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Mary Ellen Bates: profile of an information brokering expert

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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."