Academic libraries are subject to challenging and turbulent times. State legislatures can unexpectedly decimate higher education budgets that result in calls for libraries to drastically reduce spending. The appearance of a radically new disruptive technology can suddenly make the academic library look sadly out-of-date and potentially obsolete. New information providers offering easy, free access to desirable content can forever transform the information seeking behavior of undergraduates. How can academic librarians learn to react creatively to such challenges? How can they abruptly shift course to new directions in ways that sustain what academic libraries do best while staying relevant to the user community?
Right now is the time to learn some valuable lessons in how to respond to real and severe threats to the livelihood of one’s core business. My suggestion is to closely follow what is happening in the airline industry. While there are some industries with which libraries share similar situations, such as newspapers or travel agencies (all mediate information to end users in an Internet Age of gather-it-yourself news and data), the airline industry is not one of them. Airlines have experienced enormous competitive pressures the last few years, but the rapidly escalating cost of gas has hit all the companies like a hard punch to the gut. And perhaps no airlines have felt the impact more than the bargain carriers.
The damage is so severe that several airlines have already declared bankruptcy, and several low-budget airlines (think JetBlue and Southwest) are facing real crisis situations. That’s where their creative survival methods are worth studying. I discovered some of their strategies in a NYT article about the impact of high fuel costs on budget airlines. Southwest, for example is looking to differentiate itself in other ways beyond low fares:
Southwest says it is trying to set itself apart on the issue of fees, if not fares. Major airlines are piling on new fees, like the $15 charge that American, United and US Airways charge some passengers to check a bag. Southwest still allows passengers to bring two free bags, and its marketing slogan is now â€œFreedom from fees.â€ Mr. Ridley, the Southwest executive, calls the fees other carriers are charging â€œairline heroinâ€ because of the dangerous addiction they can become for raising revenue.
What we can learn from the budget airlines is that no matter what happens it remains critical to stay focused on desired outcomes (for Southwest – low fees at all times) and those things that one’s organization does best. For academic libraries that may be helping students achieve academic success. Or it may be providing free access to high quality information resources. Or we can focus attention on subject specialists and the relationships they build with faculty and students. Whatever we may choose to do in response to a crisis, planning ahead is probably the best bet. The question is, can we avoid getting fixated on today’s immediate problem in order to develop ideas for future ways in which libraries can creatively respond to a crisis?
If you’ve got a good example of how your library devised a creative response to a crisis, please use the comments area to share it.