Will Special Librarians Owe our Long-term Career to Academic Librarians?

Many special librarians and information professionals will agree that technology has always posed a great challenge to our functional role and responsibilities in the corporate environment. In fact, some companies have disbanded their special libraries and information centres and replaced them with mere technological tools to help satisfy their information needs.

To some extent, it is our responsibility to understand how management think and act in the corporate environment. For management, each functional role and responsibility is measured in terms of costs and benefits. If a functional role costs X, the benefit the company derives should be more than X! The fundamental problem is how do we measure and demonstrate our functional net worth? That is why our functional role in most of the organizations are classified as ‘cost-centres’ instead of ‘profit-centres’

The next question is whether the organization is better off with or without a particular ‘cost-centre’ in the long run? In order of importance, libraries and information centres are usually not given as much weight as human resources or finance departments.

Despite being classified as cost-centres, special libraries and information centres are maintained in a healthy number of organizations. To some extent, we can identify the growth of special libraries and information centres in the private sectors by phases.

Prior to the Internet era, we were in demand for our expertise in finding difficult information from various resources, which were critical for functional, management and organizational needs. In the Internet era (80s and early 90s), we still managed to be in demand but for different reasons. This time, our organizations valued us as ‘gate-keepers’ to ‘manage’ the ‘information explosion’. The healthy economy enabled most organizations to tolerate the ‘light-weight’ cost-centres.

Now with Google, I believe a new phase is upon us. Google offers users a very simplistic way to ‘manage’ the ‘information explosion’. With Google, users do not need to search high and low for relevant information nor are they required to turn to a librarian for assistance. It is no longer necessary to make use of meta search engines for your information needs. Although novice corporate users are not as skillful as special librarians and information professionals in managing the information explosion, Google’s attraction is two folds for users. One the search turn-around time is faster and accurate for novice users. Hence for simple research, corporate users do not need our services. Secondly, Google is creating a sense of adequacy among users. For example, corporate users increasingly perform keyword research using Google on the Internet and begin to feel ‘enough is enough’!

Prior to Google days, the corporate librarians maintained company annual reports as one of their main corporate collections. The corporate bankers and corporate financiers usually depended on in-house special librarians for such resources. During the early years of the Internet, the corporate librarians located and provided electronic copies to users.  Now with Google, it becomes obvious that you don’t need an information professional to do the job. A secretary can find it within a minute on the Internet!  In addition, most corporate users are satisfied with whatever they can find using Google. This sense of adequacy or “enough is enough” attitude increasingly threatens the need for special librarians and information professionals in the corporate sector.

Where does this leave us? Is there a role for Special Librarians and Information Professionals beyond Google? I feel that there is a role for us in the corporate environment but the role is how we define ourselves and how we help define the market for us.

I propose a short-term and long-term solution and bring us to the reason for the title of this article.

Short-term Solution

Demonstrate our functional capabilities beyond mere information services. Demonstrate our value and worth by getting involved in training, pro-active services, Internet, Intranet, content management, competitive intelligence, document management, knowledge management, project management, etc. A ‘bao-ka-liao’ attitude or multi-tasking capabilities help add more value to the organizations and ultimately sustain our role.

Help develop digital libraries in the corporate environment. Thanks to our public and academic library infrastructure, the corporate users are generally aware of important and useful information resources and content aggregators (such as, Factiva and Nexis) beyond Internet and Google. Let’s use it to our advantage. We can demonstrate to organizations that we possess the expertise and capabilities to add value to the organization by providing the resources of a digital library environment. However, it must be admitted that it is increasingly a challenge to play the intermediary role between the users and the digital library or digital content in the corporate environment. The content aggregators are quickly adopting their resources to provide a Google-like look and functionality. As a result, it is easier for users to login, search and retrieve the required information from these databases, if it is not available on the Internet for free. So the proposition to offer digital library in the corporate environment should be combined with the first point for maximum benefit and sustainability.

To increase our market space. In a survey by SLA done in 1998 almost 63% of the Fortune 500 Companies had Corporate Libraries or Information Centre. (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FWE/is_3_4/ai_61533799/print). I think as special librarians and information professionals, we should join and actively participate in professional societies such as Special Libraries Section, Library Association of Singapore so that our views and professional interests can be forcefully articulated. As a professional body, we would be able to create awareness and demonstrate our functional role and value to the corporate sector. For example, we could educate and highlight the advantages of having a special library and information centres to the local GLCs, citing that almost 63% of the Fortune 500 companies maintained such as outfits in their organizations. If more of our GLCs set up special libraries and information centres, it would be better for our profession. In short, we should attempt to educate the corporate sector on how we can contribute in an organization and hence help create a permanent fixture in any organizational structure.

Long-term Solution

In the long run, however, organizations evolve and usually find equilibrium as to the best organizational structure that suits their long-term growth. The challenge for us is how do we prepare ourselves to be able to secure a spot in this organizational structure permanently? My feeling is we have to examine the fundamental issues, in particular, in the realm of education.

Have you wondered how teachers have become important in students’ lives? Although students are provided with all the self-learning tools, there is a maternal and psychological need for teachers. Similarly, nurses are always part of the solution when it comes to patient-care.

As librarians, we need to create the maternal and psychological need within our users. We need to be more involved with users in such a way that discovery of information and knowledge needs can’t be satisfied adequately without the assistance of librarians, similar to how teaching can’t be done without teachers or nursing, without nurses! How do we do that?

In schools, team-projects are becoming increasingly important. One way is for school and public librarians to be part of the project teams in identifying and providing research and information support. In this way, our value is demonstrated and reinforced amongst our potential long-term customers or users. In addition, I think we should devise a methodology to charge for our services. One possibility is to charge the schools directly for providing this service (to the Education Fund?). The whole idea is to reinforce the value of our service to our users. Nothing demonstrates value better than charging a fee. A market-oriented solution for an increasingly market-oriented global economy!

As for corporate librarians and information professionals, we gain the most when this is implemented in Academic institution. Unlike school projects, at polytechnics (to a smaller extent) and universities (to a larger extent) research and project work take significant time, effort and credits for students! More importantly these graduate and post-graduate students become the future management in the corporate sector. What better way than to demonstrate our value and worth to these users – our future customers and employers? The academic librarians need to work with the lecturers to get involved in student projects and provide research and information services and yes, they should find a way to charge-back for their services. In this way, when the students become corporate bigwigs, they would realise that corporate librarians and information professionals could add value to organizations and in time, special libraries and information centres would become a permanent fixture in the future organizations, just like human resources or finance departments.

Wouldn’t we owe our long-term career to academic librarians?

Contributed by Manickam Kannan, LAS Special Libraries Section