Vitamins and minerals on the tableThe 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.”[1] 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.”[2]  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.

[1] Govan, James F. “The Creeping Invisible Hand: Entrepreneurial Librarianship.” Library Journal 113 (1): 35-38 (1988)

[2] 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.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


12 Thoughts on "Vitamins, Painkillers, and the Entrepreneurial Library"

The abundant literature on social entrepreneurship (mission not profit driven) is instructive in this case. And the neo-liberal mindset, if you will, swings like a pendulum between favor and disfavor in the world of economic development theory between an extreme “right” and a more populist “left.” But these are just minor points to sharpen the main point Rick nails about seeking pain points to fix, regardless of our driver.

Thank you. Vitamins versus painkillers is a useful way to look at library services. I would add, however, one additional dimension. Painkillers, but especially vitamins, should be easy to take. I might put up with overly complex procedures or a 30 minute training video to learn how to successfully take a painkiller but would be less likely to do so for a vitamin. As a retired faculty member, I know that my academic library, where I still have access, has some useful features that might help me in my research. As long as I don’t have excruciating pain that these resources would cure, I’m not inclined to spend the time learning to use them since I can pass on a vitamin if alternate options are available. Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia are all easy to take; library resources sometimes aren’t.

To give a concrete example, the need to find book reviews for an assignment in my collection development class was painful enough to wade through the sixteen different ways that my library provides access to Library Journal to find one that met my needs. If this had been a nice but not essential need for my class, in other words, a vitamin, I wouldn’t have bothered.

I’ve always wondered about the resistance libraries have to adding Amazon or “Buy This Book” buttons to their catalogs. If the book isn’t in a collection, or if Amazon can deliver faster than ILL and the patron can afford it, why not provide that option? As mentioned by Bob, Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon have all been creeping in on the library’s turf, and a lot of libraries have welcomed Wikipedia and Google, often incorporating them right into the catalog. But when it comes to Amazon or any book purchase option, HERESY! Guard the gates! The money changers are desecrating the temple! We simply can’t have patrons OWNING books. Away with your filthy lucre. To terribly misquote master Yoda—There is no buy. Borrow or borrow not. All they’re really doing is forcing the patron to open another tab and re-researching at Amazon on their own. Seems there ought to be a middle ground.

I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about the resistance we see in libraries to the idea of turning their services into engines of promotion for commercial enterprises–that resistance emerges from a combination of both thoughtful concern (for example, “Do we trust Amazon enough with our users’ privacy to serve as an active mechanism for delivering customers to them?”) and knee-jerk reflex (“The library is not a commercial enterprise”).

That said, the organizational response to thoughtful questioning isn’t always ultimate resistance. In my library, for example, we joined the Amazon Associates program a few years back, adding links to Amazon into our catalog records so that patrons could click through and purchase whenever they wanted. We ended up discontinuing it because it generated practically zero use and zero revenue.

I’d be curious to hear more about this experiment. Things like how many titles it involved, and how the link was labeled and what the design looked like. I have to admit that I’m rather surprised that it generated zero use, but I’m wondering if that’s really an indication of disinterest or implementation.

Ironically, vitamins (the stuff not the products) are essential for life while (mild) pain killers are not. Vitamin deficiencies are real illnesses. But the vitamin products are often unnecessary because we get all we need from our food. Maybe this extends to the library analogy. People only need a specific, limited amount of information.

In my current position as director of reference and instruction services, I think of this dichotomy often. It is very traditional for the library to teach users how to find information, and in some cases they actually want to learn this, but the majority of our users want to be put in touch with the information they need without the back story of why this database was used, the intricacies of Boolean searching, etc. Libraries face competition like never before, and the one thing that separates us from the open web and asking the kid at the next table where he got his articles is the fact that librarians are expert searchers and locators of information. This is the ace up our sleeve. Yet we insist on teaching people how to do it themselves instead of applying our masterful search skills directly to the problem for the good of the user. What if you called a plumber to fix your toilet and he showed up at your house with instructions on how to fix your own toilet? Chances are you’d never call him again (not to mention that you’d regret having called him in the first place). Perhaps an oversimplified analogy, but something many students experience pretty regularly in libraries. They go to the desk needing a specific problem (e.g. three articles on wind energy) resolved and they get an overly detailed intro to the library home page, an enumeration of the best databases for their topic, and suggestions for the best search terms to use. Plus the offer of more help if they need it. The one thing they don’t get is three articles on wind energy. And the one thing we don’t get is a return customer.

While I’ve heard this call for entrepreneurial thinking since I went to library school, I haven’t heard much discussion about what needs to change in the library save a culture of entrepreneurship. At the present, most librarians are financially rewarded based on rank and years of experience, with little room for financial reward. Many librarians are part of a union who negotiates salary and benefits on their behalf, or are given tenure and professorship status at their institution. I imagine that in order to get librarians to think differently, you may have to remove many of these structural reward systems. You can’t just ask people to think differently.

Agreed. And it’s not just a matter of incentives — I think the biggest obstacle in library culture is a (pervasive though not universal) antagonism towards the very thought of doing anything that smacks of commercialism. Too often, we librarians use the word “commercial” as a conversation-killer, a way of avoiding discussions that make us feel threatened or that require us to wrestle with morally difficult issues.

If I were a young librarian with entrepreneurial inclinations, I would worry about pursuing them too far in the early stages of my career because of how it might limit my opportunities later. (Opportunities in libraries, anyway.) Until we decide to open our collective minds as a profession, we can’t expect to see much in the way of real innovation.

Culture is often a byproduct of social structure. While I’ve heard library directors and “thought-leaders” espouse how librarians need to “embrace change,” no one seems willing to talk about changing the social structure. Can you imagine a 20-something graduate being the CEO of a research library? Or even your boss? How would the culture change if you could fire a tenured librarian like Jeffrey Beall or anyone over age 55 (now the majority of academic librarians)? What I’d like to see is a discussion of changing library culture that also includes HOW it could be done and WHAT would be the likely consequences. I don’t think you can ask for the culture to change by just wishing for it.

One might note that Project Muse arose as an entrepreneurial project at Johns Hopkins years before its formal entrepreneurial program came into being. It has proven both a commercial and a mission-driven success, and I’d hazard the guess that it quickly moved from becoming a vitamin program to a painkiller program.

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