Monday, May 3, 2010

Revisiting the Past

In 2006, I wrote an article based on the confluence of Library Science and Marketing that had occurred in my life. American Libraries honored me by publishing the article in their September 2006 issue. I think the article is still relevant now, five years later. Maybe more relevant, as libraries continue to lose money and those with MLIS degrees struggle to find a place to use their particular skills. Here's the text of the article. I'd love to hear what you think about it.

The for-profit world needs us and has the cash to pay our worth
The summer before my senior year in college was a momentous one because I concocted a plan for the rest of my life. I would begin by earning some advanced degrees--a master's in library science and another in history, specifically. Afterwards, I would find myself working at a small academic library as a reference librarian with an emphasis in the humanities. There, I would bring home a comfortable $35,000-$40,000 salary. Naturally, I'd meet my husband during my tenure, and would retire into a blissful post-employment phase during which I would pass time collecting seashells and writing the Great American Novel. It seemed like a flawless plan, all told.
Five years later, with two master's degrees in hand, I figured that finding my dream job would be easy. By the time I was ready to apply for that job, however, the field of librarianship had changed. Library employers now tend to require five years of managerial experience or community outreach. As a new graduate, these were qualifications I did not have. I was not alone in facing these changes in the employment market. In the September 15, 2004, Library Journal, Michael Rogers reported that many new MLS graduates "unabashedly accuse LIS instructors of lying about job prospects."
The myth, as it turned out, was that there would be a one-to-one replacement for library positions left open through retirement and other departures. The truth is, however, that once a librarian retires, his or her job is often combined with another job--or completely eliminated.
What caused these drastic changes? Funding--namely, the post-September 11, 2001, rerouting of channels through which money traveled to community and state levels. Once the federal government began asking local and state officials to divert money to new priorities such as Homeland Security, the fates of libraries, museums, and universities were automatically compromised.
Even as libraries were readjusting to the post-9/11 reality of less funding and fewer job opportunities, Silicon Valley was experiencing exponential growth. After surviving the dot-com boom and bust of the 1990s, companies like Google and Yahoo were evolving into the behemoths that we know today. Google began to change the way people thought about the Web. Instead of merely heading towards perfecting users' search experience, Google, Yahoo, Overture, MSN, and AskJeeves were also heading towards perfecting niche marketing to users based on their search patterns.
Oddly enough, this series of events has proven more relevant to me than I ever could have predicted. I have been in the business world as a media buyer for three years now, and it seems like this was my destiny all along. The skills that I am using most are those I attained while pursuing my MLS. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that the world of libraries and the world of business are on a crash course of convergence. The old, reliable image of a librarian with her hair in a bun, glasses on her nose, and a shushing finger to her mouth may give way to an image of a librarian wearing a power suit, providing consultation or other services in meeting rooms around the world.
The question, of course, is what kinds of consultation or other contributions a librarian could offer in those meeting rooms. To answer that question, I will explore how user services and technical services--two main categories of library work--can translate into marketing expertise and client relations that are key to business success. In doing so, I will show why it might be time for librarians to don pinstripe suits.
Customer satisfaction, by another name
User services can be summarized basically as providing the information patrons need. A reference librarian receives requests for assistance in finding almost every type of data, and a good reference librarian will show a patron how she found that data and what her search strategies were, as opposed to simply providing the answer. If this type of reference session is what first comes to mind when you think of libraries or librarians, the connection between user services and business may not be so easy to see.
To build that mental bridge, consider one of Google's many maxims: "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The problem is that the more accessible information becomes, the harder it is to find exactly what you need. In the business world, time is always short and the need for information is always great. In such a climate, a user services librarian who has been trained to find and disseminate data in the most efficient way possible is invaluable.
A media-buying agency is an example of the type of firm in which a librarian's training can be extremely useful. In order to stay ahead of the curve and offer new marketing suggestions to clients, the agency must remain informed about the latest publishing innovations. In reality, media planning has become a parallel to the reference desk dialogue. The only real difference is that the end goal has become successful marketing rather than securing an answer to a research question.
A reference librarian trained to keep up-to-date on resources in print and online is already capable of providing this kind of information. She also knows how best to present that data and support her suggestions.
User services skills also have very practical applications. With a readily available knowledge of information resources, a businesswoman with an MLS can efficiently research whether there is a market for a potential new product or how best to pitch a proposal to a prospective client. Researching these subjects can mean increasing profits for an existing client, or packaging a powerful marketing proposal for a new prospect. In either case, good research in the business world often translates to increased profits.
The keyword to a consumer's heart
A second area of responsibility for which librarians are trained is technical services. In the past, technical services in a library context has covered everything from cataloging and processing material to acting as webmaster. More recently, technical services librarians have also increased their interaction with the organization of information on the internet and how to access that information. How can these skills prove useful in a business setting?
The bottom line is that technical services librarians know how people search, how information is organized on the Web, and how to connect searchers with the information they seek. These skills are essential, for example, in designing an online advertising campaign (as I have facilitated for my firm). The key to success is to make sure the advertiser's message appears in front of the target audience, and that the ad delivers what that audience wants. It is no secret that if a customer's efforts do not result in instant gratification, he or she may revert to other resources or even such traditional tools as print indexes. An MLS-holder can offer insight into what keywords are likely to lead searchers to an advertiser's ad--the goal of signing up with the fee-based Google AdWords service. In an era of paid search, cutting down on a potential client's frustration can mean big clicks for an advertiser, and high credibility for a marketing or advertising firm. In this environment, an MLS is as valuable as an MBA.
Google AdWords is not the only area in which a person with a library science background could prove useful in a business setting. Increasingly, SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) are becoming integral parts of the services that an advertising or marketing firm offers. After all, if a corporate website is not seen, the company cannot succeed in today's business world. Both services are contingent upon an understanding of how people search and how search engines work. A technical services librarian's knowledge of search engines and keywords can mean the difference between a company's success and failure. As such, there are few types of information more valuable in the business world.
In the end, search engines, libraries, and marketing firms have the same goal: Get the patron, consumer, or searcher exactly the information he or she wants. In all cases, it is the person with a master's in library science--the information professional--who can ensure that these goals are achieved. With training in search patterns, and information organization and access, librarians remain a largely untapped source of expertise, assistance, and knowledge.
Google cofounder Larry Page told author John Battelle that the search engine of the future would be like "a reference librarian with complete mastery of the entire corpus of human knowledge" (The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, New York: Portfolio, 2005). If Page is right, businesses, libraries, and searchers at home are going to need help sifting through all of that data. Librarians will be needed more than ever, whether they keep their hair in buns or decide to don those pinstripe power suits.

No comments: