Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Taking care of business (cards)

As they always are, people in The Profession have been very kind and offered me lots of advice for my upcoming trip to Chicago and the big US-style SLA Conference 2012. The one piece of advice that has come up again and again is to take business cards. Not just a few business cards – a lot of business cards. For example, Cindy Hall left this comment on Kate Arnold’s excellent blog post giving advice to conference first-timers
Business cards! Especially if you are between jobs (self-employment or otherwise) be sure to bring lots of cards with your contact information: LinkedIn profile, preferred email address, blog address, etc. and offer them to everyone when you are being introduced. 

Designing my new business cards caused me to consider the purpose of business cards and led me to the conclusion that, for me and (sweeping generalisation) people of my peer group, business cards simply aren’t as relevant as they were in the past. This change in attitude towards the humble business card highlights several paradigm shifts in society, in technology, and in social interaction. (1) 

To consider the place of business cards in society, we need to define the purpose of business cards. First and most obviously, they are a means of passing on contact information from a Card-Giver (CG) to a Card-Receiver (CR). Second, they are a tangible indication of the CG’s position and provide a CR with a primer on the CG. Third, they remind the CR that they met the CG. 


The most apparent purpose of a business card is to communicate contact information. Once the CG has given the CR a business card, the CR should always be able to contact the CG. Business cards generally contain name, job title, phone number, email address, website URL, Twitter username (if one wants to appear hip and trendy), and LinkedIn profile address (if one does not want to appear hip and trendy (2)). At its most basic, a business card provides the details of every medium through which the CG can be contacted. 

My - now outdated - business card.

But young librarians like myself are not that difficult to find. At the CILIP New Professionals’ Day a few weeks ago both Ned Potter and Phil Bradley spoke about the need for engaging with a wide range of social media and its benefits for professional development. Their presentations are here (3) and give an idea of how many social networks one could use to communicate. 

With The Profession’s current emphasis on ‘personal branding’ and self-marketing, many young librarians have carved out a presence for themselves on the Web. Even a person only vaguely conversant with technology using the search engine of their choice should be able to quickly find my email address or at least an alternate means of contacting me. (4) Nowadays, armed with only basic biographical information, it’s fairly easy to find tech-connected people like information professionals. 

As an experiment, I looked through my wallet and thought about how I would go about contacting the people whose business cards I currently carry:

  • Sarah Hammond: I follow her on Twitter and am friends with her on Facebook. 
  • Ned Potter: I know his email address and I follow him on Twitter. 
  • Tom Roper: I receive emails from Tom every other day as part of Voices for the Library. Also, Twitter and Facebook. 
  • Graham Cornish of The Copyright Circle: I found his email address within 5 seconds using a Google search for his name. 
  • Carol Helton of Credo Reference: whose card is actually kind of useful. Though a Google search did turn up her LinkedIn profile and I daresay if I needed her email address and didn’t have the card, I could get it through mutual acquaintances. 
  • And my brother who, yeah, I know how to contact. 

My point is that if I were attempting to contact any of these people a business card would not be my first port of call. I’d use Google followed by Twitter followed by LinkedIn followed by asking mutual acquaintances. 

The obvious objection to this argument is that it encourages digital divide. This represents a prejudiced attitude against those who don’t have online lives. It perpetuates and expands the division between digital and non-digital humans. For someone with no online presence, a business card is still a useful tool. To which objection I must fall back on the advice given in footnote (1). I work with technology: what is relevant for me, the people who are likely to want to contact me, and the people I am likely to contact is not necessarily relevant to you. I can however predict that as more and more people become more enmeshed with technology, these changing attitudes will spread. (5) 


Business cards allow the CR to read a primer on the CG: name, job title, social media presence. This (perhaps) allows the CR to extrapolate the CG’s interests, to gauge his/her status, and to learn from a piece of card who the CG is. 

But nowadays positions and job titles are not permanent. ‘Jobs for life’ barely exist anymore: we’re more than likely not going to be in our current positions forever and our employers more than likely know this. Certainly in The Information Profession – a profession which encourages a certain amount of social and geographical mobility – one is expected to change, develop, move to different places, try different career paths. One can expect to have a range of different job titles all of which means different things in different institutions. On my business cards pictured above, you can see the job title ‘Assistant Librarian’. But that hasn’t been my job title for nine months. Next Wednesday, I’m starting a new job and I’ll get a new job title. (6) That’s three job titles in one year. (7) 

The nature of modern life is impermanence. Particularly in an economic climate in which job security is increasingly low. The permanence of business cards therefore does not fit this new paradigm of employment. Making one’s position tangible in the form of a business cards become impractical if one’s position is changing every year or so. 


"I'm in business." "What kind of business?" Etc etc.
Business cards serve to remind the CR that they met the CG. Imagine the CR sitting at home going through her bag after a busy four-day conference. She discovers the CG’s business card, hastily exchanged during a meet-and-greet breakfast when they all-too-briefly discussed the use of RPG video games for teaching information literacy. The CR realises she had forgetting the CG and would like to talk to the CG more and perhaps offer him a cushy job with use of a private jet and a monkey butler, etc etc. 

In the above scenario, I must admit the usefulness of business cards. I’m told that American conferences are epic affairs spanning days and comprising hundreds of social interactions. At the end it would be useful to remember who one met and a business card can be a handy reminder. Unless one makes a stellar first impression, business cards come in handy here. 


I’m not one to dismiss freely given advice and I will be getting some business cards printed. But I don’t think they’re as relevant as they once were, particularly to someone in my peer group, and there’s a whole other blog post which could be written on changes in employment paradigm; the shift from an Apprentice-style workplace to a Google-style workplace, etc etc. 

But that’s another story for another day… 

(1) I should qualify this by saying that I have a narrow slice of experience in the job market chiefly in The Information Profession and among (generally tech-savvy) New Professionals. To make my argument stronger but less wide-ranging, substitute “society” with “Simon’s peer group” throughout.

(2) Well-meaning joke.

(3) You'll also find "Have you tried logging out and then in again?": a presentation about e-resources that Abby Barker and I delivered.

(4) It helps that I have a fairly uncommon name. I appreciate that the John Smiths of The Profession may find this more difficult.

(5) It was at this point that I realised I was committing the mistake of assuming my generation’s plight is more important than any generation’s that came before. Every generation believes that they are living at the end of history; that their struggles, their fights, their lives, are more important than the generation before who, we usually believe, ruined everything for all of us. It’s the old ‘No-one has ever been through what we’re going through’ fallacy.
“To imagine that we are a necessary part in the order of the universe is, for well-read people like us, the same as superstition is for uncultured people.” The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco.
(6) E-Collections and Service Analyst. Which, even more confusingly, can be variously capitalised as ‘E-collections’, ‘e-Collections’, ‘e-collections’, or ‘e-ColLEcTionS’. Not to mention the hyphen…

(7) I could use some title like ‘Information Professional’ on my cards but that’s so vague as to be almost meaningless.


libalyson said...

Lots of interesting points. I would say they're still relevant in several situations - eg meeting someone for the first time and you get home, forget half their name, can't find them online etc... but the card has all the info. Agree that once you know the people, you don't need to keep their card. I have ones for my library job (no influence over content or design) and my own personal ones for my yoga teaching which I leave around in the hope that someone might one day follow my yoga blog, or locally come to my yoga classes.

Sarah Wolfenden said...

Hi, thanks for this. Am currently deciding what to put on the card as I know I may be changing jobs. The main reason for me is as a reminder that they met me - although I'd like to think I'm that memorable I know there's going to be thousands of people there and every little helps. I tend to pick up business cards, find them on twitter or LinkedIn and the get rid of the card. The only time I don't get rid is if the card is pretty or it's something I want to save for the future, like more yoga classes ( will now look up the person above me and check their location !)

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I like your points about how connecting someone isn't really a phone thing anymore and the business cards you do carry, those people you'd rather contact through other channels other than the one's they describe on their cards. Still, a classic is a classic, but you make excellent points!

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