Forging a New Identity for Your Library

By Stuart Hales

Note: This article appears in the January-February 2015 issue of Information Outlook.

In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most popular television shows in the United States was “What’s My Line?” The show featured a panel of celebrities who tried to determine the occupation of an anonymous guest by asking questions that could be answered with either a “yes” or a “no.” Based on the answers, the panelists would try to identify whether the guest was a plumber, a chauffeur, a librarian—the possibilities were endless, and the occupations often unexpected.

The show was successful partly because of the personalities of the host and panelists, and partly because of the variety of occupations showcased. (The show once featured a guest who made breadboxes, and when panelist Dorothy Kilgallen asked whether the product he made was “bigger than a breadbox”—a question popularized by fellow panelist Steve Allen—host John Charles Daly could not refrain from bursting into laughter.)

But the show also resonated with audiences because it tapped into a fundamental truth about humans, which is that many of us identify more strongly with our work than with any other aspect of our identity. “What do you do?” is a staple of small talk at social gatherings, and many people continue working long after they reach retirement age because it reinforces their sense of personal identity.

Just as people derive much of their identity from their work, organizations do as well. They are known for the products they make, the services they provide, and the benefits they offer, and they go to considerable lengths to make them stand out. From BMW’s “The Ultimate Driving Machine” to Disneyland’s “The Happiest Place on Earth” to Energizer’s “They Keep Going and Going and …,” organizations convey their identities by creating mental and emotional images of the results of their work.

The same is true of departments and units within organizations. Yesterday’s Human Resources Department is today’s Talent Recruitment and Retention Office, while the Call Center of the 20th century is the Customer Solutions Desk of the 21st. The functions—and, thus, the core identity—may stay essentially the same, but the name receives a makeover so the department can appear more strategic or better aligned with the parent organization’s mission.

Libraries and librarians have not been shy about playing the renaming game. Libraries have become information centers and resource centers, while librarians have become research analysts, business information architects, and Web content managers. Some of these name changes are purely cosmetic, while others represent honest attempts to more accurately describe the work being performed or the services or benefits being provided.

The work that people and organizations perform is fundamental to their identity and speaks to the value they believe they create for their stakeholders. But what if a library wants to change its identity by providing different services and meeting different needs? What impact will that have on its staff, its customers, and its parent organization? How should it communicate that change, and what steps are involved in the transition?

In “Creating an Open Data Portal,” authors Norma Palomino and Rodrigo Calloni describe the steps they took to shift the identity of the Felipe Herrera Library at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) from a disseminator of information to a creator of content. The seeds of this initiative were planted at the library’s Reference Desk, where library staff noticed they were unable to meet the needs of a growing number of users.

“These users would approach our Reference Desk looking for data sets that had been generated previously by technical teams within the organization, but the data simply could not be located,” the authors write. “We realized there was a need for a centralized repository of the bank’s data. Such a repository would allow our staff members to have a one-stop experience in generating, curating and sharing (with both internal and external audiences) the unique socioeconomic development data created by the IDB’s technical experts.”

Over the course of several months, the authors and their fellow library staff obtained buy-in and funding from senior management and then worked to bring the bank’s socioeconomic specialists and researchers on board. By the end of this process, the bank’s main database gatekeepers had become supporters of the project and were providing full access to their repositories to enable the creation of a single platform. The result, according to the authors, was not only a new identity for the library, but also heightened respect for the library staff.

“Before developing this platform, we were seen as administrators of knowledge products that had been created externally and were accessible by subscription,” Palomino and Calloni write. “Now we are perceived as creators of a valuable and unique content-driven product, which positions us to have one-on-one dialogues with researchers. This new library identity also benefits the larger organization by introducing a new knowledge creation partner, the librarian, who can help make sense of scientific data and present innovative content through dynamic visualization. We are proud of the product we have created, and we eagerly look forward to the new organizational dynamics that will present themselves as a result of this shift in our identity.”

The process of creating and communicating a new identity was successful at the Felipe Herrera Library in large part because the project tapped into that same “fundamental truth” that drives so much of human identity—work. In his article “Using Identity to Build Relevance,” identity strategist Jon Schleuning asserts that the value a library creates for its organization through its work is what makes its identity relevant.

“Identity … is about your DNA. It is the essence of who you are, what you do, and why you matter,” he writes. “Building an identity is not simply about creating a new name, logo, and colorful Website, although those may be tools for expression; rather, it is about finding meaning and creating relevance for your organization. Crafting a relevant identity requires deep internal exploration and candid assessment—in essence, thinking about the possibilities of what you will become and where you will be in the future.”

Schleuning argues that information professionals who are contemplating an identity change for their library or information center should consider at least five factors before taking any action. “For your identity to be successful, it needs to work across several dimensions,” he writes. “It needs to be authentic to who you are, believable in its promise, motivational to the people who encounter it, sustainable over time, and valuable, in that it demonstrates a worthwhile value for its investment.”

To learn more about forging a new identity for your library or information center, read the January-February 2015 issue of Information Outlook.


Stuart Hales is senior writer/editor at SLA and editor of Information Outlook. He can be reached at

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