What do libraries really offer? It’s an important question to ask because the answer helps to determine what the library’s core business is. And in seeking the answer we need to think less about the goods, services and content libraries provide, and to focus instead on the value that our user communities derive from the services and content. As I learned from a Bill Gribbons talk on user experience, the whole process of designing the experience begins with knowing what the library’s core business and values are. But grasping the library’s core business and being able to articulate it is a challenge.
A brief article titled “Innovation Strategy: What Business are We In?” in Innovation Tools got me thinking that a way to start defining the library’s business is to imagine what it isn’t – and what it is that people really want from the library. The Innovation Tools article shared a number of those “they thought they were in the …business, but…” and that got me thinking about applying that to the library. For example, “Black & Decker doesn’t sell drills, they sell holes in the wall” or “Harley-Davidson doesn’t sell motorcycles it sells the concept of freedom to middle-age men.” And of course you’ve heard those lines about companies that thought they were in one business but were put out of it by disruptive technologies. For example, “companies that thought they were in the typewriter business were really in the communication business and they were put out of business by the word processor.”
The first thing that comes to my mind is that libraries think they are in the information business but they are really in the education or learning business. Members of the library’s community need information the same way Black & Decker’s customers need power tools and drill bits. It’s just a means to an end. For years we have heard that the library’s basic business is to acquire, store, organize and make information – in all formats – accessible. That now seems to be the classic focus on the commodity or product rather the benefits libraries provide to their users. David Lankes gets it. In a recent Blended Librarians Online Learning Community webcast he said that libraries are in the knowledge business, and that since knowledge is created through conversations libraries are also or ultimately in the business of facilitating community conversations. That’s a core principle of Lankes’ Participatory Librarianship concept.” My fellow DBL blogger Brian Mathews shared his thought that he sees libraries as being in the productivity business, helping students and faculty to efficiently get the resources and help they need to acheive their objectives.
It may be that there is no single business that defines libraries. Each library differs somewhat with respect to its culture and community so the nature of defining the library’s business may be, to some extent, situational. Your library may be in the community building business or your library’s children’s department may be in the business of creating the next generation of readers. The bottom line, according to the Innovation Tools article is that you begin defining your library’s business by:
– ask the customers
– ask the people who consider your product but do not buy it
– observe your customers and see how they use your product
The point is that “Unless you know exactly why prospective customers will buy your product (or use your services) you are unable to properly market or sell. Worse you will be blind to the alternatives, the opportunities and the threats which exist.” In other words, if we fail to truly know what business we are in we can’t possibly innovate in order to avoid be marginalized by another disruptive technology. If we think we’re in the business of creating gateways to content then we deserve to be disrupted by the next great technology that everyone will use to achieve their learning outcomes – which is why virtually all students use Google first to tackle course assignments or use YouTube to supplement course content. Librarians do demonstrate innovative practices, but too often we innovate in technologies that do not address our core business. If we really want to create change that is of value to our users we had better figure out why they go to libraries and what they use them for. Then we can clearly articulate the business we are in and innovate based on benefits people derive from libraries.