What Librarians Lack: The Importance of the Entrepreneurial Spirit

I have been around libraries for a while now.  I have been an administrator at both a public and academic library.  I have done some consulting work.  I write, publish, and present on a variety of library topics.  I am preparing to embark on teaching LIS at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN.  From all of this experience, I have reached one important conclusion!  Libraries and librarians, by in large, lack entrepreneurial spirit.

In Nina McHale’s recent post on Breaking Up with Libraries she states:

Also in the mix is my general frustration with library technology. We pay BILLIONS to ILS and other vendors each year, and for what? Substandard products with interfaces that a mother would kick to the curb. We throw cash at databases because they have the periodical content our clients need locked up inside them, and over a decade after the failure that was federated searching, we STILL do not have an acceptable product that provides a user-friendly interface and makes managing the data behind the scenes as easy as it needs to be for library staff.
Let’s face it, many of us feel this way.  We are completely frustrated with library vendors.  Book publishers are a never ending battle for us.  Much of our “supply chain” is controlled by for-profit companies  that simply are not interested in the user experience of our patrons (many of which would prefer us out of the game completely).  And what do we do about this?  We lament.  We complain.  We argue.  But we take it and throw our hands up in defeated disgust.

In the 19060s, 1970s and early 19080s, when librarians recognized a problem we took great risks to solve those problems.  As a result, many of the vendors we currently deal with were started by librarians.  But over time and for various reasons, those ventures were taken over by companies, often by equity firms. Just look at the new President and CEO of OCLC, Mr. Skip Prichard. While I’m sure he’s a nice guy and all, he is not a librarian.  He is actually a lawyer by training (insert lawyer joke here).  OCLC, the nonprofit corporate that relies solely on member libraries, is run by a non-librarian.  Innovative Interfaces’ new CEO, Mr. Kim Massana, comes straight out of the corporate world with an MBA and an MS in finance.

Since the middle 19080s, we have engaged in some form of learned helplessness.  As a result, many of the newest (and often most used) technologies that deal with information have been created by folks outside of our profession.  For example, why wasn’t Netflix, or Good Reads or Google started by librarians?  I’m not sure what killed the entrepreneurial spirit in our profession, but it certainly appears to be dead.

So you may ask, what is entrepreneurship?  As a concept, it is as hard to define as innovation or creativity.  The single best definition I’ve see comes from a Harvard Business School Professor.  He states, “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” (Howard Stevenson) It takes several readings to fully grasp what he means.  For me, entrepreneurial spirit is about risk taking, problem solving, grit, innovation, perseverance, and resolve.

Until we can inject entrepreneurial spirit back into our profession, I think we will continue with the status quo.  I just don’t think that someone outside our profession is going to step up to save us, and more importantly, improve the experience for our patrons.

In a recent HBR article How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution and accompanying blog post we see a call that states:
  1. Revolutions start local. Start the revolution in one locale and spread it from there. Every ecosystem has its own idiosyncrasies, and skepticism is prevalent, so start with quick wins that make sense in that specific location. And make quick correctable mistakes. Once you get on the right track in one locale, you can spread the revolution quickly. You don’t have years to wait for measurable results before scaling up, just know you are on the right track.
  2. Revolutions need participants. The “shot heard round the world” will be a town-meeting-style, entrepreneurship stakeholder workshop to create excitement and commitment, and to learn. Convene representatives of banks, churches, universities, public schools, unions, cooperatives, entrepreneurs, the municipal and federal government, trade and industry associations, economic development organizations, some “foreign” diaspora resources, and the media. Meet with them individually to prepare them, and learn about the assets and liabilities of the local entrepreneurship ecosystem.
  3. Revolutions require resources. In parallel, connect the community’s entrepreneurial support resources, both online, and bricks and mortar. It’s very possible to get that up and running in just a few weeks, and the same platform can be scaled immediately when the revolution heats up.
  4. Revolutions need revolutionaries. No society is devoid of entrepreneurs, ubiquitous protests of “we have lost our entrepreneurial spirit” notwithstanding. They may be under the radar, languishing in non-entrepreneurial positions, or channeling their entrepreneurial spirit in non-productive ways, but they are present. Find and enlist them. Support and mentor them. Galvanize the entrepreneurship resources and stakeholders to support them as well. Use your positions of power to help them find new customers, investors, advisors, and business partners.
  5. Revolutions need a call to action. Use the conventional and social media to generate unprecedented legitimacy for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. Ask people with the hunger to create to come forward with their ideas and then “flood the zone”: give interviews, have television programs, bring in high visibility experts, create billboards, etc.
  6. Revolutions need an inner council. Convene a small band of revolutionaries to advise you, many of them entrepreneurs. Listen to them. Share your concerns openly. Engage in frank, candid, open dialog. Avoid speeches, politics, and grandstanding. Reach out to the people who have left your community and who became successful outside, because there are almost always pools of entrepreneurial talent living overseas, and most of them would love to help back home.
  7. And last but not least, revolutions need leadership. Public leaders and their co-instigators have a key role to play in sparking the revolution and keeping the torch lit. If you are not at the top, go and enlist the most senior public officials around — mayors, senators, prime ministers or whomever. Get them to go out and visit new ventures, large and small. Give them awards; tell your public that entrepreneurship is key to your future. Repeat the message, and repeat it again, on television, online, in tweets, blogs, and Facebook posts. Make sure they inspire everyone to do his or her part.

So may you start a entrepreneurial and innovation revolution.  May you see problems as challenges to be solved instead of things to complain about, and may you play an active role in solving the problems that we face.



Filed under entrepreneurial spirit, Innovation

5 responses to “What Librarians Lack: The Importance of the Entrepreneurial Spirit

  1. Pingback: Entrepreneurial revolutionary, reporting for duty | Ink and Vellum

  2. Pingback: What Librarians Lack: The Importance of the Entrepreneurial Spirit | GraemeO28 Librarian and biker

  3. Pingback: IA Greatest Hits: What Librarians Lack: The Importance of the Entrepreneurial Spirit | The Information Activist Librarian

  4. Susan Bray

    I think one reason for librarians’ lack of entrepreneurship may be that so many librarians are employed in the public sector. Years ago, I worked at an organisation that successfully developed a discovery tool in-house, and other organisations were interested in buying it. However it was argued that the resource could not be sold, or further developed, because public money funded it, and this constituted an unfair advantage over possible commercial competitors.

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