Show Our Value
When I first started at library school, I really didn’t know if my previous experiences would be useful – how relevant will a Master’s degree in a bunch of dead languages and a 3 year stint in retail management (albeit in a bookstore) end up being? However, I’ve come to realize that some of the underlying principles I had to develop through managing a retail business unit are very transferable to the work of librarians and information professionals.
Transferable Skills are Transferable Skills, No Matter Where You Get Them
In some of my introductory classes, I was a bit taken aback by what I perceived to be the hostility toward dealing with the (what I thought were obvious) realities of proving your value. I came directly out of the world of budgets and profit & loss statements and margins and bonuses. It’s not that I expected it to be the same in most libraries, but I kind of assumed that the underlying principle of being able to show what kind of value (sometimes monetary) we bring to an organisation would be a given. Let me tell you, it was not. In my opinion, transferable skills are transferable skills, no matter where you get them from. But I was convinced for a few weeks that one of my profs hated me when I drew a parallel between the skills I’d learned to recommend books to people in a retail environment with the readers’ advisory skills I was being taught. (I still stand by that, by the way. The end result is different, obviously – a librarian isn’t trying to get someone to buy a book. But it’s unfair to dismiss the honed skills that booksellers can cultivate just because they’re trying to get someone to buy the book.)
I was heartened a bit when I took a Special Libraries and an Academic Libraries course in my second term. The professor for Special Libraries is a special librarian in a for-profit environment himself, and the Academic Libraries course was taught by a former Head Librarian. They talked about what I view as the more pragmatic aspects of being in those library settings, and it was a relief to see that there were people addressing this in my program. This has been reinforced on my co-op placement so far, in a Knowledge Management department of a professional services firm. Sometimes you hear us joking that we don’t even know how to define KM, and that is a massive problem – if we don’t know how to express what we do, there’s no way that the budget-makers are going to know what we bring to the firm. My senior manager has been a huge mentor for me in seeing someone being able to articulate what we do, in ways that suit the person he’s talking to. He can bring out the metrics for the budget-conscious directors, and the values for the directors who think that way. Ultimately, he wants to be able to take the skills and principles of librarianship and information management and keep applying them to the firm – he is just very conscious of the fact that no one is going to just take for granted that we’re doing good work. We have to prove it.
Advocating for Our Value
Taking this a bit further, I don’t actually think it’s a bad thing for us to have to speak up for ourselves and advocate for the value we provide, whether it’s to a business, educational institution, or municipality. We obviously believe in what we do, or at least I hope so. What we do is important, and necessary. But I think it is very naïve and dangerous to assume that everyone else in the world will also know that. Look at the huge numbers of librarian stereotypes out there – it is clear that society at large has absolutely no idea what librarians can offer. This is especially true for information professionals. We show up everywhere, often in job titles that don’t contain the word ‘librarian’, and we can bring a wealth of unique and important skills and viewpoints to the business or organization. We cannot rely on other people knowing what we do, because if we do that, we will be misunderstood and overlooked. If we don’t speak up for ourselves, someone else will. We need to take control of the messaging around what we can do and provide, whether it’s in a not-for-profit or a business context.
I think people who are working in for-profit environments just take this for granted – if you don’t, you’ll end up without a job. I know I thought this way when I started my MLIS. This is why it concerns me that we’re not necessarily being taught the language of showing our value. We need to be able to assess the organization we’re in and identify not only our value, but how to express it. A knowledge manager in a professional services firm needs to be able to show that what they do actually helps the firm create and maintain business, and revenue. Whereas, an academic librarian needs to be able to take potentially the same underlying value and express it in one way to their immediate boss, and perhaps another way to administration of the university.
When thinking about how to express your value to an organization, keep these ideas in mind:
- Break it down – We can’t take our value for granted! We know we’re necessary, but many (sadly) won’t. Spend some time distilling why your job, your field, and librarianship/information management is important. Think both big (to society at large) and small (to your organization and department) in scale, and think in both abstracts and concrete metrics.
- Know your audience – Will the person you’re speaking to want to see dollar metrics? Social value? Cost savings? Identify who your target audience is, what the y want, and the best format to present it to them.
- Know your organization – What does your organization value? Is it for-profit? Not-for-profit? A bit of both? How many other departments are you splitting the pool of money with? Is there another department that does this extremely well?
- Know yourself – If you’re struggling with the thought of having to provide financial metrics or quantify what you do, take some time to think about why. It isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion, to do a bit of self-reflection, especially when it comes to your job. If you are having emotional trouble going this route, consider your options – is there someone else you can partner with on this project? At a higher level, is this job right for you? I know we can’t always be choosy in today’s job market, but it might be worth reflecting on for future job hunting.
Fighting for Our Piece of the Pie
I’d like to reiterate – I’m in no way saying that all libraries should become bastions of for-profit mentalities. (Though, it’s unfair to demonize those who choose to be librarians and information professionals in businesses or vendors. How many times have we heard flippant comments about librarians “going to the dark side”?) However, we live in the reality that, no matter where you’re working, there is only so much money and resources to go around. (It’s frustrating sometimes to hear people bemoaning this fact, while still being paid. If you’re receiving a salary, then you’re part of this system.) This dynamic is just more obvious and laid bare in a for-profit environment. In a public library, you’re competing for resources both within the library, and often with other groups in the municipality. In an academic library setting, you’re competing for a piece of that university or college budget. If we don’t practice expressing, in the best way for the audience involved, how we are essential to the functioning of the organization, we will be jostled out of the way by those who are able and willing to fight for their piece of the pie. We are doing important things for society. We just have to be willing to speak up for ourselves and not be afraid to clearly articulate why what we do is so vital.
Sarah Morrison is an MLIS student at a Canadian library school, who is currently on a co-op placement in the Knowledge Management department of a professional services firm. She likes e-reading, tattoos, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, social media, and makeup (among lots of other weird and nerdy things). She blogs periodically at sarahamorrison.net . She wants to be a systems librarian or knowledge management operations professional when she grows up.