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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 1997—as 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.

LN
Can you brief us on your transition from classical musician to librarian?

MS
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 Kendall Square.

LN
What drew you to the Baker Library?

MS
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 information—and 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.

LN
Can you give us a concise definition of Working Knowledge?

MS
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 and management.

LN
Your definition doesn't include services to faculty and students.

MS
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?"

LN
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?

MS
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.

LN
How does this program relate to traditional library services and functions?

MS
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 Business School.

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 excerpts—and 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 world—solving everyday business problems—have 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.

LN
Are we talking about a new world of library services or lifelong learning?

MS
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.

LN
Is there a relationship, either explicit or implicit, between the provision of these services and alumni/ae support of the business schools—either through fees or contributions?

MS
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.

LN
How many users can you count for Working Knowledge?

MS
We have almost 30,000 registered users for Working Knowledge.

LN
How many are alumni/ae?

MS
Approximately 30%.

LN
That's very interesting and unexpected for a program driven by and intended for Business School alumni/ae.

MS
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 business practitioner.

LN
Do you think there is?

MS
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 Working Knowledge.

LN
How many people does it take to staff this program?

MS
There are fourteen people who are directly involved with Working Knowledge.

LN
Are your staff members librarians?

MS
In our group, there are six librarians. The Baker business librarians also participate on the Working Knowledge editorial team.

LN
Is there a particular skill set that you look for in staffing Working Knowledge?

MS
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.

LN
Sounds like marketing sense to me.

MS
Maybe! Maybe that's what true usability is about: knowing what you're marketing and how to market it.

LN
A good marketer is a buffer between the audience and the product—someone who can navigate through the demands made on both sides.

MS
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.

LN
What's your biggest challenge in the coming year?

MS
Because Working Knowledge happened so quickly, the platform that it's built on—although very stable and as dynamic as it can be—was 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 months.

LN
Is there anything you really want the library community to know?

MS
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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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.