But I still need a commitment from all you vendors to whom this column is aimed, that you won’t abuse the information I’m about to impart, that you won’t rush forth to initiate dinnertime telemarketing efforts (aaarrrggghhh!), that you’ll try to do unto others as you would want others to do unto you…. Well, all right, you win! But just this once. I’ve spent too many years serving the interests of my fellow information professionals to desert them now. And remember: restraint and discretion! (Speaking of discretion, there’s probably no reason to mention my name when talking to my colleagues.)
OK, here goes.
I know how you can get librarians to work for you. (Calm down! Where is that promised restraint?)
Of course, all wise and experienced executives in the traditional information industry already know the sweet savor of employing M.L.S. holders, that cozy beddy-bye feeling managers get when they know that their business is in talented, trustworthy hands. However, some leaders of the Net newbies, the dot-coms of the New Economy, may not have gotten the word—the inside secret of success for ramping up staff performance overnight.
But the word is definitely out among those in the know. Decades ago, I got an invitation to chat with Korn Ferry, a top executive-recruiting firm, about a particular position they needed filled. How naive I was in those days. (Shaddup.) It took me half the interview to realize that that they didn’t want suggestions as to whom a hypothetical client should hire. They were the client and I was the candidate. Even if they had made me the offer, I doubt I would have accepted it. After the gloss wore off the fancy address, I suspect the job would have bored me. Heading up the reference service at the nation’s leading think tank had spoiled me for more mundane chores. (Or is that the unmistakable tang of sour grapes?)
Anyway, toward the end of a series of chats, the main interviewer took me back to his office. As the interview wound down, he grinned proudly and said, “You know, I’m the only one in the office who knows about librarians.” Leaning forward conspiratorially, he whispered, “They can do anything … and … you can get them for almost nothing!” But then he leaned back and sighed, “That’s the only problem actually. Sometimes their salaries are too low to meet our minimums.” Of course, that last “problem” may have evaporated since the late 1970s. I should call Korn Ferry and check that out. I happen to know their new director of research quite well. She’s a librarian, of course.
So what makes the professional librarian such an ideal employee? Words fail me. To be more precise: word counts. This column has its length limitations after all. Let me just pick the one aspect that stands out most prominently. Vendors who employ librarians creatively and attentively come to develop a kind of a glow, a mellow radiance, a sense of inner peace. It’s a crazy, frenetic world out there for both traditionals and Net newbies, a time of radical change, frightening dangers, and almost as terrifying opportunities. But in the course of yet another exploding day, an executive will look across the work area with a furrowed brow and see the earnest face of a librarian employee. In that moment, his or her brow will smooth and a smile of sweet and rare contentment will come to the executive’s countenance. This is the “security blanket” effect of knowing that you’ve hired the brightest and the best, people with the talent and training to do the job and, even sweeter, to do jobs not yet even assigned to them. Peace! It’s wonderful.
How can one type of professional hire create such an emotional catharsis? Well, think about it. What problems have frightened the information executives out of their offices and away from the reach of their laptops? Content, content, content. What kind to go after. Where to find it. What to do with it when you have it. What not to do with it when you have it. How to use it to build successful products. What the opposition has. What the opposition could have. What the opposition could do with it. How to spot new opposition.
And what better comfort in a sea of content and customer considerations than knowing you’ve hired information professionals whose entire professional ethic and training focus on connecting the right content with the right people? Think of all the problems they can solve. Even better, think of all the problems they won’t create. Remember last week, when you found that nitwit techie and his friend, the nitwit marketer (must be some sort of a club), who were all set to load your site with articles downloaded from three major newspaper sites, articles for which you had no copyright and no licensing arrangements? Remember their defense for this indefensible action? “Honestly, boss, I’m sure it’s all right as long as we give them a credit. You know, say where we got it.” Wonderful! Not only have you fallen among thieves, but you’ve fallen among thieves who leave business cards with their victims. That should make it even easier for the copyright cops to find their way to your door. This wouldn’t happen with librarians. They already know all about copyright. Not that it limits them unnecessarily. Most of today’s hotshot librarians have extensive experience in negotiating contracts for licensing data.
Sourcing is another skill that librarians possess. If they don’t see the data they want, they go after it. And they’re not prisoners of format. If they don’t see the data on the Web or on a CD-ROM, they won’t assume it doesn’t exist. They’ll track it down in whatever format it might be. This can give the information-industry executive substantial, additional protection from making expensive mistakes. At the very least, the source-minded librarian will inform you of the existence of that 123-year-old traditional print publisher who has all the data you had ever hoped to gather already on the shelf. With sufficient warning, you can make a deal with the supplier of the off-line data, instead of launching an expensive program to create the data, a program that would probably only provide a fraction of the data quality offered by the established firm and none of the prestige or connections. Even if the old firm won’t deal, at least you know what dangers you must handle before you waste scarce resources.
After your librarians have brought you the right data, they then know
how to translate it into customer terms and then retranslate customer questions
into new product and service designs. Ignorant people think of librarians
as narrow-minded and control-freakish when it comes to search terminology,
but that’s only those Library of Congress, MARC-record, AACRII (Anglo-American
Cataloging Rules, Second Edition) obsessive types. You don’t have to hire
them. You can hire reference librarians or advanced catalogers and indexers
who develop their own taxonomies. Most library schools these days inform
students about the formal systems, but they don’t often train people in
The Down Side
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” I can hear you saying. “Nothing’s this good. Where’s the fly in the ointment? When does the other shoe drop?” And you’re right. There are some problems ahead. Librarians may be a lot more fun-loving than their public image would indicate. For instance, have you ever heard the urban legend that a bartenders’ professional association had issued a statistical report attributing the sharpest increase in orders for alcoholic beverages to the timing and location for the American Library Association’s annual meetings? (Apparently you have to wear sensible shoes when you have hollow legs.)
Nonetheless, bringing your new library staffers to the full bloom of their effectiveness may take a little effort on your part. For example, you might try learning to speak their language. Instead of terms like “customer-needs assessment” or “client systems-analysis work-up,” try “reference interview.” Instead of “taxonomy development and application,” you might say “indexing” or “cataloging.” If you don’t feel comfortable using the language of your new hires, don’t worry—they’ll learn your terminology very quickly. The real benefit of attempting to speak in their tongue is psychological. It indicates your willingness to reach out to them, your respect and regard for their skills and background, and your intent to use those skills fully.
You see, librarians as a profession do have one failing. All too often, they have a low sense of self-esteem. In traditional settings, they usually report to people outside their profession, whether clients who may appreciate the results but not understand the skills used to achieve them or M.B.A.’ed CEOs and elected officials receiving reports from library directors rewritten to eschew “library jargon.” And then there’s the sex discrimination aspect that still clings even in this Third Millennium.
As an effective manager, you will strive to overcome any low self-esteem problems when they emerge. You will encourage librarians to participate fully in all your operations, give them authority to match their responsibilities, reward them visibly and often, and fully involve them in all aspects of the business. Occasionally, you may have moments of doubt over these policies. For example, librarians have an ethical commitment as a profession to the quality of data and service to clients. The day will come when you might want to twist the data to suit a particular situation. The librarians will probably oppose you. You may override their objections, but you should still listen to them. The day may come when you find yourself with the opportunity to work a little flimflam that will make some sales. Again, the librarians will probably oppose you and, again, you may override their objections.
Bottom line, your new library staffers come from a profession that intends
to endure, that plans to be in business forever. If you want to set the
same goal for your business, then you might want to heed their advice.
Sticking to high standards of quality in data development and never taking
advantage of customers may lose you some quick bucks today, but they can
also guarantee you’ll still be doing business as long as there’s an Internet.
On the other hand, if gathering intelligence for your long-term business
strategy always includes a quick check of extradition laws around the world,
then perhaps you and your new staffers have some issues to work out.
How Do I Get Them?
Start off with one. Librarians are breeders. If you have a good one, you can use that librarian to find more. Those first ones can also help you develop good working procedures and policies, teach you their language, and expand your notions of what these new Wonder Workers can do.
To find your first hire, you can try local library job lines—e.g., from professional associations like the Special Libraries Association (SLA). If you want your first employee to have more entrepreneurial experience, you might try raiding the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP). These freelance information professionals—librarians without walls—have moved away from “day jobs” but you might tempt them back into the fold. In any case, they represent a great way to get started with part-time help or to quickly expand staff for emergencies.
For your second, third, and 50th librarians, you might turn to library schools. The American Library Association has a current list of library schools on its Web site (http://www.ala.org), though some have changed their names and removed the “L” word. (See, I told you about that self-esteem problem.)
One final factor. Pay them well. You can probably get them for a lot less than they’re worth and this may seem very tempting. But, if you want them to perform at peak levels, if you want to crack that self-esteem problem, if you want their talents to grow into full bloom on your behalf, then they should receive rewards commensurate with their performance. And, by the way, if you expect to see the library schools (with or without the “L” word) still open and find sharp, committed, well-trained new hires waiting for you the next time you go staff hunting, upgraded salaries throughout the information industry will help make that happen.
Now you know. Go get ’em!
Barbara Quint, co-editor with Paula J. Hane for NewsBreaks,
is editor in chief of Searcher, a columnist for Information Today,
and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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