“Why aren’t you working as a librarian?” people ask me as soon as they learn that I have a Masters degree in Library and Information Science. The short answer is, “…libraries just weren’t fast paced enough for me…” As I say this, a terrible feeling of guilt comes over me, and I ask myself: “Am I a sell out? How could I forsake my graduate school education?” But thinking back, I realized there was much more that went into my decision not to become a traditional librarian. I decided to use what I learned in a new way, and I’d like to finally be honest about my decision:
Reason #1: Many traditional libraries are not customer driven.
This may sounds like an odd statement, especially because libraries are service oriented, and therefore, must be customer focused to some degree. Yes, that is true. And, don’t get me wrong… like many librarians, I’m VERY PASSIONATE about getting more people to use libraries, teaching people to be smart about what information they choose (information literacy), and helping people make more informed decisions.
HOWEVER, my philosophy of being “customer driven” clashes with the current methods libraries used to increase circulation rates and patron visits. While there may be some exceptions to this, based on my experience working in libraries, libraries seem to take what Theodore Levitt calls, “a sales driven approach.” He says:
“The difference between selling and marketing is that selling is getting rid of what you have, while marketing is having what people want.”
During my seven years working in academic and special libraries, I noticed we always tried to get people to use what the library already had. My approach is the opposite, I believe we should have primary focused on having resources that people WANT to use, not trying to get people to use the resources we already had. Instead of getting people to come to libraries more, librarians should be proactively going out to them, finding out what their information needs are, what fundamental questions they have, what key decisions they need to make. Then libraries need to provide innovative ways for them to access that information, and help them make more informed decisions. Because my philosophy unfortunately clashes with the thinking of most people in the library science profession, and I knew that if I were to become a librarian I would have a life-long battle to change the culture of libraries.
Reason #2: Many traditional librarians behave like martyrs, complaining that no-one recognizes their value.
In addition to battling “they must come to us” culture of libraries, I’d be up against the deep-rooted martyr thinking: where you constantly hear libraries say, “Nobody appreciates us! Why do they keep cutting our funding?” Funding for libraries has gone down tremendously, and jobs are being cut. In order for libraries to survive, my thinking is that libraries need to fundamentally change the way they think of their “product.” Instead of selling the physical space of the building, and the physical books themselves, they need to invent new ways to meet deep information needs. The only way to prove your value, is to be of more value. This reminds me of the railroad business… thinking they are selling trains, when they should have invented new modes of transportation. Libraries need to throw out the thinking that they are selling books and digital materials, and should be inventing new modes of delivering knowledge.
Here’s the deep truth: I don’t want to spend my career fighting, or having awkward conversations with anyone about making libraries more customer focused. I just want to work for organizations that value being customer driven as much as I do. I want to spend my energy understanding customers’ needs, and creating ways to exceed their expectations. I don’t want to fight for the permission to do it in the first place.