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. 🙂

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

  1. Hi Ryan! Thanks again for joining in Thursday night. It was really great to have the author of something we were discussing presnet to comment. I hope you realize that, at least for me, I do agree with your assessment. I am one of the people who really wants to stop talking and just start doing, changing the way we operate on a daily basis as an organization and with one another.

    Re: homeless in libraries: I sit onthe fence with this one a lot. My heart breaks everyday when I see it, and I go out of my way to be helpful, kind and respectful, as does everyone ion my library, but at the same time I get angered by the fact that this is the only alternative. I do feel like the city should take up the responsibility of providing enough services for homeless people. I don’t mind that they come into the library to read, use the computer, sleep, etc. but it does nother me that we are pretty much the only “safe” place they can come during the day to nap uncomfrotably in one of the chairs. I have yet to deal with a belligerent, abusive, homeless person who may be suffereing from an illness or other type of problem, but if and when I do, I can see how that might be something very upsetting. For me, that would not sour my view of my job or of my patrons, but it may for someone else.

    This is getting long, but I wanted to say thank you again, and let you know that I thought your contributions to the discussion were wonderful and I hope you join in again. UV is all Greg. I just filled in for two weeks, he should get all the credit🙂

    I like the idea of entrepreneurial librarianship. It would definitely change the landscape quite a bit!

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  2. Hey Mary — I guess I see service to the homeless as one possibility for entrepreneurship in libraries. The reality for most libraries is that the budgets are so tight that they have to consider where the resources are going to go, and the community is one really good way to make that decision. Lots of homeless people and no services for them?

    Well, all other things equal, it falls on the library to serve them somehow. Maybe a couple of $1 shower stalls are things you should consider building. We could say “that’s not what a library is for” or we could say “well, we are a public space and there is a community need.” And if it really bugs folks, maybe there is a community partner that could manage that piece for them.

    I’m not saying that shower stalls belong in all libraries, though — I’m just saying that libraries (public ones especially) have to look beyond the Gorman-ish activities we learn in library school (that a whole whack of librarians I know say were a waste of time) and respond to community needs.

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  3. Ryan,
    I just discovered your blog a few days ago and enjoy reading your thoughts. I really like the comparison of librarian and entrepreneur. It does open a new mind set that could help how we look at new ideas. Thanks for making that connection.

    The whole homeless issue just makes me mad. We try to be as understanding and helpful as we can be at our library and fortunately have had very few problems over the years. Many of our homeless were former patients and had support systems to help them live to varying degrees in the community. Those systems definately had their problems as well, but at least these people had a support system with trained individuals working with them. When our government decided that this should become a locally funded issue it fell to institutions like libraries and other poorly funded social agencies to provide that support. We don’t have the budgets or trained staff to truly give them what they need, but we do the best we can with what we have. At least most librarians are caring individuals who try to help. I’ll get off that soapbox now.

    I love the creative(entrepreneureal) thinking of the showers in libraries. To look at the idea from an administrative perspective: You bring me the idea today. Our Board just approved the 2008 budget two weeks ago. Even one shower stall will require significant plumbing, privacy, reservation system, soap, towels, laundry facilities, etc. In others words, it won’t be cheap. We did not include that in the 2008 budget. Assuming I agree with you that it is a need and a good solution to a problem, I have two choices. I must either cut something else that benefits customers or wait until we prepare the 2009 budget to include it. Assuming we have to wait, it means your solution can’t possibly occur until sometime after January 1, 2009! Definately not a direction we want to go because it will be a year and a half until it happens, it’s a problem now. So to bump something from the 2008 budget, I need to determine about what it will cost and then find that money somewhere else. At this point, I begin comparing how many people use a service, etc. Also, I need to either put a shower in both the men’s and women’s restroom (at least the plumbing is in place, it just needs to be adapted) which means eliminating 2 stalls, or I can do away with the paperback collection which takes up about the same space. To have any hope of getting this change past the Board, I’ve got to have answers to these types of questions and many more. At least, that is what might happen at my library. Hopefully, this gives you some idea of what is going through your director’s head when a new idea is presented. I don’t think that administrators as a group do a very good job of explaining these situations.

    That being said, I completely agree with your concept of all staff becoming entrepreneurs. While the shower thing might not become a reality, somewhere in the discussion an idea may be put forward that will. In the long run, we all win from this type of thinking.

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  4. Hi Library Admin,

    I figured that someone would get at me about the pre-planning and approvals needed for my sweet little idea. 🙂 Not to mention that going after capital dollars is like pulling hen’s teeth in just about any context.

    But how about this: a librarian(s) recognize the community need for bathroom stalls in or nearby the library. Instead of the institutional response of getting permissions and setting plans and proposals (that may or may not work in the real world), they either 1) create an open space/appreciative inquiry session or 2) join someone else’s.

    Then the idea of “shower stalls in the downtown” or “public buildings and the homeless” becomes an agenda item and community members come up with the solutions based on what they know. For instance, here are some possibilities:

    1) Library sets up a partnership with a local YMCA/rec centre so that when a homeless person gets kicked out of the library for smell (probably the very worse “kick out” experience a librarian could ever have), they are offered a free pass to take a shower.

    2) Maybe communities with homeless populations go for the “multi-use facility” model of library, so that rec centres and libraries co-exist (I know these have their problems as well).

    3) Maybe the proposal makes some small business person see a business plan in this project.

    4) Maybe a member of the Salvation Army realizes that the problem is not the availability of showers, but some other solvable problem like the lack of a clothing thrift store or something like that.

    So, I guess my idea of library entrepreneurship is not just the ability to come up with ideas to support community needs, but to use support mechanisms (like appreciative inquiry, asset based community development etc.) that get the grass roots community either working to solve the problem themselves or advocating to get institutions (meaning all levels of accountability) onside, hopefully with the right level of public (or private) dollars to support them.

    Mind you, the problem of the homeless in public institutions is only one example of a gazillion possible that could be addressed this way. Actually, I’ve seen it work. A branch manager recognized the “canary in the mine” that teens were moving en masse to her community with little to no resources (no rec centres, etc.) to keep them occupied. A few important meetings, a couple of partnerships and one year later and we have great teen services in that area, backed by community leaders, businesses and whatnot. The public also sees that library as an important leader in that community.

    I guess I see community need and information need as the same thing in the end. Communities need ways to understand and solve their own problems. History has shown time and time again that the information needed to solve these problems often sits right in the minds of the community itself. Helping people access that sort of information may be just as important as helping people find the right books or technology.

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  5. Ryan,
    Some really great ideas! We are trying to make sure we are at the table for all types of discussions in the community. As in many communities, the library is not generally though of in the context you are promoting. To my mind, this type of “community convener” resource for all types of problems is a logical extension of our history and most definately a growth from the “2.0” mindset. We find we have to politely but firmly insert ourselves into the discussions with a lot of people looking at us like we’re the “thing that doesn’t belong” in the picture. They quickly come to understand that we have a huge amount of expertise and resources at our disposal and can bring a lot to any conversation.
    A great aspect of this is that it doesn’t have to cost much money except for the staff time involved in attending the meetings. The research, etc. is what we do everyday anyway and most of us love it as well!

    Changing this mindset for administration will take some patience. Most current administrators trained under very different conditions and often a response during a very harried day will be based upon long-term experiences. I believe that most administrators truly want what is best and are willing to learn new things. The difficulty is finding the time and energy during a day with a long list of demands to learn a change in behavior. But we can learn and change. It is vital that we do!

    Keep putting your thoughts out there. I like the way you think.

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