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New Management Realities for Special Libraries

Magazine article Online Searcher

New Management Realities for Special Libraries

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"As businesses come to place new emphasis on the 'information advantage' they hold, what's to become of that traditional bastion of information, the corporate library?" Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak asked that question 23 years ago in an International Journal of Information Management article provocatively titled, "Blow Up the Corporate Library" [5].

Information professionals find themselves posing roughly the same question today. What is to become of the traditional delivery methods of information services within an organization? If you have asked yourself and your colleagues this question recently, good for you. You are on the right track to figuring out an answer and, even better, to developing a strategy built around an answer. If you find this question too frightening or simply too hard to ask, or worse, will not take the time to ask it, then "stick a fork in it." You and your career are done (at least at your current employer).

It is interesting to look back on what was, at the time, a revolutionary call to rethink the role of the library within an organization. Have things changed in the last quarter-century? How is the profession today facing the challenges of re-characterizing the role of information professionals to foster sustainability and to contribute to employer success as well as their own?

It is important to remember that when Davenport and Prusak did their research, most libraries--corporate libraries, in particular--were in a tug-of-war with their organization's IT department. The early 1990s were the heyday of confusion between the "pipes and water"--with librarians believing that IT's forte lay in building the infrastructure (pipes) needed to enable distribution of the content (water) identified by information professionals as vital to their organization. Meanwhile IT contended it was better positioned to manage it all--the pipes and the content flowing through them. The pendulum of organizational investment had swung toward technology, not simply as a tool to help achieve business ends, but as the overarching driver of business ends. As a result, librarians were in imminent danger of being marginalized at the very time when their unique skill set was most needed.

"Blow Up the Corporate Library" argued that the "warehouse model" was no longer the appropriate concept for libraries. As warehouses, libraries and librarians did not integrate well with the businesses they served or other information-oriented functions. The value they delivered could not be articulated to the business's advantage. The vision of what was possible appeared clouded and constrained by the walls surrounding the physical collections.

Davenport and Prusak debunked the concept of the library as simply a room filled with books, favoring a new concept of information services not constrained by walls or a "low-level box on the organization chart." Instead, the new concept was for content and services delivered by librarians with unique skill sets, a concept that would lay to rest the stereotype of librarians being more concerned with the needs of their collections than with the needs of the business.

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THE SLOW MARCH TO REALITY

While information professionals may have been slow off the mark in moving away from antiquated service models, inroads have been made in creating and implementing a panoply of new ones driven by the priorities and needs of each organization. The "expert center" and the "network"--two alternative models advocated by Davenport and Prusak--have been successfully adopted and tweaked over time by many information professionals in many different kinds of organizations. Some libraries became knowledge management centers [25].

Information science skill sets, based upon and often including the most valued of traditional services, coupled with innovation tailored to ever-expanding employer needs, have both a spatial and an intellectual context. …

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