Searcher The Millennium Issue Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000

Looking Backward, Looking Ahead: Three Years of Lessons Learned
Doris Small Helfer Chair, Technical Services Library, California State University, Northridge

I can’t believe I’ve been writing this “Leading Libraries” column for 3 years now. It’s hard to accept how rapidly the time has flown, or maybe it just means that I’ve enjoyed the experience. It is certainly a growth and learning process. Even if I’ve not enjoyed having deadlines hanging over my head or those cute little e-mails from my editor politely inquiring as to my health and more specifically the health of my typing fingers, I’ve definitely learned a great deal about libraries and the issues their librarians face.

I was thinking recently of how as a young child I tried to figure out how old I would be when the year 2000 came. It seemed so very far away. I remember thinking oh my God, I’ll really be old when that happens! I was of course wrong (OK you can stop laughing), but from the perspective of a 9-year old, AHEM is really, really old. How can I have reached the verge of the new millennium so quickly. It must be all the fun I’m having! For one thing, even though I’ve not worked in a corporate library for nearly 3-1/2 years, this column has allowed me to keep up with the major trends in all areas of the profession.

Library/IT Integration
The big trend towards unifying the computer department and the library into one organization seems to have declined. I look back to my first column about the Leavey Library at the University of Southern California. It serves as the undergraduate library for USC and, although some of the people originally interviewed are no longer there, the library seems to continue along just fine. Certainly some organizations have merged their computer and library operations, such as at USC, but other organizations such as my own California State University Northridge, have not. Here the merger of the two groups under one leadership didn’t take. Various and different reasons explain why unification may or may not work, but I believe that it depends on a wide variety of factors in an organization. One reason is certainly potential culture clashes between these very different types of organizations and the people within them.

USC has tried to do a complete integration of the computer and library people. I’ve heard varying reports about such integration, but most librarians do not necessarily enjoy reporting to a boss with little or know understanding of library operations. Having been a librarian in a computer company, I can tell you the techies have very different perspectives. When I had to search for an OPAC system, I cannot tell you how many programmers I worked with who would volunteer to program an OPAC for me from scratch. I finally told them I would consider it if they could answer just one question. What is a MARC record? Not surprisingly I bought my library software package from an outside vendor.

In fact, the corporate or academic structure itself may not lend itself to working together as a group, especially when both have to compete for scarce resources. When that happens, the library and information technology sections are not always natural allies. Just as it’s difficult for librarians to report to IT, it is also difficult for IT to report to librarians.

Corporate Library Closures
In December 1998, I learned that the Kellogg library had closed suddenly and unexpectedly. I was stunned because I’ve known and respected the library director there for many years prior to her joining Kellogg’s. I knew she had excellent judgment and had spoken very highly and enthusiastically of their management. She felt the management knew they had to make changes and were working hard to achieve them.

The closings in corporate libraries around the country prove to me that events happen in every corporation with very negative impacts — impacts that we cannot avoid, no matter how much we try. When a company is not doing well, decisions and cuts will be made on sheer numbers, and the library, with a big overhead budget, looks like a prime target. I’m sure that in better times management would never have made the decisions they did about the Kellogg Library. Carol Feltes, the former director of the Library at Kellogg’s, wrote me the following, which I quote here verbatim:

As misguided as I may personally think some of the decisions [Kellogg made last year] were, I think the executive team was motivated to do what they thought best for the survival of the company. Basically Kellogg chose the last half of 1998 to react strongly to 10 years of lackluster performance and declining market share. They did a lot of things to try to reduce costs and drive up shareholder value, for the short term. I hope they were also thinking about the long-term success of the company.

They had spent considerable effort during that same decade building a world-class food research organization, including a brand-new physical facility and state-of-the-art pilot plant. But then when they chose to react to the continuing unacceptable financial performance, they abandoned some of what they had just spent considerable resource to build — the research capability.

A lot of planning and enthusiasm had gone into the research investment, so that Kellogg could better position itself as a world leader in food research, and could deliver truly innovative products. We in research envisioned ourselves as holding much of the company’s future success in our hands, and in our efforts. I am deeply sorry we were not all given the opportunity to deliver against that very exciting mission. We were doing some absolutely wonderful things.

I hope that those who remain behind can deliver the innovation and the success the company needs for the next century. As for the library capabilities, they retained one contract clerical person to maintain the existing physical collections, and some of the support services she had been taught. There are no professional staff, no search/analysis capability, no proactive information participation on the research teams or with the research staff. The facilities director who was left with the library contract staff member reporting to him created a list of “approved vendors” (Teltech, etc.), which was distributed to the research staff for their benefit, should they have any information needs....

Will those cuts be enough to deliver to Kellogg’s the results the company wants? Is it a case of penny-wise and pound-foolish? It’s certainly been the criticism of American companies in general that too much attention is paid to short-term quarterly results and not enough to long-term results. Time will tell, but the jury is still out about whether Kellogg will turn things around for the long term.

In another article about a library closing, I talked to Monica Ertel, formerly head of the library research efforts for Apple Computer and now director of research for Korn/Ferry International. She posed the following interesting question about her former employer: “Their stock was 12 when I left and closed at over 70 today. Do you think not having a library has hurt them?” It’s hard to argue with the results the company has gotten as a result of drastic cuts to return them to profitability. It allowed them to continue to deliver the successful new iMac product, thus enabling them to turn their bottom line around.

An unknown and unknowable factor remains though. What will those cuts in research capabilities mean over the longer term for Apple? Research helped to produce that great new iMac in the first place, not to mention giving Apple a standing reputation even in the toughest times for “getting it right.” Will Apple continue to come up with great new products in the future without the strong research capabilities the company had while developing the past ones? How many very talented Apple people went to work for competitors? Will that eventually hurt Apple?

How much extra time do current employees at Apple spend looking for information on their own, e.g., out there on the Internet? Where do they go for information now? And how much extra time is spent unsuccessfully pursuing critically needed information? I know from when I started my computer company library that many staff members thanked me for saving them hours, days, weeks of their time, which had been previously spent looking for information. Imagine the waste of time for a senior person struggling with information problems that a librarian could solve quickly. What price does the company pay when those senior persons can’t and don’t find the information they need? One researcher at Apple estimated that with the library he found 99 percent of what he wanted, but now he could only find about 50% percent of it, with maybe 25 percent located on the Internet. He also noticed that he has not seen as much innovation as previously at Apple. How could this affect Apple’s bottom line in several years, when innovative products do not come out as rapidly as before, if at all? We may never know.

Monica Ertel says today that if the Apple library had adopted the model of preemptively overturning the Apple library, doing away with the old central library model, but sending the librarians into the business units, maybe the Apple library staff wouldn’t have become the temptingly large target for cutting. By the time the library closed, Apple’s financial situation was so bad that even a new approach may not have saved the research effort.

Corporate librarians have to know that if the company’s bottom line is bad, the library and research efforts will suffer accordingly. There is no way to escape when corporations are desperate and looking for places to cut. Realistically Apple may spend more money for individuals to do searching, subscribe numerous times to the same magazine, and pay multiple times for the same books. Sadly, many corporate managements will never even think of this or want to measure such costs. Monica believes the old central library role may be an outdated one and that librarians will have different roles to play, working in business units as part of the units research efforts. In many cases I agree that will happen. Corporate librarians must look critically at their costs and no longer take the “I couldn’t possibly pitch that approach to management,” or they may indeed find their whole organization cut.

I also wrote about the heavily outsourced ARCO library and the librarian who had outsourced those operations, Seymour Satin. He wrote me the following: “There have been many changes since the article was published. The most significant change is that on April 1, 1999, it was announced that ARCO will merge with BP/AMOCO. Both company stockholders have approved the merger and we are only waiting upon regulatory approval for the deal to go through.”

Prior to the BP/AMOCO merger announcement, Seymour had “physically consolidated” five previously separate ARCO libraries (Legal, Tax, Human Resource, Environmental Health and Safety, and Business and Energy) in the Los Angeles basin. This consolidation, along with outsourcing and re-negotiation of enterprise-wide contracts, allowed Seymour to reduce ARCO’s library budget by $400,000.00 in the first 6 months of 1999 alone.

Seymour further wrote, “Outsourcing has been a great success within the Information Resource Center. While employing two full-time outsourced clerks through Library Associates, this service provided me with full back-up when employees called in sick or took vacation. Outsourcing also allowed me to adjust the hours of our cataloger to as needed, which is now a twice-a-month visit. I have learned to appreciate outsourcing, but only when managed properly.”

Over the course of the last several years outsourcing has been the topic directly or indirectly of many columns. In addition to the columns I’ve talked about here, I also wrote about the outsourcing of the Riverside County Library and the “in-sourcing” of the Sun Microsystems library. In each case, sound business and economic reasons drove the decision to outsource or in-source. I believe that outsourcing will continue if organizations can make a valid economic case for it. Librarians have to be continually evaluating their library’s cost effectiveness. If they ignore economic factors, I can guarantee their management won’t. Whether or not your organization experiences economic hard times or not, as an effective manager you must watch that bottom line.

Outsourcing has mostly been perceived, and I think wrongly, only as a negative for the library. This doesn’t have to be the case. If outsourcing is the only or best way to get a project done, librarians should not hesitate to use it. Librarians need to guard against the perceptions in organizations that they only waste corporate resources. Librarians constantly need to prove their value not only to their immediate customers, who know and appreciate them, but also to middle and upper management, who frequently only see them as bottom line numbers on a spreadsheet. Librarians need to boast, to let management know on a regular basis how they contribute to the bottom line and success of the organization. If they do that, outsourcing will be their friend and ally. If they don’t, outsourcing will replace them.

The future is not in my hands to predict; it will vary from situation to situation in every organization. However, the future of the library and information services is in our hands. I know it will not be the old corporate library of yesterday, but will continue to change dynamically as the situations and organizations being served change. If libraries don’t change, they will wither. Sometimes even when librarians provide terrific services, they can still be victimized by poor corporate performance, but I believe strongly that when the library and company align together and do the right things for their customers, they will not just survive, they will thrive.

I wish you all great success in the new millennium. And I think the Chinese were wrong. It’s not a curse to live in interesting times. It’s a great blessing and an opportunity!
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