of Alexandria. Library courses with dubious relevancy, colleagues refusing to learn anything outside of their comfort zone, change occuring at a snail’s pace and so on to name just a few of these frustrations. What’s different is that individual librarians are taking proactive steps to solve hard information access problems as if they were individual library entrepreneurs. The good news is that, on the whole, libraries are letting their librarians be these entrepreneurs because they recognize that, in the end, if the public sees their librarians as important figureheads, so will they see their libraries as important too. They may be doing this in lieu of change but let’s face it, change is hard — and worse, sometimes it takes time and money that libraries do not have.

These activities are beneficial beyond libraries too. Let’s face it, the idea that libraries could be obsolete by the next generation is not a new one. This idea — as it should well be — is equal parts something to scoff at and something looming over our shoulders. This entrepreneurial style of library service could well be a savior for people trying to access free information if there ever came a time when libraries were shut down for lack of interest. It’s almost as if librarians are applying war paint so they can re-invent libraries should such a tragedy ever happen. Like it’s not a bad idea to learn karate on the off chance you have an intruder in your home, it’s also not a bad idea to practice starting new services from scratch in case that’s what we have to do. Many librarians do not see themselves in a particularly privileged social position just because they have a Masters degree and this is such a positive step that I can’t help but envision one of my favorite librarians inventing something so unique that journalists will be mythologizing about it for centuries later. Ok, that’s a dream — but it’s not exactly an impossible one.

Entrepreneur vs Professional

There is no doubt that I am introducing a false dichotomy, but I am doing so to point out the tensions between professional work and taking things into ones own hands. Professionals depend on peers to establish credibility. A good doctor is most often given that title because other doctors have bestowed it upon him or her. In most established professions, mere survival is not a measure of success. Because professionals often strive to achieve unachievable goals (ie. the judge’s ultimate goal is justice — but no judge has ever seemed to have worked him/herself out of a job), survival is often a given. Promotion is often described as being bestowed based on something called merit — which, while a bit mystical ultimately means “you can’t get credit in this field by just surviving at your job.” A failure to survive in a profession is a “true” failure, largely because it usually means the professional breeched ethics somehow or has been proven incompetent.

Entrepreneurship is measured most emphatically on making as large an organization as possible survive for as long as possible. Most people will marvel at the entrepreneur that managed to keep their business open for any length of time longer than five years. That’s because even the most lucrative business can be brought to its knees very quickly by a tough competitor. A failure to survive in the entrepreneurial realm is not a true failure, because it is expected that new business ventures will fail from time to time. Most businesses, on the whole, do fail because markets shift, competitors seize new market opportunities and so on.

To the entrepreneur, peers are the competition — the enemy and not to be trusted. While seeking the respect of peers, they do not count on them for status or promotion. Their friends are the people they serve — their users. Users/customers tell the entrepreneur that their ideas matter. The more customers, the better the idea.

It seems to me that librarians, though professionals, have taken considerable pride in their survival over the past few decades, despite the continuous banter that computers, then the internet, then Google, then digital media and social softwares will eventually take over. The user/customer focus, and complaints about systems made for librarians also implies a call for a more entrepreneurial style of service. Add other calls for things like taking risks and trying new things and it is clear to me that the call for library 2.0 is a call for entrepreneurialism in libraries.

You simply can’t tell me that if some god made all the libraries disappear right now, you wouldn’t have a big bunch of ex-librarians working at mcdonald’s during the day and still helping people find information at night. (Moreover, I bet those people happily would be paying those ex-librarians a nice heavy dollar to do it for them too).

Don’t get me wrong here, either. I am not saying that this entrepreneurial trend is unique to librarians — it is a global thing. There are people from all walks of life realizing that their ideas could mean something in the broader scope and act on those ideas by starting blogs, making YouTube videos and so on. It just seems that librarians are doing it surprisingly large numbers.

Keep the Professional Values, but Grow the Entrepreneurial Spirit

This brings me to another point made at Uncontrolled Vocabulary. I mentioned the demographic trend of low income people traveling to areas where there are few services (besides libraries) to support them. The reply came back that librarians are trained as social workers, so why should libraries be homeless shelters?

This is a very good question. In some cases it is a serious question — for instance, when a person has a mental illness they should be treated by people with an awareness of mental health medications, not by librarians. Drug abuse is another arena where, clearly, librarians are not equipped to help out.

But, for 90% of the cases 90% of the time, libraries are the ideal spot for low-income and homeless people — precisely because we are not trained as social workers. In my view, this is, in part, because of the adaptive, entrepreneurial side of many librarians. As folks like Jon McKnight and others have claimed, social problems are not solved most times by professionals making people better, but by communities seeing their own strengths and using those strengths to cope with their own unique situations. If librarians behave more like entrepreneurs — wanting to impress their customers more than their peers — then the opportunity to help people help themselves is all the more possible. That is why I advocate the teaching of community development strategies such as open space and appreciative inquiry in library schools. When seen without preconception of what information services are, these strategies are knowledge sharing strategies — equally valid as Library of Congress subject headings or any system of social tagging. Moreover, these strategies are relevant to the actual business of libraries (particularly public libraries) themselves — namely the development and support of self-directed, knowledge curious individuals. Continuing to be a “catch-all” social/community service is a key opportunity for libraries and a natural expansion of traditional library services.

All in all, I recommend finding yourself joining the folks at Uncontrolled Vocabulary or listening to the podcast for the last episode. Obviously, my brief moments on the show have given me a lot to think about and they should do the same for you. Go for it: it’s the entrepreneurial thing to do. 🙂