The concept of entrepreneurialism in libraries has a fairly long, if somewhat vexed, history. The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University have hosted a formally-constituted Entrepreneurial Library Program since 1999. That program was put together with the intention of using library expertise and resources to generate new revenue streams in support of library programming — about as straightforward an adoption of traditional entrepreneurialism into librarianship as one might imagine.
Elsewhere, there has been more general discussion of the need for an “entrepreneurial mindset,” one that adapts some of the strategies and attitudes of the entrepreneur to the creation of new programs and relationships on campus, but without necessarily adopting the specifically revenue-generating goals of traditional entrepreneurship. In recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of papers, blog posts, books, and conference presentations that talk about “developing an entrepreneurial library culture” (one that “rewards innovative thinking and risk-taking”), or “seeking mutually-beneficial opportunities with other people and groups,” or embracing “the validity of change” in an explicitly entrepreneurial way. Several conferences for entrepreneurial librarians have been held on the campus of UNC Greensboro since 2009.
But discussion of this concept goes back further, and it has been controversial from the start. Almost 30 years ago, James F. Govan (then University Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) warned that an “emphasis on economics over public service is attaining a certain vogue among librarians” and suggested that “this new enthusiasm for entrepreneurship in libraries is ill-founded” and would lead to the “clear lines between professionalism and commercialism becom(ing) blurred.” In 2012, Kristin Whitehair warned that a growing focus on entrepreneurial values in public-sector libraries (both public and academic) will lead to “an increased demand for revenue” and “core library services becom(ing) less valued.” These concerns dovetail with a growing worry over the perception of increasingly neoliberal (read: politically conservative, market-driven) tendencies in higher education generally and in libraries in particular. See, for example, here, here, here, and here.
All of this background discussion has been buzzing around in the back of my mind for years now, as I’ve tried to work out my own somewhat conflicted feelings about the proper role of entrepreneurialism and market-derived programming in academic libraries. In the context of that buzzing abivalence, I found a keynote address at last week’s annual SSP conference — by renowned entrepreneur David Kidder—to be especially intriguing.
Most of what Kidder said had limited direct relevance to libraries, but one distinction that he drew really grabbed me: it was that between offering the marketplace vitamins and offering it painkillers.
Before I talk about the differences between those two things, let me clarify something: I’m convinced that we, in libraries, are completely kidding ourselves if we believe we are not operating in a competitive marketplace. We most certainly are competing, and the marketplace in which we are doing so is the market for the time and attention of our patrons. If our patrons don’t intuitively believe that we will reward their time and attention richly, they will (immediately and without conscious thought) turn to our competitors: the open Web, social networks, pirate sites like Sci-Hub, commercial content providers, etc. It may sound “neoliberal” to talk about libraries operating in a competitive marketplace, but so be it: I’m convinced that this competitive dynamic is one that we ignore at the peril of our relevance to the academic enterprise — and in research libraries, our relevance to the academic enterprise is the value proposition that is most salient to our ongoing existence.
In light of that belief, I found the analogy of vitamins and painkillers compelling. As I understood Kidder’s explanation, vitamins are genuinely valuable but inessential products that make life incrementally better for people, whereas painkillers are essential products for which people feel an immediate and ongoing need. In other words (and putting this into library terms), vitamins are services that our patrons really ought to use, whereas painkillers are services that they want to use — services and programs that solve a keenly felt problem for them.
In libraries, we have a strong tendency to create vitamins: programs and resources that (we’re certain) our patrons would surely use if only they really understood what’s best for them. Such programs and resources might include the library catalog, various kinds of subject-specific library guides, our collections (in whatever format), reference services, and interlibrary loan. Some of these offerings are, in fact, used by our patrons with enthusiasm and appreciation; some of them are not. When they are not, our response tends to be to try to educate our patrons in the hope that doing so will lead them to realize what’s good for them and change their research behavior accordingly.
In libraries we do also offer painkillers. Interlibrary loan can be either a vitamin or a painkiller, depending on the patron and her particular need at a particular time. Online journals, for all of the grief they cause us in the library, have been an enormously effective painkiller for busy researchers in need of searchable and remotely accessible high-quality scholarly information. I’m convinced that nothing in the past 30 years has enhanced the reputation and usefulness of academic libraries as much as our embrace of ejournals has. And on many campuses today (including my own), the library has effectively become the academic version of the student union, meeting our students’ urgent need for individual and collaborative study spaces, power outlets, whiteboards, comfortable seating, access to specialized computer software and hardware, and laptop support.
So as I think about libraries operating in a competitive marketplace for time and attention, creating what can arguably be called “products” that compete with other products to solve our patrons’ problems, and looking actively for ways to make our patrons’ academic and intellectual lives better, I have to confess that I find myself tending more and more to embrace the idea of entrepreneurialism. Maybe it does sound corporate. But maybe it doesn’t really matter so much how things sound. Maybe what matters a lot more is the real impact that our programs and products have on the real academic lives of our real students and faculty.
 Govan, James F. “The Creeping Invisible Hand: Entrepreneurial Librarianship.” Library Journal 113 (1): 35-38 (1988)
 Whitehair, Kristin. “Navigating the Ethical Waters of Entrepreneurial Librarianship: An Ethical Risk Analysis.” In The Entrepreneurial Librarian: Essays on the Infusion of Private-business Dynamism into Professional Service, Mary Krautter, Mary Beth Lock, and Mary G. Scanlon, eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.