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Volume 16, Nos. 6/7 Sept./Oct. 2002
How-To
Four Steps I Took That Transformed My Solo Corporate Library
by Tom Nielsen

Four years ago I was hired to organize and manage the Information Research Center (IRC) at Hazen and Sawyer, PC, an environmental engineering consulting firm in New York City. Prior to this I had gained 3 years of experience in academic and government libraries but had little understanding of how to manage a special library. In fact, my notions of good library practice were just forming, and here I was taking on the challenge of reversing several years of neglect to bring this company's library back to life.

Believe me, I put those notions to work pretty quickly, and although not everything went as planned, I got results. I managed to increase reference services and significantly expand staff members' access to information. Looking back, I realize that those notions were practical ideas that had made up my professional experience thus far, but together they became a valuable formula with which I was able to transform an isolated library into a thriving Web-accessible information center.

These are the steps that I used to transform my library, and that I'll describe in this article:

As information research supervisor, I am responsible for managing the IRC, maintaining the corporate archives, and providing information services to more than 500 employees in 14 offices from Detroit to Boca Raton, Florida. The IRC collection numbers 10,000 volumes and includes reference materials, standards, maps, government documents, and manufacturer catalogs that all support our work designing private and municipal water and wastewater treatment plants. Although I consider myself a solo librarian, I am grateful to have the help of a full-time research assistant who helped make this transformation possible. Here's how it happened.

1. Establish Patterns of Communication and Service to Users
The corporate library I took over 4 years ago had no professional manager, a DOS-based library catalog, and almost non-existent reference service. Consequently, library patrons didn't expect much. But management did. Upon my arrival they retired the name "library" and handed me the keys to the new "Information Research Center," along with a tacit mandate to work some magic. I quickly realized that I needed a tool with which I could reach IRC patrons and begin the process of earning their trust. At my last job, I had observed how patrons responded favorably to a monthly e-mail newsletter. And since I have a bachelor's degree in English, writing didn't intimidate me, so I decided to try a newsletter of my own.

The first issue of the IRC News was physically distributed to staff in the New York City office only, and it induced some grumbling about billable hours spent reading two pages about the IRC. However, the notion of communicating useful information wasn't challenged. Since then I've made the newsletter available on our intranet, expanded distribution to all offices, and shortened it to four or five concise paragraphs about changes in the IRC or Web searching tips. Each issue causes a spike in usage statistics, a sign that staff members feel comfortable asking for help because they sense that we are concerned about their needs.

Where patron trust really counts however, is in reference service. Patrons of the old "library" weren't used to getting straight answers to their questions, if they even bothered to ask. So for the new IRC I tried to be very responsive, training my assistant and myself to acknowledge patron questions, whether they came to us in person, by phone, or by e-mail. And for in-depth research questions our default answer is to let the patrons know that we'll get back to them. With this obligation we make ourselves responsible for providing either answers to their questions or at least a referral to more information that they can investigate for themselves. As a result, IRC usage has grown steadily, rising 37 percent in the last year, with staff in all offices relying on us.

2. Get Ahead of the Curve
What does it take to get ahead of the curve? Foresight? Experience? Yes, but you can also get ahead of the curve if you know the direction your organization is headed. Often, conversations with your manager or IT colleagues can provide enough information for you to get a sense of the opportunities ahead. Here's how I got ahead of the curve: When I interviewed at Hazen and Sawyer, PC, I was told a company intranet was being planned. Once I started, I heard nothing further about it, but by then I was busy reorganizing and cataloging the IRC book collections. Eventually these physical collections were ready for further exposure so I re-examined the intranet idea as a way to improve staff access to them. Unfortunately, the IT department was swamped trying to bring our local office up-to-speed with technology and couldn't dedicate any time to the intranet. Nonetheless, an opportunity was before me. I had confirmation that the company wanted an intranet, so I could still be proactive and make sure the IRC was ready with its own site.

The intranet didn't go live for another 2 1/2 years, giving me time to refine and expand my HTML and Web design skills while also learning Web-editing software like FrontPage and Dreamweaver. This past April the corporate intranet premiered with the 25-page IRC Web site as its anchor. Consequently, we were recognized in our corporate newsletter for "pioneering internal Web-based communication."

3. Exceed Expectations
If getting ahead of the curve was about making the most of opportunities, exceeding expectations is about taking risks. One of the notions that I took a risk with was starting a Web training class. I wasn't sure whether staff would be interested in such a class, or how management would react to a class with a non-engineering focus. I could have gone straight to my boss, Jim, for his opinion—but I didn't. His time is valuable, and I like to have fully thought-out ideas when I meet with him. So I opened my eyes and ears to see what was already happening in terms of training and a venue for it.

During my observation period I learned that Internet access had recently become available to all employees, and I gauged staff members' interest by their questions to us about Web browsers, Web sites, and even Internet service providers for home Internet access. Additionally, in-house training and vendor presentations were held occasionally in our large conference room, which accommodates computer-based presentations with a projector and screen and outlets for a laptop and Internet access. The clincher, oddly enough, was that these presentations included lunch, which was usually catered. And if your patrons are anything like mine, you know that free food brings them in like nothing else!

Armed with this information, I went to my boss with a plan to offer a 1-hour lunchtime class that would demystify basic Web tools like URLs and the Internet Explorer browser and toolbar. Jim approved the class (and the catered lunch), and although this approval was my goal, I declared my risk a success only after I'd taught the class three times to 50 local employees, and developed and taught another Web searching class with similar results. While exceeding revolves around what your manager expects of you, the most rewarding aspect of this risk-taking venture was the journey. I gained a wealth of knowledge about corporate culture while preparing my class proposal. Now that I've taught the classes, I've gained greater respect from staff as an authority on the Web.

4. Deliver on Promises
One project I had anticipated since my first day of work here was selecting and implementing a new library software package. The existing system was over 5 years old, DOS-based, and available only on the IRC server. And lacking any software upgrades, it worked rather primitively. But I tried to be optimistic, knowing that a lot of work and good experience lay ahead. That optimism came out full-force in my profile of the new IRC in our corporate newsletter, soon after I was hired. In it I named several goals for the IRC, including making a new online catalog available to all staff members at their desktops "within six months to one year." That was a pretty tall order then, because each office maintained only a local computer network and management was still planning the infrastructure for an intra-office network.

In the end, it took more than 2 years to build that infrastructure, but the extra time proved advantageous in more ways than one. It gave me time to investigate and select a new library software package, Inmagic's DB/TextWorks, as well as time to get my own house in order because we would spend the next 2 years re-cataloging the entire IRC collection, a project I had not foreseen.

The first decision was relatively simple. I'd worked with DB/TextWorks before and was attracted to its flexibility and reasonable price. Re-cataloging the collection, however, was the result of much frustration as my assistant and I repeatedly attempted to export records from our existing catalog into DB/TextWorks, without success. Eventually we realized that our non-standardized, non-MARC records were the problem. Inmagic did offer technical support to convert the records for a fee, but I knew each record would require extensive editing anyway.

In March 2000 we began re-cataloging the collection. In March 2001 we hired a part-time cataloger to tackle our collection of documents and company reports. By fall 2001, our core collections were cataloged and we were prepared to install and configure Inmagic's DB/Text WebPublisher, the last step before making our catalog Web-accessible. Finally, in December 2001 the catalog went live, not exactly on schedule, but a promise fulfilled nonetheless.

Progress Is Worth Taking Risks For
I hope these four steps will guide you to a transformation in your own library or information center. I was able to use tools like the newsletter and Web classes to establish a firm sense of trust with my patrons, and then backed it up with responsive reference service. Unfortunately, so much time spent inside the library can keep you from observing and talking to your patrons and managers, which gives you a sense of the corporate culture and direction. Remember that opportunities arise in the most unlikely places. (I used information gleaned from my interview to develop an intranet Web site that, 3 years later, gained us loads of exposure.) Finally, if your library is already in pretty good shape or you've tried newsletters and classes without success, use the steps as a guide and take a risk. There's more than one way to transform a library.


Tom Nielsen is information research supervisor at Hazen and Sawyer, PC, in New York City. He holds an M.L.S. from the University of Maryland in College Park. He is the creator and co-convener of the Solos+ special interest group for solo librarians in the New York City area. His e-mail address is tnielsen@hazenandsawyer.com.

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