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Vanishing Books

With the advent of digital information, traditional corporate libraries are shrinking or disappearing entirely

by Rick Mullin
April 28, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 17

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

The library is an icon of human achievement. A repository of the written word and refuge to the reader, it holds a sacred place in cities or campuses. The library archives great thoughts and ideas, as well as physical artifacts, such as the book, the magazine, and the microfiche machine, with which humans have a physical connection. They are often housed in Greek revival buildings but can sometimes be found in the back room of the barbershop or in glass-plated corporate headquarters.

But try finding one at Pfizer. Or at Air Products & Chemicals.

As can be expected, the advent of the Internet has meant big changes for the corporate library. Pfizer and Air Products, however, are among those companies that have gone so far in incorporating digital tools as to eliminate their traditional "hard copy" libraries altogether.

This change has led to a reduction and redeployment of the library workforce at both companies. Michelle Burylo, who was hired in 1975 to launch a business library at Air Products, has moved into the online world at the chemical firm, where she is now an information analyst in the business and technology intelligence department. As for the books? "They're gone," Burylo says. "We gave them to a third party who found them a nice home."

Air Products' central library was dismantled last year when the company's information and library systems division—formed by the merger of its business and technical libraries in 1996—was folded into a 10-year-old unit called business and technology intelligence, or BTI. Seven of the 16 library division employees were retained and transferred to BTI, where the task at hand is steering Air Products' researchers and other employees to information needed to do their jobs.

"We've become sherpas," Burylo says, "information professionals who guide employees to a knowledge destination using best practices and techniques to avoid potential missteps." Although this job description could also be applied to a librarian in 1975, Burylo pinpoints the key change. "In the past, we owned the information," she says. "You had to come to us for an answer in a book or in reference material." Now, BTI provides a path to anything available online, employing search tools best matched to particular tasks. "Instead of opening an index," she says, "I now open a browser."

Credit: Air Products & Chemicals
Credit: Air Products & Chemicals

Burylo views the change as substantial. While it is now much easier to route information to China than it was when she worked with books and periodicals, personal interaction has nearly gone the way of buckling library stacks. On the other hand, she says, BTI employees are more closely involved with actual work done by researchers than were traditional corporate librarians. "It is no longer a simple transaction," she says, noting that BTI also provides an analytical service. "We are now partners at the table rather than being the person behind the sliding window."

At Pfizer, libraries are another outsourcing opportunity. Joanna Woodward, director of library services in Pfizer's information and knowledge management organization, says the company has closed all of its physical libraries in recent months. After a significant paring to remove duplicate and available-online documents, a "small collection" of printed material was shipped to Infotrieve, a document delivery company that manages a consortium of outsourced corporate technical libraries called Science, Technology & Medical Library. STM converts hard-copy content to a digital format and delivers it online.

Woodward, who has been in a newly created position at Pfizer for seven months, says the same "pull" of technology and global research needs that led to the demise of the book stacks at Air Products best explains the library closures at Pfizer. Cost savings were also an impetus, she acknowledges.

There was, however, very little "push" from the workforce to go online. "I don't think people at Pfizer wanted the libraries to close," Woodward says. "That was hard for people. We still have requests from people who want that physical space."

Woodward says Pfizer's library management transformation began with the consolidation of seven physical libraries into one "global library archive" in 2003. Reading rooms were kept open for an additional year in order to monitor how they were used. They were closed due to lack of interest, she says. The global archive was then outsourced to STM.

The upside to the closure of physical libraries, in Woodward's estimate, is that digital information supports a mobile and globally dispersed workforce with tools that can access content well beyond what can be housed in a central, hard-copy library. "But colleagues miss the serendipity of browsing printed journals," she says, "and seeing an article they were not looking for specifically."

Of course, the shift to digital management is well under way at most if not all companies or institutions that maintain central libraries. Many are holding onto their traditional stacks, but these are becoming relics. "It's a supplement to our online facility," says Susan E. Jones, manager of library services at Rohm and Haas's knowledge center, speaking of the company's central library, which is located at its research center in Spring House, Pa. "Having a physical library is a result, in part, of history. We don't collect paper books anymore. There is no sense buying something that sits on a shelf."

Jones says many researchers still like to browse in libraries, but digital resources are close to replicating much of that experience online. Search tools now afford their own opportunities for serendipitous discovery. Although most science journals are available online—American Chemical Society journals, she notes, are available going back to the first issue of each title—there are still publications important to Rohm and Haas researchers, such as Paint India, that are difficult to obtain or nonexistent online. These can be found in the central library.

While Rohm and Haas has condensed its collection, the company has not gone through a significant staff reduction, Jones says. "People who had been doing one thing are now doing something else. Before, they were putting books away. Now they are delivering things electronically."

Corporate library managers agree that new skills are required to manage libraries. The vetting and distribution of search tools into companies' information access systems is a frontline concern for the contemporary corporate librarian. They expect library staffs will become more closely involved with the research and business done at their companies.

Cara Battaglini Schatz, director of public relations at the Special Libraries Association, speaks of "embedded librarians"—information management professionals who are members of business teams. Their purview will extend beyond routing online content to directing knowledge management and competitive intelligence efforts. They will also work in information technology departments.

"Corporations can't function without information professionals," Schatz argues. She says information workers are especially important in the pharmaceutical industry, where patents are closely studied. The curricula at library schools today reflect the changing needs of the profession, she adds, and aim to prepare graduates to direct business and research staffs in their quest for information.

Hard copy versus digital is not the point, she says. "We hear about libraries like Pfizer's closing," Schatz says. "It is not something that is terribly upsetting to us. It is more about the people and the service."


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