When the internet as a popular research tool began affecting the lives of librarians and information professionals and their clients, accountability for contributing to the mission (i.e., bottom line) of one's parent organization --whether a for-profit or not-for-profit--became the most critical driver behind the survival of corporate libraries. If corporate library managers had not already realized this, they now found themselves confronted with a clear mandate: Contribute demonstrably to your organization's success or risk becoming marginalized and an easy answer to the question, "Where can we cut costs?"
Increasingly during the past 5 to 10 years and especially in this recent volatile period across major segments of the financial services industry, library managers have either been asked to find or have proactively sought ways to make their services integral to their organization's survival. We are deliberately not characterizing this as "finding ways to save their libraries," but rather finding ways to integrate their services and skills with essential organizational functions. Sometimes these efforts are the same, but be prepared to think of them as very different strategies.
Views vary widely about the causes of downsizing and closures of corporate libraries. Corporate libraries and librarians have been affected even in environments with a strong tradition of library support. But as traditional library services are vanishing so are traditional practitioners. As we've said before, what should alarm us is that more companies don't recognize the utility of their libraries during times of downturn. Too often, the library is seen as a liability. Whether as a result of consolidation, outsourcing, off-shoring, economic realities, or just plain naivete about the web's capabilities, there is no question that the closure of many corporate libraries and attendant job losses are having an effect, not only on corporate librarians but on their organizations as well (Matarazzo & Pearlstein, 2007).
In today's tumultuous environment, self-defense is the best offense if you want to survive. With its focus on case studies in different types of organizations, this series is an attempt to glean from library reduction and closure experiences any lessons that might help others take steps to ensure that they are in sync with their organization's most fundamental information needs. And that may mean adapting to new ways to use our skills. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Are the librarian's skills valued enough in these organizations so that even though the library is closed or reduced, their skills can be repurposed elsewhere to support good decision making? In other words, can the librarian survive even if the library does not?
In his recent special report "Prospects for Specialized Libraries: Comments from Colleagues," Guy St. Clair (2008) identifies a "new working environment managed by information professionals who see themselves as knowledge thought leaders providing information, knowledge, and strategic learning support for non-library affiliated knowledge-centric organizations, businesses, or other types of research-focused environments." By highlighting skills such as "research asset management" or "knowledge asset management," St. Clair reinforces the idea that "it is imperative for us to describe to non-LIS managers and enterprise leaders how our skill set relates to the organization's larger mission. (1)
How do decision makers in organizations that have significantly downsized or outright closed their libraries continue to get the information they need to make good decisions? This constitutes a directly related issue, the exploration of which proves much more challenging to research. Unfortunately, there is not much research done on what, if anything, happens to an organization when their library is reduced or closed. We can, however, draw on findings from research done recently on the perceived value a specialized library brings to decision makers in an organization, especially those in upper-echelon positions. We will follow this line of research throughout this series.
Lessons From the Past
Corporate library closures were last studied in depth in 1980. (2) At that time, Matarazzo found several common elements in situations in which libraries were either closed outright or severely cut back. It is not too far fetched to propose that the existence of these conditions can be considered a "predictive model" of sorts. In reviewing these case studies, readers are encouraged to also review their own situations with this model in mind.
* Was the decision made at the top, without consultation of those who used the services?
* Was there a reduction in the number of customers?
* What is the availability of outside resources?
* Was there a lack of evaluation of library service?
* Was there evidence of financial crisis in the parent organization?
The Case of the Divisional Library at Caveat Publishing Co.
In the spring of 2008, Caveat Publishing Co.'s corporate management engaged a leading consultancy to study overall operating expenses and to recommend ways to reduce costs and increase revenues. One of the consultant recommendations was to close one of the several divisional libraries and lay off the four librarians and a staff assistant. The consultants further suggested removing this one library's collections and renting the 1,000-plus square-foot space to another organization, despite the fact that the space had recently been remodeled at considerable expense. While this division had had library services for decades and served four different Caveat publications as well as two corporate-level departments, difficult economic times now demanded drastic actions. Closing this divisional library, while retaining the services of the head librarian, would save hundreds of thousands of dollars. The closure was implemented immediately on instructions from corporate upper-management with no time or chance to offer alternatives.
Was the Handwriting on the Wall?
The division's head librarian, an experienced and respected corporate practitioner, had been recruited by Caveat from another firm several years ago. When she started at Caveat, this divisional library had a staff of 10, including the head. Over the ensuing 5 years, there were ongoing budget restrictions. So as librarians left their positions voluntarily to pursue other opportunities, these positions were not filled. Nonetheless, the head librarian and the remaining four professionals kept the library open each workday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. using staggered shifts. If overtime was needed, the librarians--who were very well-compensated--received additional compensation.
While this divisional library had originally been designed to serve four of Caveat's publications and two corporate departments, two of these publications were subsequently eliminated at the consultant's recommendations because these titles failed to contribute to the bottom line of the division. Shortly thereafter, the remaining four librarians were given 2 months' notice, with no severance package, to find employment elsewhere. The head librarian was asked to stay on at Caveat, along with her staff assistant, for 4 additional months.
No Time to Defend the Library or Its Staff
There was no time to defend the library, its space needs, or services in the face of these final cost reductions. Other departments in the division who also lost staff and space were treated the same way. In fact, the head librarian had previously worked out an evaluative system for the library and its services with the financial person in the division. This system had worked very well during 5 years for three of the four financial managers with whom the librarian worked. However, as the budget situation in the division deteriorated, the fourth and final financial manager seemed less than interested in her evaluative reports.
Interestingly enough, the two remaining publications the library supported still made money for the division. The two eliminated had historically only provided about 20% of the library's operating budget via a service agreement. This was apparently not considered in the reduction decision.
Decision Made at the Top: Resistance Is Futile
While the manager to whom the library reported was supportive, he made it clear it was useless to resist--the decision had been made. The librarian was told that the collection--books, periodicals, and reports--would be shipped to another floor and put in storage. The new "library space" would be her office--period. The thousands spent on the recently completed renovations did not matter, her manager made it clear that the division had to meet its new budget goals and no alternatives would be entertained. As noted, the library also supported two corporate-level functions at Caveat--strategic planning and finance. In fact, a member of the Strategic Planning Department had told her that the closure decisions had been made at the top, above her bosses. "Nothing could stop the reorganization," he said.
New Duties for the Head Librarian
The librarian's role now became one of training the publication staff to meet their own information needs by using the databases arrayed on their desktop. As she set out to train the writers and reporters, she found she had to do it one-on-one in order for it to be effective. Some of the young staff members had learned to do some searching, but "others have difficulty logging into their computers." Many others want her to do the searches and prepare research packages for them as needed.
However, she is now on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, with no overtime compensation available. In retrospect, she noted, "My boss was supportive. He understands libraries and even has a relative who is a librarian. It is very sad. Sales and revenue are down. Business is bad. We had to downsize."
Her Qualities and Skills Assured Her Retention
The head librarian has always been respected for her skill in negotiating database contracts for use in the library as well as on division desktops. She is also admired for her people/relationship skills, which were described by her boss as "exceptional." From the time she reported to her new position, she had handled all staff requests in a professional manner with anyone in the areas she served. Her personality was such that she was able to develop relationships with many division and corporate staff members. She was also admired for being a good manager of people and resources in the library.
So Now What?
Where are the information users in this division of Caveat Publishing to get their information going forward? As with any specialized library, there were external research resources that Caveat had used from time to time. Unfortunately, an industry library that Caveat used had also recently closed its doors. This eliminated one of the obvious alternative sources for information. information. At this writing, there does not seem to be any coordinated plan to utilize any other outside resources, most of which are themselves facing reductions or cannot provide the level of service a publication with tight turn-around deadlines and high-quality expectations requires.
Reporters and writers at Caveat (and at most, if not all, publications) do have access to some databases at their desktops, but, although available for quite some time, usage has never been high. The librarian's assumption is that management expects the writing staff and other employees to step up and take whatever training exists to become better versed in the information tools they have and then to use them. Yet, as another publishing industry information professional told us, "Writers have their own jobs." Is it reasonable to expect that they can do the job of a researcher as well? One writer expressed this in another way. He especially appreciated "that the librarian got to know him and how he worked and could be very proactive with him." He "liked bouncing ideas off of the librarian and getting their perspective on the story."
The reality, however, seems to be that the writers, as with employees in other organizations where library services have been cut or eliminated, will have to adapt to a different way of doing their jobs. Perhaps, as one senior writer told us, he "can always find someone to do the research for him." Who this someone is or what their research skill level might be remains unknown. Realistically speaking, we may find that writers simply will not do as many "in-depth" stories as they once did. Not only is there less interest in this kind of piece, but also less resources (i.e., researchers/librarians) to assist in doing the research needed.
In similar publishing environments where the library has been cut, one writer noted that he never heard anyone say it was a good thing to cut the library. Nonetheless, no one was in a position to protest: "The whole industry was contracting and this was one of the many bad consequences. People were worried about their own positions as well." Speaking cynically, he added, "Other things sell magazines besides quality."
The Way Ahead
Caveat's senior corporate management had hired the outside consultants to evaluate the use of resources and to make recommendations for economies. Since they never asked for any data from the library manager, we can presume they were asked to make recommendations for economies 'regardless" of how or if the library was being used. While the librarian had established a system for performance measures that interested her previous managers, her current financial manager did not appear similarly interested. In any event, it is easy to understand how reporting to four different managers in 5 years presented enough challenges for the head librarian, who had to adapt to the different styles and interests of each.
Recommendations went to Caveat's senior managers without consultation with customers or with the department managers in question. Further, the loss of two of the four publications reduced the number of customers for the library's services overall. At least four of the five elements of the "predictive model" (3) discussed above seem to have been present in this case.
In a recent article, John Latham reminds us that library managers are responsible for understanding the finances of their department and company. (4) At Caveat, the head librarian knew that business was bad, and, in fact, had already experienced a reduction in staffing through attrition and budget restrictions. She was nonetheless at least a little surprised that her operation became a victim of the exigencies being experienced by the overall business. In this economy, we all need to pay very close attention to the bottom line of our organizations and be prepared for the unexpected. Latham states: "If you know that the organization is experiencing financial difficulties, be prepared for some cost-cutting exercises, remembering that information centers, together with R&D, are often the first areas axed. Being prepared is not just the motto of the Boy Scouts!" (5)
Have there been other warnings to the professions? In 1992, Davenport and Prusak warned corporate librarians:
The library was created at a time when formation access and usage was a more leisurely activity. We might want to return to those days, but they have not been present for a long time in the corporations we study and work with. To adapt to current and future information environments, radical changes must be undertaken in corporate libraries. (6)
And more recently, Matarazzo and Pearlstein offered the following:
Views vary widely about the causes of downsizing and closures of corporate libraries. Corporate libraries and librarians have been affected even in environments where a strong library foundation has been traditional. But as traditional library services are vanishing, so are its traditional practitioners. (7)
No one would argue with the statement that good decisions depend on good information. In the case of Caveat, we've been told, "Editors knew there was value in the library even if they didn't use it directly." Yet in a recent Outsell, Inc. briefing, "What Executives Think About Information Management" (2008), author Joanne Lustig writes:
When asked to identify the most valuable service offered by their institutional libraries or information centers, 82% of executive respondents ... said their organizations did not have such a function. (8)
Perhaps there was a disconnect between the library and the divisional heads or their bosses at Caveat that made it easier or at least less controversial for them to drastically reduce library services. It is also likely, given the way in which the cuts were made overall, that by the time the consultants were called in, nothing could have saved the Caveat library and, in fact, Caveat itself still fights to remain a viable publisher.
by Toby Pearlstein
Global Information Services
Bain & Co., Inc.
and James Matarazzo
Dean and Professor Emeritus
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College
(1) Matarazzo, James M., Closing the Corporate Library. New York, NY: Special Libraries Association, 1980.
(2) Ibid., p 137.
(3) Latham, John, "Understanding the Finances of Your Department and Your Company Is a Key Responsibility," Information Outlook, vol. 11, No. 9, September 2007, pp. 48+.
(5) Davenport, T.H. and L. Prusak, "Blow Up the Corporate Library," International Journal of Information Management, vol. 13, December, 1993, pp. 411-412.
(6) Matarazzo, James M. and Toby Pearlstein, "Corporate Score," Library Journal, vol. 132, Feb. 1, 2007, p. 43.
(7) St. Clair, Guy, Prospects for Specialized Libraries: Comments from Colleagues, SMR Special Report, SMR International, New York, October 2008, pp. 2-3.
(8) Lustig, Joanne, What Executives Think About Information Management, Information Management Service: Briefing, Outsell, Inc., vol. 11, Aug. 7, 2008, p. 4.…