Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Book Review: 'Corporate Libraries: Basic Principles in a Changing Landscape’

Confusion reigns in the land of CILIP: Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. What is the difference between people who are mid-career managers, experienced directors, newly qualified solo specialists, or…something else entirely? An email from the largely public and academic library umbrella organisation regarding focus groups got me thinking about why our professional body is struggling with this complicated brave new information driven world. In my view, part of this is due to the perceived differences between public and corporate librarians.

Some insights are inadvertently offered in Constance Ard’s new book ‘Corporate Libraries: Basic Principles in a Changing Landscape’ and it goes straight to the heart of why CILIP is in turmoil. I shall come on to specifics shortly. Firstly, it saddens me that this book wasn’t published by Facet Publishing because, aside from a few gripes, it is one of the most insightful and readable - and expensive - books about the changing role of library and information staff I’ve come across recently. Ard and her team of extremely well qualified contributors set out to explore the way that corporate librarians are instrumental in contributing to the aims and objectives of the companies that employ them.

The first part opens with a snapshot of technology, usefully orientating the reader. From federated searching to app design, big data to BYOD, recent providers of technologies have assured the user that their bold innovations will make finding information easier and quicker. Maybe they do but information professionals are well placed to evaluate technological solutions, act as mediators between the provider and colleagues, and ultimately connect the right technology with users. A later chapter on emerging or evolving technology reiterates these points and warns us - perhaps needlessly - of the need to stay on top of new developments.

The main activities of collecting, organising, disseminating, training and evaluating and managing digital assets are familiar to all of us who work in corporate libraries. Chapters 4 'The basics of library service' and Chapter 5 'knowledge workers and information professional - partners for results' form the book’s core. Even thought they don’t say anything particularly new about how the ‘library as place’ has given way to ‘library as provider of services’(1),  they act like a checkbox of essential skills for information professionals. It is reinvigorating and refreshing to see it restated and emphasised, and a copy should be forwarded to management.  Importantly they state that it is essential that ‘corporate librarians are embedded in the customer team in order to that they secure the content necessary for the team’s success’. (2) Collaboration is the message to take from Chapter 5. Even if you forget the rest of what is written, embedded collaboration is key.

The chapter which is a must-read for CILIP is chapter 3 on personality traits, and where I experienced some unease. Marydee Ojala asks, what personality traits do people associate with librarians? In the public and academic sphere she suggests that a service mentality prevails and she really put the boot in, stating that corporate librarians have a different mission to public and academic library services; 'corporate librarians do not aspire to be Girl Scouts'.(3) If I was from CILIP and reading this, I would be extremely annoyed that they are still battling such prejudice. Do you aspire to be Girl Guides?

I disagree with Ojala on a number of issues. Firstly, although I am a 'corporate librarian', service is absolutely central to my mission. Anyone, whether in public or private, needs to ensure that they are responsive, polite, aware etc, otherwise you will irritate your customers. And lawyers are easily irritated Secondly although I find her Girl Guide references patronising, I maintain that their 'be prepared' mantra a pithier mission statement than my own 'right information at the right time and at the right price'. Her advice on fitting in, professional demeanour, getting out of your comfort zone, branding etc are as valid to public and academic librarians as they are to corporate ones. So to draw a distinction between public and private makes no sense, yet it is this mentality which has led to members deserting CILIP and why they need to rediscover common ground in library and information professionals' behaviours and practices.

This book provides an excellent overview of the exciting and fast moving world of the corporate librarian, and if you can find it to read for free in a library near you, I recommend it. Yet, I would argue, anyone involved in the supply of information should be tech savvy, issue aware, and conscious of the rapidly changing broader landscape. So ideally it should be called 'Libraries: Principles in a Changing Landscape’ because it applies to all information professionals.

(1) p.31
(2) p.40
(3) p.24


I was sent a free copy of this book because Ark wanted to apologise for an internal mix up. This sort of report is normally way out of my budget league. I would be interested to know if anyone else has read it and what they think of it. The CILIP connection is there because the potential disintegration and increasing irrelevance of our professional body worries me, despite the excellent offerings of BIALL, SLA etc etc.

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