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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Be Clear About the Value You Deliver!

This post is based on an article written for law librarians, but I'm going to use that piece as a jumping-off point for a discussion that applies to all types of librarians. 

A great colleague named Bryan Carson, who's both a lawyer and a librarian, pointed out an article from the American Bar Association's "ABA Journal" online called "Does It Pay to Hire a Law Firm Librarian?" Here's the beginning:
"If you were designing a law firm today, would you even have a library? I think many, including me, would answer, 'Probably not.' As long as the Internet exists, information that was in a law library will be available online. So why bother, right?
At the same time, would you have a law librarian?"
Of course, this got my attention. It's yet another instance of educated people not understanding our value, even in a professional setting. And it's further proof that we desperately need to promote our usefulness in the age of the internet. Further into the article, it said:
"In a recent survey, a small group of law librarians was asked to describe the value they bring to the organization. No one described anything similar to what is described above." (finding info, working w/ other departments) "In fact, several responses were along these lines: 'loyal, accurate, friendly and smart'; 'intelligent, hard-working, very efficient'; 'cataloging skills and knowledge', 'hard worker, always willing to help'."
Given these answers, it's no wonder that the author, a legal firm CEO, wondered whether law firms still needed librarians. Until recently, I thought that most degreed "special librarians" (those working in law, medical, financial, sci-tech, etc. companies) really understood how to communicate their value. But reading this article and others have made me reconsider and realize that the topic is definitely worth a post. 

Anyone who is striving to communicate his or her value needs to do two major things:

1. refer back to their organizations' core work and mission / vision statements
2. speak in the language / lingo of that field / organization

Let me explain. First, any employee exists to serve a company's overall mission. While you may think that a janitor in a doctor's office works just to clean floors, in org-speak, he really works to clean floors to keep the doctor's office free of dirt and germs so the doc can treat patients safely and keep them from getting more sick. This is a very simplistic example, but you get the idea.

Likewise, any librarian works to serve the employer's mission, whether that mission is to heal the sick, to find legal decisions that support a case, or to teach college students to do good research.

To prove your importance to the bosses, you have to tie your work into the outcomes they need. The second step in doing this well is to use their terminology. So while you see your "cataloging skills" as vital, that term doesn't translate in a CEO's mind as essential to the org. A medical librarian should say something more like, "skills in finding and organizing information to serve the doctors when they need data to treat patients, determine treatments, and save lives." Any statement you make should relate directly to--and even use exact words from--the org's mission statement. 

This seems to be a simple lesson, yet I'm constantly surprised at how often people ignore it. When questioned, they give answers that make sense to them, when instead they need to make sense to the person who asked, who probably has a different mindset and vocabulary.

In fact, such work has become an important project at the Special Libraries Association, called the SLA Alignment Initiative. The professional newsletter I edit, Marketing Library Services, featured two in-depth articles on this topic early in 2010.** Written by longtime SLA member Richard Hulser, they explain how the project began and that "SLA leaders talk about alignment as being a 'game change,' focusing on expressing the identity and the value of the information professional." For SLA, this is an in-depth, well-researched, multi-year initiative, and I can't explain it all in this post. (But you can check the website for info & updates.) Some of the early findings were that the word "librarian" sends a mixed message, and that while info pros value accountability and service, they need to "focus on promoting their value-driven benefits rather than be defensive about shortcomings or what would happen without them." This jibes with the ABA article and its many comments, which also show that librarians are not making their value clear to the people in charge. 

So, coming back to the article about law librarians... the author revealed at the end that it was sort of tongue-in-cheek, and that he wasn't picking on us. It didn't really appear that way to me, nor did it to many of the info pros who left defensive comments. (Communication skills really matter!!) Author intentions aside, if he had truly understood the services & value that law librarians provide, he probably wouldn't have used them as his example for his "add value to the enterprise or become irrelevant" lesson. And in my correspondence with colleague Bryan Carson, he said something insightful: "I believe strongly that professional identity, stereotypes, and library funding are all tied together. They have much to do with how we sell ourselves and how we explain why we are important." 

So next time someone asks why you still matter in the age of the internet, answer thoughtfully, using words that will make sense to whomever you're talking with. Otherwise, people will just keep asking the question and never understanding why libraries and librarians are still essential.

**The two articles in MLS newsletter are not available online; you have to subscribe or order back issues from Here are the cites: 

"Marketing Our Value: The SLA Alignment Initiative," by Richard P. Hulser. March/April 2010, pgs. 1-4.
"SLA Alignment's Five Steps for Rebranding and Communicating Change," by Richard P. Hulser. May/June 2010, pgs. 1-3.

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