Interview: Melissa Shaffer
In January 1999, Baker Library at the Harvard Business School (HBS)
launched a weekly web publication called HBS Working Knowledge. Developed
to meet the information needs of HBS alumni/ae, HBS Working Knowledge today
serves Business School graduates as well as members of the general public.
Melissa Shaffer is the director for HBS Working Knowledge. She joined the
Baker staff in 1997as the alumni/ae inquiries that led to the development
of HBS Working Knowledge had begun to proliferate. She holds a master's
degree in library and information science from SUNY-Buffalo and a
bachelor's degree in musical performance from Duquesne University. Library
Notes interviewed her on August 21, 2001.
Can you brief us on your transition from classical musician to librarian?
I was working in the music library at Carnegie Mellon University spinning
records to bridge the gap between my performance career and making a
living. It was the early 80s, and Carnegie Mellon was developing its first
prototypes for digital libraries. That caught my attention and my interest.
And the rest, as they say, is history. After working as a physics and math
librarian, and then as an automation librarian,
I went from Carnegie Mellon to Faxon Research Services in the early 90s.
That was my first startup company. From there I went to North Dakota State
University to work on a statewide project bringing the Internet to all the
rural counties and extension offices in the state. And then I came back to
Boston to work at Northern Light, a search engine company located in
What drew you to the Baker Library?
I had worked with Tom Michalak before and knew that wherever he was, there
would be something exciting going on. I came here to implement Baker's
first integrated library system. That was in 1997 and there wasn't one!
They had an online catalog but they didn't have integrated workflows and
processes. One of the things that drove the integrated library system was
the new IT strategy mandated by Dean Kim Clark in 1996: the Business School
had moved from a very disparate IT strategy to a very well-defined, single
platform for computing. It was based on a single desktop model, SUN
servers, Oracle databases, Internet protocols for communication, and
certain other applications. Once that architecture was in place, the
Library's next move was clear. We had the advantage of NOT having a system
that we needed to convert. We asked what vendors would fit this
architecture, and at the time, there were two players: Sirsi and Endeavor.
And we went with Endeavor. In the end, we changed the way students access
informationand the way we do our business here. We challenged ourselves to
deliver our information services in
new ways. Working Knowledge, in some important ways, grew out of these changes.
Can you give us a concise definition of Working Knowledge?
It is the intellectual capital of the Harvard Business School delivered to
business executives to help them stay up on the latest thinking in business
Your definition doesn't include services to faculty and students.
No, it doesn't. And here's why. Once we established a strong electronic
presence in the reading room, we began to license various business
databases. Right away, graduating MBA students began to ask, "Will I have
access to this information once I've graduated?"
So, once you'd developed Baker's integrated library system, students
realized that Baker was packaging resources that they'd need in the work
place. Is this the genesis of the inquiries that led to Working Knowledge?
Yes. In fact, our Working Knowledge user demographics show that the later
the graduates, the larger the number of subscribers. There's definitely a
correlation between the students who were here and who had access to the
electronic resources and their use of Working Knowledge.
How does this program relate to traditional library services and functions?
The role of librarians through time has been to select, to acquire, and to
disseminate content. Through Working Knowledge, we do this very
specifically for alumni/ae with intellectual content created at the Harvard
Working Knowledge packages this content in a form that is reader friendly.
So while we don't always include full pieces of content, we also avoid
producing excerpts that are just teasers. We deliver the most important
points in the excerptsand then we do link to the full working paper or the
full case or article. It's there if people so choose.
For our MBA students, the path to information is clear. Their cases are
given to them. Their necessary content is pretty well packaged through the
course platform. Alumni/ae who are out there in the worldsolving everyday
business problemshave to think, "I have this problem in front of me. How
am I going to solve it?" With Working Knowledge, we provide tools for
answering those questions.
Are we talking about a new world of library services or lifelong learning?
In all disciplines, working people realize that the amount of change and
the amount of information needed at any particular time is so great that it
is no longer possible to learn at only one point in life. The loop
continually brings you back to learning. That's the push we've felt from
our alumni/ae. They are interested in lifelong learning. HBS is interested
in figuring out what lifelong learning means to the institution and to its
alumni/ae. Working Knowledge is a major response to these questions.
Is there a relationship, either explicit or implicit, between the provision
of these services and alumni/ae support of the business schoolseither
through fees or contributions?
There's definitely a strong implicit relationship in that a program such as
Working Knowledge is a great form of stewardship. We are not charging for
information. We do have a subscription area of Working Knowledge which is
called eBaker, which is for alumni/ae only and it provides access to
licensed databases. But it's not a huge revenue generating operation:
we barely cover our costs and it is heavily subsidized. So we don't
generate revenue and it's expensive to do what we do.
How many users can you count for Working Knowledge?
We have almost 30,000 registered users for Working Knowledge.
How many are alumni/ae?
That's very interesting and unexpected for a program driven by and intended
for Business School alumni/ae.
We're in the process right now of formulating a survey to get a better
handle on that ratio and to find out if there is a difference between the
needs of an HBS alumnus out in the business world and any other MBA or
Do you think there is?
Not really. I think that there are school loyalty issues for our alumni/ae
that must be addressed and are being addressed in what we're hearing about
How many people does it take to staff this program?
There are fourteen people who are directly involved with Working Knowledge.
Are your staff members librarians?
In our group, there are six librarians. The Baker business librarians also
participate on the Working Knowledge editorial team.
Is there a particular skill set that you look for in staffing Working
I think that if I had to characterize the single thread among the staff, it
would be a really strong understanding of the best ways to present
information that is easy to use and read, that is pleasing to the eye, that
is easy to navigate.
Sounds like marketing sense to me.
Maybe! Maybe that's what true usability is about: knowing what you're
marketing and how to market it.
A good marketer is a buffer between the audience and the productsomeone
who can navigate through the demands made on both sides.
That's actually interesting. That is how I see our staff: maybe not as a
buffer but as a conduit. Always knowing when and how to move. Not sitting
at one place all the time. They're adjusting all the time to the
information and the technology and the demand.
What's your biggest challenge in the coming year?
Because Working Knowledge happened so quickly, the platform that it's built
onalthough very stable and as dynamic as it can bewas put together very
quickly and it doesn't include a content management system. We need a more
robust infrastructure. So we're looking not just at a content management
system that lets workflows fly from one person to another. We're looking at
it from an information architecture standpoint and we are developing a
business thesaurus and a business taxonomy. We're doing a site redesign for
our anniversary in January. That's the other big effort of the coming
Is there anything you really want the library community to know?
Yes. In my view, this is what being a librarian is all about. This is
really it! Who are our users? Who is our audience? What's the content and
the information that we're dealing with. And how will we deliver it?
If the answers to those questions lead you in non-traditional directions,
then so be it. What you find along the way is really exciting.
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