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Library entrepreneurship: taking a lesson from business history

By Alvin Hutchinson, Smithsonian Libraries | Aug 27, 2019

Hutchinson article


In the business world, firms sometimes change their primary product or service in response to customer needs, markets, product obsolescence, new technologies or a combination of these factors. Often companies change direction in pursuit of a higher return on investment. A few notable examples of businesses moving into a different area: General Motors expanded from manufacturing cars into financing them; Apple added media content and streaming to its hardware operations; 3M began with manufacturing sandpaper and later developed masking tape and Post-it® notes; Amazon started with online retail sales and moved into web services, logistics franchising, media production and streaming. All of these firms changed direction in order to thrive. The many that don’t change course unfortunately face consequences, including bankruptcy. Today in the US, Toys R Us, Sears and others teeter on the verge of insolvency, due largely to an inability or unwillingness to change their products and services to meet changing needs.


Libraries have responded to their own “customers” by beginning to provide services that had previously been outside their scope. For example, some public libraries now circulate materials besides books and media, including board games, cookware, toys and tools. Other libraries, including those in the academic world, now contain non-collections areas such as makerspaces that may include 3D printers and other digital tools. These services may be in demand, but they are largely outside the traditionally defined realm of libraries as collections of print materials.


While it is often not apparent to the general public, library vendors are beginning to diversify their products and services as well. Because traditional library vendors have often collected and managed publishing data, their new services include tools to measure and evaluate citations and other research metrics, as well as other products that provide comparisons of research activity, collaborations and outputs. These products tend to be targeted to research administration, not libraries. Likewise, many commercial publishers have developed and now sell or support tools for scholars as authors rather than readers.


All of this means that librarians are increasingly encouraged to be entrepreneurial. Although many of us work in a not-for-profit setting, academic librarians are not immune to the influence of business, sales, markets and other commercial forces. The scholars who use research libraries may be insulated from these factors by their labs, courses or field work, but we librarians cannot avoid dealing with the products, vendors and discounts that ultimately affect them. Certainly, with regard to scholarly communication services and the regular journal cancellation exercises that many libraries undertake, librarians have been forced to think about the business models of publishers and vendors (and even library operations) like never before.


This movement by libraries and library vendors follows similar paths established in the business world. An example somewhat analogous to libraries might be the video rental industry.  Most millennials probably don’t remember driving to a video rental store and looking through its shelves to find a movie you wanted to watch, paying to rent it, and then returning it on time to avoid a late fee. Netflix pushed that business model aside with DVDs by mail and, later, online streaming. Although there may have been social benefits to visiting the video store (and before that, going to the movie theater) most of us undoubtedly prefer the in-home streaming--on demand at a flat price--that has largely replaced the video store experience. In fact, our cumulative preference is demonstrated in the near-disappearance of video rental shops.


Librarians may not be immune to the same forces. While it may not be directly applicable to libraries, a 2015 report from the Brookings Institute1 that illustrates the workforce transition in the video rental business is worth pondering:


“When the video rental chain Blockbuster was at its height in 2005, it had over 80,000 employees working in 9,000 brick-and-mortar stores across the U.S. Today Netflix, with a market capitalization of over $50 billion, has only 2,189 full-time employees and rents server space for its streaming video service from Amazon.”


The same adaptation to user preferences could be happening in libraries. Their new services branch off from the traditional collection-building and reference activities that have until now defined libraries. Online access offers a convenience comparable to that of streaming movies, and as a result, users—particularly science library users—visit the physical library less often. And along with services to visitors, librarians are encouraged to explore services in publishing, data management and scholarly communication consultation, all of which may require a more entrepreneurial approach.


The push to be entrepreneurial probably comes from the perception that technology has changed the way all organizations conduct their operations. The implication is that librarians could learn some things from the business world, where the introduction of new products and services—successful or not—means that someone is planning for the future.




 1 Davis, Jerry. 2015. “Capital Markets and Job Creation in the 21st Century.” Washington, DC.





Alvin Hutchinson is the author of the book Science Libraries in the Self-Service Age that suggests ways in which libraries can remain relevant to their institution. Library Connect is pleased to offer their subscribers a look at the book by offering a complimentary download of the introductory chapter “Science Libraries and Service Innovation” that summarizes current trends that indicate the necessity for libraries to develop new services to remain relevant to their parent institution.



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