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Libraries != Borders

Aug - 5 - 2007
Nicole C. Engard

I just read a post by Lorcan Dempsey about Good to great : why some companies make the leap–and others don’t by James Collins and it sounds like an interesting read. In a time when libraries are trying to Borderize themselves, it might be worth reading what Collins has to say.

We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become “more like a business.” Most businesses – like most of anything else in life – fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great. When you compare great companies with good ones, many widely practiced business norms turn out to correlate with mediocrity, not greatness. So, then, why would we want to import the practices of mediocrity into the social sectors? [Page 2]

The fact is that libraries are built on a different model that Borders or Barnes & Noble. Collins goes on to say that social sector organizations should be driven by (are driven by) missions, not profits. I’d argue that while that is true – taking pointers from how businesses are being run isn’t a bad thing (having not read the whole book yet, I don’t know if that’s Collins argument or not). I think there are a lot of great things libraries can learn from for-profit businesses, but I totally agree that you can’t make an a direct comparison between what they’re doing and what we have to do to stay in business. Lorcan sums it up nicely:

We often hear that libraries ought to be run more like businesses. But this is silly. Libraries should look for good models in business as well as in other social sectors. And increasingly, libraries and library organizations need to look to a variety of expertises – technical, logistics and supply-chain management, marketing – to improve their services. They ought to be well-run, which means being clear about what value they create and working towards it with the best available models and expertise. It does not mean being ‘more like businesses’.

PS. For those non-programmers reading this – “!=” means “not equal.”

4 Responses so far.

  1. Deb Waugh says:

    This post is tantalizing, but leaves me wanting much more. (Could that be why we’re supposed to reply? o_O

    There has been a lot of talk about the bookstore model for libraries over the last few years, and it’s only been very recently that I’ve seen the opinions on this trend shift.

    I agree that using bookstores as a model is not the only or best solution for creating successful libraries (especially in high school libraries such as where I work).

    I know that one other model we must think of is the Internet search engine model. Instant results, instant gratification. And the Web 2.0 style is even more pertinent. The tagging concept is now becoming engrained in many libraries. My students rarely want an entire book on one subject, but if by my adding keywords (tags) to the cataloging record they can quickly find a page, a chapter, or a section that addresses what they need, it is a start.

    A major problem with trying to model on Web 2.0 concepts in a school library is the strict filtering system. My students are allowed no access to anything interactive on the web (and frankly, not much access to anything else). So, for now, the only solution seems to be to incorporate it into book cataloging, and to encourage them to use specific blogs, RSS feeds, Google alerts, etc. at home.

    I’m not sure where else to go with library connections/models at this point. Sports venues? Hiking trails? Opium dens? I’ll have to give this some more thought.

    Thanks for the kick start into this stream of consciousness!

  2. T Scott says:

    I’m generally skeptical about the latest business/management books, but Collins is very definitely worth reading. We used his book as the basis of a very productive discussion series among the staff a few years ago and have tried to use some of his principles in our latest round of strategic planning. I’ve written a bit about that here: http://tscott.typepad.com/tsp/2007/01/what_makes_us_g.html

  3. Nicole says:

    Ooo – thanks!

  4. Steve says:

    I read both of Collin’s books.
    There are of course tremendous differences between businesses and non profits, the most obvious being the capacity of a business to have an “unlimited” revenue stream whereas libraries and local government entities are restricted by statutes and tax policies.

    The message I took away from Collins (after reading the second book) was that the principles of creating great organizations, whether businesses or those in the nonprofit sector, were essentially the same. He rejects “business speak” in both sectors and instead promotes the importance of sound leadership, hiring the right people and defining a mission that differentiates the organization within their sector.

    When I heard that he had written the second book (which he describes as the last chapter to the first), I thought the message would be that “the social sector is not a business”, but I was surprised by his findings that the business model doesn’t necessarily work for the private sector either.


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