Librarians as Entrepreneurs

Librarianship | Duncan Smith, MSLS| June 11, 2020

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EBSCO Information Services Chief Strategist Duncan Smith contends that librarians, who are engaged in solving problems with innovative solutions every day, are a lot like entrepreneurs.

Webster’s Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” While there are some words in this definition that librarians should be comfortable with — “organize” and “manage,” the word “business” makes many of us uncomfortable.

Personally, I like management guru Peter Drucker’s definition: “entrepreneurs innovate.” Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein also put forward Drucker’s definition in their book, Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century. The authors prefer Drucker’s definition because it leaves out words like business, money, finance, commercialization and risk. By focusing on what entrepreneurs do (innovate) instead of the context in which they do it (business), the word “entrepreneur” becomes something we can all embrace.

Nancy Kishpaugh, the Genealogy and Senior Services Librarian at Independence Public Library in Kansas, is one librarian who has this word in a bear-hug. Like many of us, Nancy didn’t really see herself as an entrepreneur. That was until she encountered the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative’s entrepreneurial mindset training course. In this course, Nancy learned that entrepreneurs are individuals who are interested in solving a problem and keep trying out solutions until they find one that works. Given this understanding, it takes only a short stroll around the reference desk to recognize that librarians are entrepreneurs. Anyone who has worked reference knows that librarians solve problems (answer questions) for people every day.

By focusing on what entrepreneurs do (innovate) instead of the context in which they do it (business), the word ‘entrepreneur’ becomes something we can all embrace.

Librarians are always innovating. Despite the enormous challenges presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic, librarians are continuing to provide valuable services to the communities they serve. Many are now engaged in finding creative ways to safely, compassionately and effectively reopen their doors.

As we enter this next phase of our struggle with COVID-19, Nancy offers some guidance gleaned from the pages of a book she recently borrowed from the library before the pandemic closed its doors, The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations. Nancy writes:

“This morning, I opened the book to the first page, and here's a quote by Andy Grove, CEO of Intel: ‘Only the paranoid survive.’ Interestingly, Tom Peters says that we must learn to deal with change and to thrive on it. And he goes on to say that we must move beyond change and embrace nothing less than the literal abandonment of the conventions that brought us to this point. Eradicate ‘change’ from your vocabulary. Substitute ‘abandonment’ or ‘revolution’ instead. That's entrepreneurial thinking! That should be our motto as we go forward in the new normal. Abandon those old ideas of what a library (or a business) is and how it must operate. Instead be revolutionaries, redefining how libraries (companies) do business.”

Entrepreneurs also take scarce resources and maximize their value. That sounds a lot like what librarians have been doing for decades. If you are looking for a living example of the word “entrepreneur,” and where librarians fit, I suggest that you spend some time with Nancy. You can get to know her in part two of our Long Overdue podcast series, “Cultivating Your Library’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.”

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Duncan Smith, MSLS
NoveList Founder

Duncan Smith is the Founder of NoveList and EBSCO’s Chief Strategist for Public Libraries. He earned his Master’s in Library Science from the University of North Carolina ― Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science.

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