Libraries as a Business

I think I have sabotaged myself on a few cover letters by saying I have a unique perspective on libraries because I am an entrepreneur. It is no less true though.  At the same time, at the 2015 Michigan Libraries Association Conference, the talk "The Librarian as An Entrepreneur" was packed.  There seems to be a disconnect. 

The modern library as everyone knows is growing past just solely being repositories for the latest novel. There is no point in rehashing this point, but because they are growing past this, the needs and wants of patrons are changing fast and furiously. Libraries are not static, and neither are entrepreneurs. At the core essence of what it means to be a business owner is to embrace change, to approach it with less caution and fear, to not be afraid to jump off that desk, because lets face it, jumping off cliffs is scary.

The skills needed to grow a business from the ground up and be able to survive on the profit it brings in alone, without backers feeding start-up money, are unique. These skills ensure that you are forced to try things you may not be comfortable with, that you speak to people you wouldn't normally speak with, and research above and beyond what you normally would, because remember, your means to an end is at stake. Thinking entrepreneurially means taking chances, and leveraging if the time and money spent on a chance is worth the end result. Most importantly though it's knowing how much of that time and money you can fling to the wind, all the while hoping that it comes back in double, but at the same time not be worse for the wear if nothing comes back. Every Librarian has projects, and most think of their time as valuable, but few think to do a simple calculation of Value of Time X Time Spent = Time Cost. Many individuals will calculate how many hours worked before they can buy that expensive video game or ball of yarn ( Hey, we all have our vices!), but don't think to value their work time in the same way. While hours on the reference desk can not be calculated in a basic way of value ( how do you really put a number on helping someone find housing? Or helping set up an email address so a grandma can see her new great grandson?), most of our other tasks CAN be calculated into value. Our goal here is to not be basing productivity levels like businesses do, no stringent guidelines to ensuring books are re-shelved at a rate of seven per minute, but it is to think of our own time as valuable, and see more efficient ways to use it.

Many institutions ( dare I say most?) are lacking funding, and it is here that there are always chances you can take in Librarianship that cost only time ( remember our calculation!) . You can start a new book club, a nanowrimo club, make a connection with a local high school/college/public library. Being afraid of failure is natural, and you can still have that fear, but it is necessary to find ways around it, to learn from flops, to be able to see what could have been done different/better within your means. It's easy to say that the book club could have been better if you had the budget to order pizza every meeting and give out books to everyone that signs up, but that is not what the entrepreneurial spirit is. It is finding solutions within your means, and if your means can not afford it, see how you can do without by using what you do have. Majority of business can not throw money at problems,and even those that can won't because that is not the way to solve practically anything. 

The frustration of advertising for an event, doing all the prep work for it, and having only one individual shows up is immeasurable. So you have two options, you pitch a fit to your fellow librarians over a beer at the local pub after work, or you think out of the box and start productively picking apart what you did that didn't work ( they key here is productive, you aren't the problem here, but something else was) , and figure out what did work. I emphasize productively because picking apart something is a bit of a finesse. A well postered event may not bring in people not because of the lack of fliers in the right places but the sign itself didn't hit the target audience right ( Remember the 40/40/20 rule,  40% right product, 40% right audience and 20% creative content.). It is not a moment to beat yourself up over what did not work, you did the work and the only way to find out if a new method works is trial and error.

Experiment on a smaller scale, try something you didn't do next time. Maybe your patrons are all on twitter and would be more inclined to show if you tweet that flier as a reminder two hours before. The effort expended here is simply a few clicks, and the reward may be more patrons showing up.

Libraries have so many challenges that can benefit from someone with the mindset and skills of an entrepreneur, and while not everyone can take this approach, or is even comfortable stepping past their desk, those that do make that first step into change, will never look back.  Libraries are not money makers, we all know that you can not judge their success based on how many fines were brought in or how much the annual book sale made, but we have other numbers that signify success. Items checked out, door counts, event successes, new cards issued, it is these numbers that the Entrepreneurial Librarian counts their success on.