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New Management Realities for Special Librarians
By ,
May/June 2016 Issue

“As businesses come to place new emphasis on the ‘information advantage’ they hold, what’s to become of that traditional bastion of information, the corporate library?” Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak asked that question 23 years ago in an International Journal of Information Management article provocatively titled, “Blow Up the Corporate Library” [5].

Information professionals find themselves posing roughly the same question today. What is to become of the traditional delivery methods of information services within an organization? If you have asked yourself and your colleagues this question recently, good for you. You are on the right track to figuring out an answer and, even better, to developing a strategy built around an answer. If you find this question too frightening or simply too hard to ask, or worse, will not take the time to ask it, then “stick a fork in it.” You and your career are done (at least at your current employer).

It is interesting to look back on what was, at the time, a revolutionary call to rethink the role of the library within an organization. Have things changed in the last quarter-century? How is the profession today facing the challenges of re-characterizing the role of information professionals to foster sustainability and to contribute to employer success as well as their own?

It is important to remember that when Davenport and Prusak did their research, most libraries—corporate libraries, in particular—were in a tug-of-war with their organization’s IT department. The early 1990s were the heyday of confusion between the “pipes and water”—with librarians believing that IT’s forte lay in building the infrastructure (pipes) needed to enable distribution of the content (water) identified by information professionals as vital to their organization. Meanwhile IT contended it was better positioned to manage it all—the pipes and the content flowing through them. The pendulum of organizational investment had swung toward technology, not simply as a tool to help achieve business ends, but as the overarching driver of business ends. As a result, librarians were in imminent danger of being marginalized at the very time when their unique skill set was most needed.

“Blow Up the Corporate Library” argued that the “warehouse model” was no longer the appropriate concept for libraries. As warehouses, libraries and librarians did not integrate well with the businesses they served or other information-oriented functions. The value they delivered could not be articulated to the business’s advantage. The vision of what was possible appeared clouded and constrained by the walls surrounding the physical collections.

Davenport and Prusak debunked the concept of the library as simply a room filled with books, favoring a new concept of information services not constrained by walls or a “low-level box on the organization chart.” Instead, the new concept was for content and services delivered by librarians with unique skill sets, a concept that would lay to rest the stereotype of librarians being more concerned with the needs of their collections than with the needs of the business.

The Slow March to Reality

While information professionals may have been slow off the mark in moving away from antiquated service models, inroads have been made in creating and implementing a panoply of new ones driven by the priorities and needs of each organiza tion. The “expert center” and the “network”—two alternative models advocated by Davenport and Prusak—have been successfully adopted and tweaked over time by many information professionals in many different kinds of organizations. Some libraries became knowledge management centers [25].

Information science skill sets, based upon and often including the most valued of traditional services, coupled with inno vation tailored to ever-expanding employer needs, have both a spatial and an intellectual context. Information professionals are frequently “embedded” with their customers, enabling a level of understanding and partnership that each values highly [27]. Industry experts provide a well-respected and desired depth of research beyond what typical customers could do on their own. In many organizations, librarians train their customers to become better judges of information veracity, leading to more efficient and effective decision making.

However, it is well-documented that most nonlibrarians responsible for managing the information function (or figuring out how to employ the skills of an information professional) have no real understanding of the role of information in their business. They don’t know what is involved in assembling, creating, and managing a portfolio of content and services that meets the needs of the business. Surveys as early as the 1990s and as recent as 2014 reveal that two-thirds of CEO respondents are not able to describe the value of their organization’s library or librarian. This is not a “new management reality,” this is the “continuing reality!” [14, 16, 17].

A Crash Course in Today’s Economic Realities

A few years ago, we looked at a variety of forces pressing on the information management (IM) function and its future [14]. These forces included the need to demonstrate the contribution of IM to organizational success, the need to align information services (IS) with organizational goals, and the impact on IM of economic exigencies globally. The confluence of these forces is overwhelming the IM function in virtually every organization. However, even those who monitor IM functions at the macro level do not seem to be considering these trends.

For example, the “Annual Business Survey” compiled by Allan Foster for the past 25 years covers between 15 and 20 business-related libraries in the U.K. [9]. Foster assumes that what trends are apparent for these libraries may be extrapolated to the U.S. Even though Foster’s type of survey is rare in our profession, he gives scant coverage to the overall impact of the economy on business-related IM functions. In fact, this entire report has only 10 lines in the “Executive Summary” and 38 lines in the body of the text devoted to the economy and what it means for IM. This omission seems illogical since the success of any IM program is inextricably connected to the ability/willingness of the organization to provide the resources to support it.

Moreover, in 2013, a global survey by Bain & Company, Inc. found the confidence of executives trending downward and a new set of priorities driving their decision making [24]. They were risk-averse, focusing on revenue growth, cost reductions, and increased profits. These priorities have implications for IM. The need to demonstrate how information management helps the organization achieve its goals is critical for success and sustainability.

Looking ahead, we see the U.S. growing at a rather slow rate, with Europe and Asia showing meager rates of growth as well. China, now the largest contributor to global growth, has stumbled, and its rate of growth has suffered. With all of this as background, Ruchir Sharma warned that a global recession may be brewing in China. He notes that in the past, most recessions started in the United States [26].

The economic warnings have been all around us, but are we paying attention? Geopolitical instability was a top risk to global growth according to a 2014 Bain & Co. Inc. survey of 1,200 worldwide managers [24]. The same Bain survey found North American and European executive confidence down, and these feelings continued until the end of 2014.

Reports in early 2015 noted concerns about the lack of growth in China and continued worries about geopolitical instability. At the year’s halfway mark, in the most recent Bain & Co. Inc. survey, executives in North America and Latin America were “downbeat” about the economy, while those in Europe appeared the most positive. Yet, looking ahead, profit growth is projected to decline. IM managers who do not realize the impact of this confluence of forces and cannot readily adapt their services to match will likely find themselves swept away.

Is It Murder or Suicide?

The 2008 SLA Alignment Study found a significant disconnect between what customers of IS wanted and valued and what librarians were doing [28]. In 2013, the Financial Times partnered with SLA to survey a large number of information professionals and corporate executives [6]. Still, the majority of corporate executives did not know how their library and IM contributed to the success of the organization.

Repeated warnings reflecting this disconnect have appeared in the literature, much of it sponsored by SLA. More than a hundred years ago, in 1914, John Cotton Dana cautioned the members of our profession that “the old type of library must modify itself in accordance with the new needs which the evolution of knowledge … have created ….” [10]. More recently, Linda Berube produced an insightful report on the importance of IM that outlines its value and why the skill set of information managers will be increasingly valuable—running the gamut from the personal level of information creation to the organizational [3]. She particularly emphasizes how the exponential increases in digitization and the amount of data needing curation at all levels follow the same track. She reminds us of the obvious connection between the skill set of information professionals and the effective management of an organization’s knowledgebase:

Knowledge and information professional skills are the key to making the connection between information and knowledge, and knowledge and strategy. If the business of all organizations is information, then the job of all staff members is IM. Staff members are the knowledge base.

Amy Affelt, in The Accidental Data Scientist [1], asks us three really hard questions that echo Dana’s prescient caution and reiterate Berube’s contemporary reminder to look to our skill set to find opportunities for sustainability:

Why are librarians and their skills not first and foremost in the minds of senior executives when they look to get involved in [knowledge management and Big Data]?

How is it that we keep missing these opportunities to transfer our skill sets and expand our career opportunities into cutting edge technologies?

What is unique about our profession that we allow this to happen?

Such introspection requires time and effort plus a willingness to find an answer that allows us to heed Dana’s advice. The fact is, many information professionals working today began their careers in traditional roles. Some simply do not want to change, while others cannot envision how to drive that change. There are new areas that offer opportunities, but each of these require staff, time, and monetary resources. This has to be considered in the context of the economy and what is doable in any given organization. Most importantly, the hard truth is that our answers must address one imperative only, the answer to the question: What will contribute most to the priorities of our parent institution?

The economic situation overall appears to be one of slow, or even no, growth. This has and will continue to result in hard choices. For example, The Wall Street Journal recently announced it was laying off 150 staff members to provide the resources needed for investment in new areas. Some activities will have to be discontinued in what the editor-in-chief described as a “transformational” period. Many other organizations have had layoffs, some in anticipation of less demand for their products and services, others to increase the bottom line [2].

When we see so many libraries and information professionals unable or unwilling to address these questions and the confluence of forces noted above, is it any surprise that we ask another question, this one regarding cutbacks and closures: Was it murder or suicide?

Is the Paradigm of Information Management in Transition?

From our perspective, the paradigm of information management is not in transition to some new model of service. Rather, we as a profession, are experiencing an onslaught of new tools with which to pursue the still valid paradigm set forth by Ranganathan in his Five Laws [23].

Books are for use

Every reader his [or her] book

Every book its reader

Save the time of the user

The library is a growing organism

Thomas S. Kuhn wrote that “paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute” [13]. He goes on to say that during the period when a paradigm is successful, the profession will have solved problems that its members could scarcely have imagined and would never have undertaken without com mitment to the paradigm.

We would argue that the paradigm for information services embodied in Ranganathan’s laws meets Kuhn’s definition of “ successful” as fully today as it did when the laws were first stated in 1931. The laws continue to be the theoretical and operating principles (however, the wording might be updated to reflect modern tools and semantics) to which information professionals remain committed.

The precept arising out of these laws—“the right informa tion, to the right person, at the right time”—may be more familiar to special librarians. We know the contribution this mantra can make in the success of any venture. Our challenge has always been, and continues to be, how to convey this ten et to decision makers who cannot hear or see its wisdom. They are, and rightly so, more absorbed by the need to meet a bottom line. Librarians also need to remind themselves of what is at stake and the role they play in ensuring sustainability. While the tools with which we pursue our profession continuously change, the end game remains the same.

Many authors talk about library science being a field “at the crossroads.” What does this really mean? We would posit that we are more than just at a crossroads; we need to do more than simply choose one of four directions in which to go (well, actually three, since backwards is not a realistic choice). We need to recognize the dramatic changes that have taken place in the world of information creation and management and be pragmatic enough to acknowledge the constant turbulence in our profession. We must find a model that we can adapt as needed. Here we purposely avoid the word “rules” since rules prevent us from being as nimble as we must be to enhance and sustain the skill set we have to offer.

The danger arises and paralysis sets in when we forget the value of our core skill set and do not recognize the opportunities new tools afford us to align this core with the goals of our employers, thus contributing to their (and our own) sustain ability. Yes, using these new tools and getting a better understanding of the information/data they manage may require some additional coursework. Fortunately for us, continuing education has always been a mainstay of our profession.

The Hard Part

We believe that information professionals must recognize the realities of the economic context in which their organization exists and realize how these realities affect their role. This should drive your priorities. There will never be enough time or money to enable you to do everything you think you should be doing or everything your customers tell you they want—especially not in an economic climate of risk aversion. So give yourself a break and make some hard choices before they are made for you. Be rigorous—no, be brutal—in evaluating every single thing you currently do in light of what your organization needs from you to help it successfully respond to the environment. It likely has already been, and will continue to be, a turbulent ride for you. Understand and be able to explain the trade-offs both within IS and within your organization of transitioning, eliminating, or instituting some services. One resource we suggest to help you accomplish this is Special Libraries: A Survival Guide [15].

Stop thinking of yourself as peripheral. You must be a participant and a contributor to earn your place at the table. It is hard to be nimble while the ground beneath you is constantly shifting. The small consolation is that most everyone around you is having their own seismic moment.

The continuing management reality is that, sometimes, no matter how much you can demonstrate the IS contribution to your organization’s success, no matter how much your customers can attest to your value to their work, you are just too convenient a target for those looking only at the immediate bottom line. There will be those who are less knowledgeable about or less concerned with the consequences of doing away with IS than they are with showing budget cuts. These same folks are often the ones recommending, “Just Google it” and we will find all the information our business needs for free.

No one in our profession is naive enough to believe that good work always wins out. This kind of optimism was trounced in the recession of 2008. Sometimes you just have to seek opportunities elsewhere when such an atmosphere prevails.

Key Takeaway

We recently reviewed a slide presentation titled “The Laws of Library Science” [32]. This tongue-in-cheek grouping of “laws” relates to the practice of librarianship in public libraries. While intended to be funny—and it is—it has some poignancy as well, particularly in the slide that states: “99% of all professional literature has no basis in reality and no practical applications. Luckily, 99% of librarians have no time to read it.” You might then ask, “Why do we bother to write articles for the library literature?”

A 2005 anthology [11] on the topic of library science asks this question: “Library Science—Quo Vadis?” It states, “the idea of asking ‘where are you going?’ about library science could not be more appropriate than at the present time.” The editor went on to strongly assert: “As the 21st Century moves into a new age of information transfer … the traditional roots of librarianship and library science become the organization archetype that enables a sustainable future.”

If you expect there to be an ongoing role for information professionals in any type of organization, corporate or not, going forward, you cannot simply write off the naysayers or put your head down, hoping survival lies in not being noticed. We hope this article will continue the dialogue at all levels, both within and outside the profession. In some cases you may well find yourself saying, “I knew that”; in others, “That’s ridiculous,” or, “I never thought of that.” Reinforcement, stretching your thinking, changing your perspective—all can help move you toward the goal of becoming an information management thought leader within your organization.


[1] Affelt, Amy, The Accidental Data Scientist , Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2015.

[2] Alpert, Lukas I., “Journal to Cut Jobs: Invest in New Areas,” The Wall Street Journal , June 19, 2015, p. B5.

[3] Berube, Linda, “Information Management: Mission Critical,” London: CILIP: The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, 2015.

[4] Cox, Josie, “Chiefs Remain Reluctant to Spend,” The Wall Street Journal , May 5, 2015, p. B5.

[5] Davenport, Thomas and Laurence Prusak, “Blow Up the Corporate Library,” International Journal of Information Management , Vol. 31, No. 6, December 1993, pp. 405–412.

[6] DeBono, Caspar and Kate Arnold, “The Evolving Value of Information Management,” London: Financial Times in conjunction with Special Libraries Association, 2013.

[7] Dobbs, Richard, Tim Koller, Sree Ramaswamy, et. al., “The New Global Competition for Corporate Profits,” McKinsey Global Institute, September 2015.

[8] Enriquez, Luis, Ina Kota, and Sven Smit, “Commentary: The Outlook for Global Growth in 2015,” McKinsey & Company, March, 2015;

[9] Foster, Allan, “Moving the Corporate Needle. How Are We Doing? The 2015 Business Information Survey,” Business Information Review , Vol. 32, March 2015, pp. 10–37.

[10] Hanson, Carl A., ed., Librarian at Large: Selected Writings of John Cotton Dana , Washington, DC: Special Libraries Association, 1991, p. 63.

[11] Hauke, Petra, ed., Bibliotheks-Wissenschaft—Quo Vadis?/Library Science—Quo Vadis? Munich: K.G. Sauer, 2005.

[12] Jenkins, Holman W. Jr., “Maybe CEOs Aren’t Pessimistic Enough,” The Wall Street Journal , Sept. 8, 2015, p. A15.

[13] Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd. Edition , Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[14] Matarazzo, James M. and Toby Pearlstein, “A Confluence of Forces Pressing on the Future,” Journal of Library and Information Sciences , Vol. 2, No. 1, March 2014, pp. 1–3.

[15] Matarazzo, James M. and Toby Pearlstein, Special Libraries: A Survival Guide , Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2013.

[16] Matarazzo, James M. and Laurence Prusak, “Valuing Corporate Libraries—A Survey of Managers,” Washington, DC: Special Libraries Association, 1990.

[17] Matarazzo, James M. and Laurence Prusak, “The Value of Corporate Libraries: Findings From a 1995 Survey,” Washington, DC: Special Libraries Association, 1995.

[18] McKinsey & Company, “Economic Conditions Snapshot, September 2014: McKinsey Global Survey Results,” September, 2014;

[19] McKinsey & Company, “Economic Conditions Snapshot, December 2014: McKinsey Global Survey Results,” December 2014;

[20] McKinsey & Company, “Economic Conditions Snapshot, March 2015: McKinsey Global Survey Results,” March 2015;

[21] McKinsey & Company, “Economic Conditions Snapshot, June 2015: McKinsey Global Survey Results,” June 2015;

[22] McKinsey & Company, “Economic Conditions Snapshot, September 2015: McKinsey Global Survey Results,” September 2015;

[23] Ranganathan, S. R., The Five Laws of Library Science , London: Edward Goldston, 1931.

[24] Rigby Darell and Barbara Bilodeau, “Management Tools & Trends,” Boston, MA: Bain & Co., Inc., 2013, 2015.

[25] Semertzak, Eva, Special Libraries as Knowledge Management Centres , Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2011.

[26] Sharma, Ruchir, “A Global Recession May Be Brewing in China,” The Wall Street Journal , Aug. 17, 2015, p. A 11.

[27] Shumaker, David, The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed , Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc, 2012.

[28] Special Libraries Association, “Alignment Process Overview and Survey Results,” Washington, DC: 2009;

[29] Talley, Ian, “World Outlook Worst Since Financial Crisis,” The Wall Street Journal , Feb. 10, 2015, p. A9.

[30] The Wall Street Journal , “Economic Risk of Stock Plunge Varies Around the Globe,” Aug. 21, 2015, p. A1–A2.

[31] The Wall Street Journal , “Troubles Hit Global Growth Outlook,” Feb. 10, 2015, pp. A1, A9.

[32] Zawadski, Lisa, MLS, The Laws of Library Science: As Recorded and Observed by the Faculty and Alumni of the Acme Upstairs Library School , Pratt Falls, RI, The Acme Upstairs Library School, ND;

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James Matarazzo is dean and professor emeritus at the Simmons College GSLIS; Fellow, Special Libraries Association; and vice president and secretary of The H.W. Wilson Foundation, Inc.

Toby Pearlstein is a retired director, Global Information Services at Bain & Co., Inc., and Fellow, Special Libraries Association.


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