Tom Jacobson: Turning challenges into engagement opportunities


In One Writer’s Beginnings, Pulitzer-winning author Eudora Welty quipped that, “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories.” As a corporate storyteller, Tom Jacobson, VP, Executive Library Advocate & Strategist echoes that sentiment.

After completing his MLS from the University of Maryland Park College, Jacobson began his impressive career with Innovative, a part of Clarivate. Starting out, Jacobson absorbed all he could from his peers: learning about libraries and library automation, sales, service and support, everything in-between.

In his current position, Jacobson must listen before he speaks, acting as liaison between the team at Innovative and the libraries our solutions support—spending his days synthesizing and interpreting information from one party to be digestible for another.

Now it’s time for Jacobson to tell his own story. Below, in this brief interview, Jacobson offers his advice for libraries. From how to navigate the uncertain waters of 2022, to offering his advice on how to successfully implement change at your library in a meaningful way.

This interview has been trimmed for time and clarity.

This month, you presented to the LibLearnX crowd about the importance of engagement. Can you share a practical tidbit from that presentation?

Great question. I think of engagement as simply deciding what you want to be. Do you want your library to be the happiest place on Earth? The place where the customer is always right? The community living room? The people with all the answers? In short, what is your brand?

There is no wrong answer, but once you decide, work downstream to shape your services, your staff, and your physical and virtual presence around that brand. Do not let what you do define you, instead let who you are shape what you do.

On the topic of libraries deciding a direction for their brand, what tips would you offer to help them go about achieving that vision?

I would recommend following a simple methodology to address changes to library services.

    • First, decide what level of service you want to provide—a new level that’s in line with the new brand vision.
    • Second, identify and remove any barriers or friction that stand in the way of this new level of service.
    • Third, empower the staff to both understand and meet the new service level.
    • Finally, review your policies, and change or remove any that do not formally acknowledge and support the new service commitment.

For example, if a library wanted to implement a “choose your own due date” policy as a follow-up to automatic renewals and fines-free, they could then take the ultimate step in patron empowerment.

    • First, they would define the new service level and any exceptions or caveats. Such as allowing patrons to request a specific due date if there are no holds on the item, they ask a librarian directly, and the item is not part of an exempted collection like video games.
    • Overriding due dates may require special authorization in the ILS. So, libraries would need to ensure that all circulation desk workers are given the correct authorization to make it happen.
    • This point is important: Leadership needs to work with staff to explain the specifics of the new policy, and more importantly the goal of the new policy and how it fits with the library’s overall brand.
    • Finally, take the extra step to change the formal circulation policy to reflect this new patron empowerment. So, that it isn’t just something you say, but something clearly embraced and codified.

While this is just an off-the-cuff example, the point remains: You must define the problem before you can address it. You have to clearly imagine and articulate your service commitments and the modes of engagement that you want to offer your community before you can take any steps to meet those goals.

From your early work on INN-Reach to your current focus on Vega, what’s one driving principle that informs your work with libraries?

Listen to and respect our libraries. I learned early on to listen carefully to library staff. They know their libraries, they are hands-on with patrons, and they know how their services work and don’t work. They know what they are talking about when they tell me something new.

Sometimes what I believe to be true is the opposite of what they’ve told me, and always in the end they were spot on from the get-go.

Along the same lines, I learned early in my career to respect the librarians I work with. While delivering good news is always easy, being respectful and direct is key in delivering less than ideal information. Explain things in a straightforward manner, and then work to find the compromise through respect and open communication.

In 2022, what do you see as the biggest trend in public libraries library sciences?

The last two years we’ve been operating in crisis mode. I think 2022 will be the beginning of a return to normal and a redefinition of what normal means.

We just went through a time when our libraries were open, but the buildings were closed, and we learned how to deliver meaningful services in exciting new ways. So, how much of that do we keep moving forward?

Do we continue with curbside pickup? Will our programs remain virtual or shift back to in person?

The challenge will be deciding what this new normal will look like.

Can you speak to how industry trends/developments have/are informing Innovative product development?

Innovative is completely focused on providing libraries with a new generation of tools designed to help them retain existing and attract new patrons through meaningful interactions.

Over the last few years, traditional business practices in every industry have been challenged. What has emerged is a major new theme: customer experience matters.

At Innovative, we want to know how we can help our customers not only provide a service, but to do so in a way that is rewarding for everyone involved—both library staff and patrons, alike. Because we’ve been saying it for years: library success is our success—so how can we set our customers up for success for many years to come?