October 31, 2014

A Little Business Won’t Hurt—and It May Help | From the Bell Tower

As an academic librarian, if you truly abhor anything having to do with the world of business, stop reading this column right now. Just skip right over to Barbara Fister’s column—or go read it again. You may not want to go any further here, because what I want to share this week is just one suggestion for academic librarians. Think of it as a potential resolution for the new year: read more business literature.

This suggestion may be unpopular. In the past two weeks, I’ve been told three times that academic librarians have a strong distaste for anything business-related (although academic business librarians are exempt—or they better be). I observed an online conversation among librarians about the worthlessness of business books—painting them all as simplistic pop-psychology, self-help trash. In response, I stated what I often do in defending the value of business literature—my personal philosophy on business acumen for academic librarianship:

  • Academic libraries are not businesses.
  • Academic libraries should not be run like businesses.
  • That said, academic librarians can discover good ideas and adopt useful tools and techniques to improve their workplace performance and leadership ability from the world of business.
  • Academic librarians can improve their personal skill sets and library organizations through the study of business organizations and leaders—and learn from both outstanding and shameful examples.

Does that convince you to stay with this column just a bit longer?

Why business?
It’s easy to understand why many academic librarians reject the idea that reading business literature is good professional practice. Many come from humanities and social-science backgrounds, and obtain little exposure to the business world. There’s no denying that business’s strong negative image, especially since 2008, hardly compels individuals to look to it for leaders.

Business is about profit-making, and libraries are the antithesis of that universe; our strongest value is free, unfettered, and equal access to information for all community members. We are not about profits—ergo, we should have nothing to do with business.

Let’s ease up a bit on that perspective. As an ex-business librarian, I developed a great appreciation for business, but there’s more to it than that. I want to continuously improve as a “leadager,” a leader who also manages. Keeping up with the world of business is a real boon-a constant source of inspiration and ideation.

If you think there’s no place for business in libraries, think again. Does your library provide chat reference? Guess where that service originated—business call centers. Do you offer self-check technology? That idea evolved from the ATM.

Paying more attention to business isn’t selling out. It’s about discovering new possibilities to improve the library experience.

Get cornered
Perhaps you need more convincing. Let me offer a simple example of a business resource that can benefit every academic librarian. I wrote previously about a weekly column that appears in the New York Times business section titled “The Corner Office.” Each week, its author, Adam Bryant, interviews a different business manager or leader and asks insightful questions about that individual’s management or leadership style. There are lessons offered to help readers become better leaders—or followers—by gaining insight into different leadership styles.

The interviews almost always make for fascinating and fun reading. The column became so popular that it was turned into a book.

Try it, you’ll like it
The New York Times can also be a basic source of business news and advice. It’s easy enough to subscribe to the RSS feed for the top business news, but you may prefer to get your business news elsewhere. It’s equally easy, and less time-consuming, to review major business publications on a weekly basis. Good examples are the BW Insider, BusinessWeek‘s weekly email summary, or the Wall Street Journal‘s “This Week’s Most Popular” email newsletter. I lack time to read the WSJ, so I find one email a week serves me well.

Even if you have no desire to track the world of business, you’ll still want to explore the latest business trends in innovation and creativity. You might argue that publications about these two subjects are not necessarily business-related—but I do find most of their authors have some business affiliation. There are dozens of innovation blogs, but I would recommend two email newsletters, Innovation Week and Idea Connection. You can find other possibilities here.

For more ideas for leaders and managers, I would highly recommend the many blogs sponsored by the Harvard Business Review. There are good email newsletters about both innovation and leadership, or you can subscribe to a feed of all blogs published by the HBR Blog Network. I almost always find good posts that help me reflect on my abilities as a leader.

Read any good books lately?
What about business books? They are of less interest to me, so I have few recommendations to offer. Why curl up with a business book when there’s so much to learn from daily and weekly content? I don’t have time to read all the business books I’d like, so I focus on authors whose work best speaks to my interests. I’m likely to read the latest work from Jim Collins, Seth Godin, Gary Hamel, or Roger Martin, and I look for recommendations from other sources I follow. I’m always on the lookout for video interviews with authors that can save me time by sharing the gist of their latest business book.

Admittedly, there are loads of business books published each year, and some are just pushing shallow or often-repeated ideas. Avoid them. Seek out the few that will best address what you most want to learn. There are sources for good suggestions.

Think different
Nothing makes me angrier than when I hear academic librarians writing off business as a waste of time, or irrelevant to the practice of librarianship. Shouldn’t we, more than any other professionals, be open to new ideas? Shouldn’t we avoid generalizations and misconceptions about that with which we have little experience?

I hope my column has encouraged you to think differently, but why take it from me? Take time to speak with a business librarian colleague, or a business faculty member, and ask them what they use to keep up with the new business developments. Try to learn why he or she is passionate about business, and what they believe academic librarians can learn from that world. As we head into the new year, consider trying something new by adding a few business resources to your weekly reading routine. I believe you will discover new ideas worth sharing with your colleagues.

This is my last column for 2011. As always, I want to thank you for taking the time to read From the Bell Tower—even when you don’t agree with my opinions or advice. I appreciate that you give me the opportunity to get you thinking about something new-or looking at an old issue from a new perspective. I hope you’ll continue reading in 2012. Have a great holiday season and new year.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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