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Mary Ellen Bates: profile of an information brokering expert

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Going solo

Mary Ellen works entirely for – and by – herself: she is Bates Information Services ("you're interviewing the entire company right here at once, we speak with one voice").

She is clearly not only highly successful, but also extremely happy in her work:

"I have more fun than should be legal, it's just a great business."

When I ask her what fuels her passion for the information industry, she's clearly aghast that the question can even be asked:

"What's not to fuel it?"

She became interested in using computers to retrieve information long before most people. Back in the 1970s, she

"sort of stumbled into a library and they taught me how to use Dialog and it was like, oh my gosh there's all this stuff out there".

Now, there's a lot more "stuff out there" and it

"keeps getting better and more innovative, but not in such a way that we can't keep up with it".

Her lists recent examples of her work as research to determine when Argentina began repaying its bonds; examples of particularly effective customer retention programmes; identification of key suppliers and vendors in the HVAC (heating/ventilating/air-conditioning) industry; how Generation X and Generation Y markets differ; and an analysis of telecom monopolies in Central and South America.

She describes herself as getting obsessed by the last thing she was researching, and finds it difficult to come up with a favourite topic, although she talks with some enthusiasm about the Gen X versus Gen Y project:

"It's been learning how people manage a part of their lives that makes many nervous or anxious, which is money, especially over the last year. Obviously there's the age difference, if you're 25 you're not thinking about retiring in the same way that you would be if you're 60, but apart from that there's a wholly different approach. Gen Y people know that you're not guaranteed a job or a pension, so there's more of a sense of responsibility for saving for retirement, whereas baby boomers have grown up with assumptions about state and occupational pensions."

How to be a successful independent information professional

In a recession, which often means redundancy or budgets being cut to such a point that work becomes profoundly dissatisfying, going freelance as an independent can seem an attractive option. Mary Ellen thinks that the world of business research is a wide open field, with

"far more business out there than there are people doing it".

But if the skill set for an information professional or special librarian is eclectic, that for an independent researcher is even more so. Not only do you have to be good at whatever information services you provide, you also need business skills: how to manage cash flow, how to market yourself, how to think like an entrepreneur and assess what your market wants and how to provide it.

Most people do not start out with these skills, but they can be developed: the trick is to be brutally honest with yourself about the skills you have and the ones you need to build up. A very practical guide to the business can be found in Mary Ellen's book, Building and Running a Successful Research Business, the second edition of which she has just finished. She also recommends the Association of Independent Information Professionals, which is "very collegial and supportive".

While many people have experience of budgets, marketing oneself may not come naturally and may be more difficult. The secret is to

"find ways to market yourself that are effective, that reflect your personality and that feel comfortable".

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