A recent post reported on a presentation about the history of the Special Libraries Association and how the association’s history will influence the management of strategic knowledge in the future. Much discussion about this topic is captured in the final two chapters and the Epilogue of SLA at 100: From Putting Knowledge to Work to Building the Knowledge Culture, the centennial history of the association (slightly different versions of those chapters are available at SMRShare).
In the presentation, an introductory thought asked about the connection between knowledge services and SLA’s founder, John Cotton Dana.
If there is some skepticism about such a connection over the (now) 101-year span, that’s an understandable reaction. In fact, though, when we think about what John Cotton Dana was trying to do, the similarities between his “new library creed” and knowledge services becomes pretty clear:
Knowledge services – as defined in today’s workplace – looks at the management of strategic knowledge from the perspective of the knowledge user, at what that user’s needs might be and how the strategic knowledge being sought is going to be used. In the classic definition, we describe knowledge services as the management and service-delivery methodology that converges information management, knowledge management, and strategic learning into a single, overarching operational function. Putting a knowledge services “spin” on SLA’s famous motto, used since 1916, the goal of knowledge services is to “put knowledge management to work.” In the 21st-century workplace, knowledge services is – in Dale Stanley’s version – “the practical side of knowledge management.”
While he did not use our terminology, couldn’t this have been John Cotton Dana’s goal when he called together a group of specialist librarians (that’s what he called them) to think about how they worked? He and his colleagues wanted to determine how their services could be of better use to the businessman (and, yes, that was the term used in 1909, just as the term “man of affairs” was often used – and often by Dana – to describe people who worked in business, probably a link to the French phrase for businessman, l’homme d’affaires).
In his professional work, Dana had concluded that businessmen were too busy to read, and that was just the point: “I am not asking the businessman to read books,” he said. “I am suggesting that we persuade him to use some of them.”
It was a vital distinction, and it would become an important driver as specialized librarianship began its development. So much so that as they talked, Dana and his colleagues realized that they needed a new organization, an association of people like themselves, librarians who would lead a “movement” (yes, they used that term, without apology), a new movement that would replace the old library method, which they described as “Select the best books, list them elaborately, save them forever—that was the sum of the librarians’ creed of yesterday….”
But they went on, and Dana articulated the new “creed” which is particularly familiar to today’s knowledge services specialist:
- Select a few of the best books and keep them, as before, but also…
- Select from the vast flood of print the things your constituency will find useful…
- Make them available with a minimum of expense, and…
- Discard them as soon as their usefulness is past.
By the end of their first year, the nascent SLA had held its first meeting in New York City. It was a meeting at which Dana—SLA’s first president—spoke eloquently about the role of specialized libraries in society:
- “Here in the opening years of the Twentieth Century,” Dana said, “Men of affairs are for the first time beginning to see clearly that collections and printed materials are not, as they were long held to be by most, for the use simply of the scholar, the student, the reader, and the devotee of belles lettres. … [They] are useful tools, needing only the care and skill of a curator, of a kind of living index thereto … to be of the greatest possible help in promoting business efficiency.”
“The care and skill of the curator….” Surely that is the role of the knowledge services specialist in today’s workplace, to take ownership of the strategic knowledge that ensures organizational effectiveness be the organization’s “living index thereto.” Could there be a higher professional calling?