Saving Special Libraries in a Recession: Business Strategies for Survival and Success

Article excerpt

Abstract

In difficult economic times, it is common for organizations to cut back on spending. Unfortunately, one of the first places that many organizations look to make cutbacks is their own libraries. So, what should special librarians do to help their libraries survive cutbacks or even elimination? Prior literature on library management offers many personal accounts and suggestions for how to manage special libraries effectively in general and how to prevent cutbacks specifically. Much of this evidence is, however, anecdotal and specific to the industries of the host organizations that the special libraries serve. In order to determine the applicability of the techniques suggested in the literature, we surveyed 113 special librarians currently working in a wide variety of special libraries (e.g., in law firms, government agencies, corporations, hospitals, etc.) in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area in spring 2008. Among the respondents to our survey, 61% have worked at a library that had faced serious cutbacks or elimination. The respondents commented on whether strategies mentioned in prior literature could stop slated cutbacks or prevent cutbacks from taking place in their own organizations. Additionally, we have conducted four case studies: two on libraries that successfully prevented cutbacks and two on libraries that failed to prevent cutbacks (one of which was later able to regain congressional funding). Based on our literature review, survey, and case studies, we have found that while cutting costs and hand-delivering materials may be helpful in some organizations but not others, it is universally essential for special librarians to know the particular needs of other members of their organization, align library services with the organizational goals, and aggressively market services to their organizations (especially the management). Our findings reinforce the idea that, in order for special libraries to weather today's economic recession and thrive in the long run, they must be proactive.

Introduction

In difficult economic times, it is common for organizations to cut back on spending. Unfortunately, one of the first places that many organizations look to make cutbacks is their own libraries. So, what should special librarians do to help their libraries survive cutbacks or even elimination? Both the scholarly and professional literature on special library management has suggested various ideas to special librarians, ranging from hand-delivering requested library materials to serving on key committees within the larger organization. There is little evidence, however, that any of these suggestions work beyond the specific situations in which they have been tried. We look across various types of special libraries in order to find common strategies that will be useful to multiple, if not all, types of special libraries. We begin with a survey, in which we ask a variety of special librarians what strategies have worked in their libraries. Next we examine the cases of a government library, a corporate library, a law library, and an engineering library to see what common lessons can be learned from their successes and failures. We conclude the paper with a set of generalized business strategies for the survival and success of special libraries.

Literature Review

Prior literature on library management offers many personal accounts and suggestions for how to manage special libraries effectively in general and how to prevent cutbacks specifically. Much of this literature, however, is anecdotal and specific to the industries of the host organizations that the special libraries serve. Matarazzo and Prusak's 1995 survey of 103 corporate senior managers found that from a management point of view, special libraries typically contribute to corporate strategy through research, assisting senior managers with strategic planning, and staying abreast of new technologies. (2) Managers believe that in addition to the primary library service tasks of acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information, special libraries help their corporations by synthesizing research, providing training, and keeping the organizations up-to-date with developments in the field, but that they are not essential. …