Librarian Entrepreneurs

“Doing more with less” is a phrase that regularly comes up in libraries. It is also a regularly maligned phrase since you can’t really do more with less, you can only do less. Andy Woodworth gives an example of cutting a pizza into different parts. In doing more with less you really are just spreading your resources more thinly and giving everyone less quality service. I don’t believe that library budgets should continue to be on the chopping block. This country needs less ignorance and more enlightenment, more curiosity and creativity, not less. But the reality is that we’re in a period of less resources, even while usage and programming are up.

This is not something new for libraries though. They are used to not being flush with resources. And I think this can be a huge strength. Last Friday I attended the ACRL NY Symposium on Cultivating Entrepreneurship and there were some great examples of people finding creative ways to secure resources whether through working with other departments, developing their own technology tools and selling them, working with companies as sponsors, or leveraging free online tools. The best, stickiest, most succinct, definition I have come across for entrepreneurship is from the Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson. He says,

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”

We may be in a time of less resources, at least from traditional funding sources, but we are also in a time in which there is an abundance of opportunity. More students are going to college but less are graduating on time. People need to retrain, unlearn, and relearn to be a part of the now ever changing job market. Higher education is in a period of significant disruption. These are not problems but distinct opportunities that libraries can capitalize on, but in order to do that we need to be entrepreneurial.

Libraries are already scrappy. They find extremely creative ways of avoiding budget cuts and advocating for library voter support. What is needed in addition to being scrappy and creative, is an entrepreneurial outlook: seeing opportunities and pursuing them without regards to current resources. There may be less traditional funding, but that doesn’t mean the resources aren’t out there. Instead of a zero sum game where there are only so many slices of pizza to go around, maybe we start recognizing that there are also tacos, and chicken wings, and chili and lots of other resources we may have overlooked. Maybe we continue to leverage and expand our use of the abundance of free software, platforms, social media and web tools available. Maybe we strategically partner more with departments or offices around campus. Maybe we secure more funding and work with from those in the business community to whom we send graduates. Many of these are becoming increasingly socially responsible and want to do good in addition to making a profit. Maybe we crowdfund more really good and needed library ideas.

Resources are out there. They may not look the same as they always did, but funding should not hold a good idea down. Opportunities are also out there. We often see them as problems, as things that annoy us, or as things that scare us. When you start looking at things that make you uncomfortable though, you begin to see that it is often an area that needs attention and where good work can be done.

Let’s not do more with less. Let’s do more with more.




Avoiding Mission Creep

World’s largest Swiss Army Knife

Last evening our president and provost were invited to chat with the faculty about their vision, past, present, and future for the college. It was an excellent event, and I appreciated the opportunity to have genuine conversations with the people making the big decisions on campus. One of the things that really resonated with me was when our president said that mission creep is one of the biggest challenges facing higher education. Everyone brings unique talents and strengths to an organization. This means that people will want to pursue different interests, but if those interests start getting too far outside the mission of the institution or what you’re actually trying to achieve there will be a lot of wasted energy.

In libraries, as a microcosm of higher ed, I think that this can be true as well. Libraries by their nature are a service industry–a helping industry. Because of this we often try to be all things to all people, or we continue things that still serve some people but perhaps not as effectively as in the past. Because we love helping others it makes it really hard to say no. Yet to innovate, and meet the challenges of the future, saying no is extremely important. The late Steve Jobs understood this well:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Librarians do need to serve, but we also need to learn how to say no. We only have a limited amount of resources, funds, and energy. If we say yes to everything and don’t continually reevaluate services and initiatives we risk spreading ourselves thin. This can lead to burnout and a lot of mediocre services as opposed to engagement and several services that delight and amaze our users.

We shouldn’t be asking “what else can we do?” We should be asking “who are our current and future users as opposed our past users, imagined users, or the users we wish existed?” “What should we be saying no to?” “What is going to amaze our users?”