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Mary Ellen Bates: profile of an information brokering expert

Profile by Margaret Adolphus

Photo: Mary Ellen Bates.

Information is a major strategic asset: put it at the heart of the organization, ensure that it is properly shared (and that's not just documents, but also what's in people's heads), create the right process and systems – and you can guarantee improved performance.

Despite the fact that in an interview elsewhere on this site, Professor David Nicholas commented that special libraries had seen considerable shrinkage as people were searching for information themselves, there are plenty of opportunities for well-rounded information professionals who also have good communication and leadership skills.

Mary Ellen Bates is one of the world's leading business researchers. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley's School of Library and Information Studies, she worked for ten years in special libraries, including the Federal Judicial Center and MCI Communications Corp, before going solo in 1991.

She runs her own highly successful business, Bates Information Services Inc., from an office in Colorado close to mountains where she loves to walk her dogs. She provides in-depth business research for business professionals and consultancy for special librarians and vendors of information products such as Lexis Nexis. She is also a regular speaker at conferences and runs workshops for special librarians.

For this group, she's very much a mentor, having done a lot of voluntary work for the Special Libraries Association, from whom she has also received awards, and for the Association of Independent Information Professionals, for whom she has twice served as president.

Mary Ellen Bates can be contacted at [email protected], or via her website, She blogs at, and tweets at mebs.

Making yourself recession proof

I had intended to start off with the old chestnut, about how can librarians, especially special librarians, fight their corner in an age of Google and disintermediation. But Mary Ellen delivers an excellent presentation at Online Information 2009 about how to make yourself recession proof, so I decide to be topical. After all, fighting your corner can strengthen your position when it comes to possible redundancy.

Mary Ellen believes that it's about how others value us:

"I think a lot of librarians and information professionals believe their value to be self-evident; well it should be, but it's not. And so it's our job to create services where our added value is obvious."

Mary Ellen believes that added value services aren't all about technology – the sophisticated databases or specialist search facilities. Many librarians have given up "fighting Google" and are concentrating on showing people how to use the conventional tools better. For example, Yahoo Pipes can be used to aggregate feeds to pull in, in one feed, news, blogs, bibliographic articles and citations; people can be trained to use the less familiar tools of Google, for example Google Squared.

Getting others to realize your value means positioning yourself at the centre of the strategic decision-making process within your organization. And this means seeing your role, and your day-to-day activities, in a different light.

You don't just deliver data in response to a question; you need to think about the decision it will be used for, how that will affect the way you present your data. This means taking responsibility for the decision's outcome: you need to think about the fit with strategy.

"And, as long as we're willing to do that, to push ourselves, to challenge ourselves, then we will be recession proof. It's the difference between being the big toe and being the lung or heart. Which one can be eliminated?"

And challenging ourselves means getting away from a back office mentality:

"because back office can be eliminated without someone seeing the blood running out".

Sharing the pain

Mary Ellen believes that when faced with the need to cut budget, librarians often make the wrong choices, cutting back on professional development, marketing, and added value in an attempt to retain all their services.

What they should be doing, however, is "sharing the pain" – cutting some services while retaining others. The services that should stay are the high end, strategic ones – that is where they can add most value to the organization. Inevitably this may mean that other services may have to go – simple searches, circulating tables of content, some document delivery.

"The best use of a librarian's time needs to be supporting the strategic decisions of the organization. We need to be part of that decision-making process at every stage throughout the organization. And that means that librarians need to continue to expand the service they provide at the higher end and offer the sort of service that independent information professionals provide."

Making yourself visible

Getting out there and selling oneself does not come automatically to many librarians, schooled into thinking that others will come and use their valuable service. But that is just what a corporate information professional has to do.

How you do it will depend on the organization, but one approach is to check with the key executive's administrative assistant what the executive's interests are, and then provide a one-page information briefing every week. Or ask for an appointment with that person and explain that you want to make sure that the budget being spent on the library helps achieve the organization's strategic objectives.

You don't necessarily need to go right to the top: pick out the person who contributes most to the bottom line. The same principle applies for "not for profit", government, or public sector, except the key person will be spending rather than pulling in the income.

Such an approach means being proactive, it also means having a thick skin: not to be downcast if the person tells you they have no need for strategic information, or that they can find it themselves. It's important not to take a "no" as failure.

Educating for the real world

Are library schools doing enough to equip their graduates with these generic skills of strategic thinking and self-marketing? Mary Ellen believes that on the whole they don't, although she commends initiatives that do, such as the Information School at the University of Washington, which requires its students to develop, in place of a thesis, a portfolio. The latter includes a new product or service, an analytic report, and a presentation: all things that that will help in the job market.

Library schools need to understand that they are training people for a profession, as are medical schools and law schools, so they need to focus on all the skills needed for success.

"The challenge is that a lot of library schools are staffed by people who have always been in academia ... at least in the US, in my opinion, the strongest library schools are the ones that rely heavily on adjunct professors, people who do teach one or two courses because those are people who have real world experience."

Real world experience means living in a world where libraries have to fight with everyone else for funding, and realizing the generic nature of the training.

"These skills translate into lots of different areas, and we need to teach these people that they may not wind up in a library: library schools have to see themselves as feeding more than just libraries."

Going solo

Mary Ellen works entirely for – and by – herself: she is Bates Information Services ("you're interviewing the entire company right here at once, we speak with one voice").

She is clearly not only highly successful, but also extremely happy in her work:

"I have more fun than should be legal, it's just a great business."

When I ask her what fuels her passion for the information industry, she's clearly aghast that the question can even be asked:

"What's not to fuel it?"

She became interested in using computers to retrieve information long before most people. Back in the 1970s, she

"sort of stumbled into a library and they taught me how to use Dialog and it was like, oh my gosh there's all this stuff out there".

Now, there's a lot more "stuff out there" and it

"keeps getting better and more innovative, but not in such a way that we can't keep up with it".

Her website lists recent examples of her work as research to determine when Argentina began repaying its bonds; examples of particularly effective customer retention programmes; identification of key suppliers and vendors in the HVAC (heating/ventilating/air-conditioning) industry; how Generation X and Generation Y markets differ; and an analysis of telecom monopolies in Central and South America.

She describes herself as getting obsessed by the last thing she was researching, and finds it difficult to come up with a favourite topic, although she talks with some enthusiasm about the Gen X versus Gen Y project:

"It's been learning how people manage a part of their lives that makes many nervous or anxious, which is money, especially over the last year. Obviously there's the age difference, if you're 25 you're not thinking about retiring in the same way that you would be if you're 60, but apart from that there's a wholly different approach. Gen Y people know that you're not guaranteed a job or a pension, so there's more of a sense of responsibility for saving for retirement, whereas baby boomers have grown up with assumptions about state and occupational pensions."

How to be a successful independent information professional

In a recession, which often means redundancy or budgets being cut to such a point that work becomes profoundly dissatisfying, going freelance as an independent can seem an attractive option. Mary Ellen thinks that the world of business research is a wide open field, with

"far more business out there than there are people doing it".

But if the skill set for an information professional or special librarian is eclectic, that for an independent researcher is even more so. Not only do you have to be good at whatever information services you provide, you also need business skills: how to manage cash flow, how to market yourself, how to think like an entrepreneur and assess what your market wants and how to provide it.

Most people do not start out with these skills, but they can be developed: the trick is to be brutally honest with yourself about the skills you have and the ones you need to build up. A very practical guide to the business can be found in Mary Ellen's book, Building and Running a Successful Research Business, the second edition of which she has just finished. She also recommends the Association of Independent Information Professionals, which is "very collegial and supportive".

While many people have experience of budgets, marketing oneself may not come naturally and may be more difficult. The secret is to

"find ways to market yourself that are effective, that reflect your personality and that feel comfortable".

Becoming a successful public speaker

Mary Ellen uses public speaking as a way of marketing herself – yet initially it made her feel very uncomfortable. (In fact, Dutch information scientist Dennie Heye, in his book Characteristics of the Successful 21st Century Information Professional, lists public speaking as one of the seven skills of the highly effective information professional.)

"I'd heard from everybody that public speaking is a good way to promote yourself. And the thought made me feel nauseous. But I told myself that failure was not an option, and that I would do it whatever it took, but for the first five or ten presentations I gave I was miserable the whole time."

A strange, but encouraging revelation for a woman who now obtains a proportion of her revenue from public speaking – she regularly gives keynotes and workshops to conferences and organizations, most recently [at the time of writing – December 2009] to Online Information 2009, and at a gathering of military librarians in Nashville, Tennessee.

She is an engaging public speaker, her most effective asset being that she delivers highly practical information which can be used. But how did she overcome her fear and become more effective? Keeping on doing it helped – like most things, you get better with practice. But it's also important to read and react to the situation:

"When I give talks I watch the room and I know that I've done something right if I see people writing something down or looking engaged. When I notice that people are getting a little bit restless or the energy in the room goes down, and I'm doing this while I'm speaking, I think, OK, what was I just talking about where I lost them, what can I do to bring them all back again? Is it modulating my voice differently, is it going faster, going slower, asking more questions? My goal is always to see people writing stuff down or nodding their heads a lot."

Overcoming that sort of negative energy, especially from bright 20-somethings, was one of my difficulties when teaching – but Mary Ellen has learnt to see her audience as being on her side – "they want this to be a good presentation".

Inevitably, there will be times when things don't go so well, even for a highly competent speaker: Mary Ellen was once told, an hour into a workshop, that:

"'You are completely off, this is completely not what we're interested in'. And that was kind of a toughy ... "

The big thing is not to take a failure personally:

"I took the negative energy and figured it doesn't reflect on my value as a person. I think of the quote from The Godfather, 'it's business, it's not personal', and it's not that you're telling me I'm a bad person, you're just telling me that what I'm delivering now is not what they want. So I've nowhere to go but up".

Providing a cost effective and high value search service

Being proactive and marketing oneself is one thing, but it's also really important to offer the core service, searching, in a cost-effective manner, especially as in the US at least, the average hourly cost of an information professional to an organization is $60.

The key is to be able to find the right information quickly, without having to spend a long time searching for it on the Web. This means knowing the "power tools" in the fee-based online services, together with how they are priced, so that you can use them effectively.

But it also means putting a lot of care into the whole search process, from beginning to end, and even perceiving it differently. To start with, you need to do a really good reference interview. This means knowing what is going on behind the scenes –

"we're not taking orders, this isn't a fast-food reference here, we need to think of ourselves as partners with whoever's calling us up".

Perhaps the biggest change is to the deliverable, the presentation of the information. Just providing links to articles is not sufficient: the added value is in the distillation of the data, the analysis and synthesis of the results.

The best way of presenting the results is to think of it in terms of a story. What is the most important information? What is the most easily digestible way of presenting it? Mary Ellen often uses PowerPoint – not the most obvious research output, but one that's easy to absorb.

Whether or not you use PowerPoint, in the business world you need to produce something that's light on text and big on graphics – a picture's worth a thousand words, because you can embed a lot of information in it. Not too much text: four pages maximum with a lot of white space and graphics, and no footnotes or references. Link to articles, highlighting the most important ones, so the customer can read the underlying material if they want.

"As I'm gathering the information, I'm thinking how can I display it, do I want to do a table or a chart, how can I compare one thing with another. Again it comes back to the reference interview, and understanding what the client wants to do with the information."

It strikes me that this whole activity, the immersion in the subject and the concern for presenting a story in an unbiased way but with the main points clearly highlighted, makes business research very like journalism. Mary Ellen thinks this is a "great way of looking at it", and points to the case of one library based in a consulting company, where the head librarian requires that her new employees take a course in story telling.

She acknowledges using journalistic techniques – thinking how she can display information visually, what's the lead, what are the biggest insights, what are the pull quotes?

Could there be a convergence between journalism and librarianship, with journalists going into information work? This trend can already be seen in the way that many librarians also write about their profession for the trade press.

While acknowledging that there is a clear overlap of skill sets, Mary Ellen is unsure as she believes that motivation is different:

"I think that both librarians and journalists are drawn to their profession for something sort of pure: journalists love to present information to people in an unbiased way; librarians love working in libraries."

It remains an interesting thought nevertheless: could there ever be a new community of practice of librarian journalists and journalists who have gone into information work?

Whether there is any truth in this hypothesis, with people like Mary Ellen around mentoring and inspiring others, business research will be an attractive option for those with good information handling and research skills.