Promoting corporate libraries

I received a comment on an earlier post from a man whose wife–a hospital librarian–just got laid off, ending library services at that hospital. The hospital administration must have figured that all the doctors and staff can easily enough find information themselves. Promoting corporate libraries is one of the responsibilities of the librarian.

The fate of this library reminds me of another ill-planned closing that I was involved in fixing. Back when I worked for a temp agency, one of my assignments involved going to a hot and dusty warehouse on the near north side of Chicago to sort through boxes of what had once been the archives of one of Chicago’s largest banks. The bank had given the archivist one or two days notice of the archive’s closure, and she had to box up everything in a hurry.

Two years later, the bank decided that it needed its archives after all. In her haste (and perhaps also in a display of passive resistance) the archivist had not carefully kept, for example, all of the papers of the various past presidents, in order, or even in the same couple of boxes.

My job, then, was to sort through the mess, to put like things together, and to account for everything on the inventory list. An experienced archivist from the temp agency then reconstructed the finding aid and organized everything.

The doctors and hospital staff primarily use various proprietary full-text databases. They can probably access  them from their offices, but the time they spend looking for information might be better spent on something else. The librarian can find it more efficiently and less expensively.

Most hospital libraries also include materials suitable for the general public. Patients and family members often need information. Where better to find it than the hospital library? Who better to help them find it and understand it than the hospital librarian?

And those databases that the doctors use? Someone has to make sure the hospital has the ones they need at the best possible price, which may entail some kind of consortial arrangement with other libraries. Someone has to keep track of how everything is working and contact the vendor if something goes wrong. If there is no hospital librarian, who else is qualified to do that?

The hospital administration may soon regret laying off the librarian and shutting down library services to save money. They may find it a false economy, in which case they will have to spend money in a few years to restore the library and its services.

In both the case of the bank archives and the hospital library, though, it is wrong to blame the “bean counters” in the corporate administration and leave it at that. Probably no one in the administration understand what librarians or archivists do, the services they provide, and how they can help boost the bottom line.

Therefore, the tasks of the corporate librarian do not stop with acquiring and maintaining the collection and equipment, cataloging new acquisitions, and finding information for the people who need it. They must also include promoting the corporate library to the administration. The librarian knows the value of the library’s services and must make sure, by a variety of means, that the administration does, too.

Most public and academic libraries, and some corporate libraries, have a large enough staff that the responsibility for promoting the library’s services to the government, college, or corporate administration falls on the head of the library. In one-person library staff, all library tasks from the highest administrative responsibilities to changing the paper in the copier fall on that one person.

It is easy to see why, in the press of all the work needed to keep the library running, a solo librarian can let promoting the library slide. It is also easy to predict the consequences when times get hard. The corporate administration will eliminate any services that do not understand and therefore see as essential to the company’s core mission. And the administration is guaranteed not to understand the library without the librarian’s careful promotion of its services.

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