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Competition in the Library

March 16, 2011

Happy Wednesday! I hope you are well, dear reader. This week has been crazy busy on our campus as it is finals week and everything seems to be due by the end of this week. I don’t know why, but deadlines always seem to pile up on each other (and that’s not because I’m super-lazy and procrastinate–I don’t, really). So today I just want to riff just for a short while on competition both with others and with one’s self and how this may or may not be beneficial in the context of libraries and archives.

So why do I want to talk about competition? Mainly I want to write a bit about it because I was asked earlier in the week if I was competitive about anything. The short answer is no, I’m really not that competitive. Now before you think I’m a total slacker who has no drive or wander off because you have no idea what this has to do with library land, bear with me while I give a bit of context before turning to the library.

I’m not competitive with other people. I actually feel happy when others succeed and don’t think “winning” has to be a zero sum game. However, I’m extremely competitive with myself and always expect to work hard and accomplish a lot, not that it’s news to anyone who knows me. (You usually doesn’t take a tenure track position if you aren’t just a little bit into working hard and striving to always become better than you are currently. And you should also be passionate about teaching, but that’s an entirely different post). But as to competing with others, I’d much rather support and mentor others in the field than compete with them.

But where does competition fit in the grand scheme when talking about libraries? I’ll give two examples about competition in the library and archive fields: one that I think is true competition that we can’t really get around and one that is actually competition that isn’t helping us at all. First to what I think of as true competition in the information science fields: grants.

It’s not called a grant competition for nothing. If you write grant proposals, you will be competing against many other libraries, archives, and museums for funding. This is not always a fun prospect and neither is it competition on a level playing field. Grant writing is pretty much unavoidable, but necessary in our fields. So in this instance, I think it behooves us to write grant proposals often to become better at it and to have any chance of success. I’d also, from a totally selfish perspective, like to see more organizations give grants to smaller institutions that have a hard time competing with the very large, well-known institutions for the limited funding available, especially in this economy. But don’t give up and do keep applying because, as our grant officer said, the people who get the most funded grants and also the ones who have written the most unfunded grant proposals.

So grants=competition with other institutions. It’s unavoidable unless your institution can afford to do everything it wants with internal funding.

The other type of competition I want to touch on just briefly in a type of competition that doesn’t seem to work in my mind: competition by libraries against perceived usurpers of the libraries’ and librarians’ roles. Or at least, the way we are competing isn’t working. Libraries (and especially archives) can’t compete with coffee shops, Amazon, or bookstores. And really, why should we? It’s a bit like trying to take on Google. Why fight that battle? Instead, why not work harder and smarter in areas where we already excel and can differentiate ourselves?

I think libraries and archives are awesome. You probably do too if you are reading this blog. We are the converted. We need to stop telling ourselves how great we are and start more outside marketing. Some public libraries, especially, do a good job of this and a great job of integrating themselves into the community. Academic libraries, which are dear to me because I work in one, need to step up and start changing the stereotypes that we all lament about libraries and librarians. We need to be seen as the first place to go if you have a question, not the stop of last resort. We need to advertise our ability as information curators, data managers, and information literacy gurus. We need to stop trying to be something else and actually own what we are because we have a lot to offer.

Okay, stepping off the soapbox now and leaving you with a couple of fun things: first, check out Joy the Baker’s latest recipe: Irish potato candy because it looks yummy and tomorrow is Saint Patrick’s Day after all. Then, if you haven’t checked it out yet, go listen to a single by one of my former student’s band, Waking Wander. (And yes, I completely have to give a shout out when one of my students makes a trip into the library specifically to give me (a librarian!) information about his band. Plus, I think the single is rather good.)

Take care, read lots, enjoy the rest of your day, and I’ll be back on Friday with the usual round-up of tech tips and news. Allons-y!

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