Sunsetting: What Libraries Can Learn from Tech Companies

Megan Hartline —  April 10, 2015 — 2 Comments
Photo of three people walking silhouetted by sunset

CC-BY Abhijit Kar Gupta

Libraries exist to provide amazing services and resources to our users.  We are so committed to this vision that we continue to offer these services even after users don’t need them.

As non-profit service-oriented organizations, the motivation to pull the plug on a library service is minimal. If even a single user finds a printed pamphlet valuable, we’ll continue trifolding away. But is that the best use of library time?

Maintaining old services diminishes the innovation capacity of libraries. Our resources (staff time, building space, and money) are finite. In order to do new things, we have to stop doing some old things.

Don’t panic, book loving librarians! I said some old things. Of course we continue well-used old services. The printed word is still going strong.

In order create a makerspace or expand reference hours, however, library leadership would have to examine how every inch of floor space and every hour of staff time is used.

In an environment where we hardly ever give things up, libraries can turn to tech companies for inspiration on how to sunset services. Software reaches the end of its life cycle at the speed of light, and product life-cycle management is an entire discipline.

Here’s four lessons about sunsetting from the tech world that we can apply to libraries:

Choose to Sunset Wisely

Pragmatic Marketing, a software product management firm, offers a guide to retiring products. This errs a little far on the business side for library taste, with a lot of talk about profit margins. This advice on how to decide to sunset, however, rings true for libraries:

“The easiest way to know that a product should be killed or sold off is when it no longer fits the company’s distinctive competence and market strategy. Regardless of the costs, a product that doesn’t make sense in the context of the rest of your products just confuses your customers.”

“Distinctive competence” is an great concept for library leaders to consider. Our distinctive competence in libraries is matching users with resources.

I encountered a library where staff invested significant time at the photocopier duplicating journal pages in order to send printed scans of the table of contents to users. This was in 2014, in a time when most journals offer free table of contents alerts by email. It was time to end the physical copy service and instead point users to the email services direct from publishers.

When we examined this through the lens of distinctive competence, we realized that we don’t want to be known for labor-intensive copy making. We want to connect users with a fast automated service that they can control.

Retire Slowly

Even if the decision is clear, you have to move cautiously when sunsetting a service. In 2013, Google announced the sunset of Reader, their widely used RSS feed product. They gave users several months of advance warning:

“To ensure a smooth transition, we’re providing a three-month sunset period so you have sufficient time to find an alternative feed-reading solution.”

Google gave plenty of time for users to adjust to the idea of the service going away. Libraries could take a page from this example by targeting communication to the few remaining users of an aging service, like typewriters, to let them know gently that there will be other options soon.

Answer ALL the Questions

Geomagic, a suite of tools for transforming 3D scans into CAD models, recently consolidated their software offerings and discontinued some products. Their Q&A page on the sunset covers everything a user might want to know, from basics like “What are we doing?” and “Why are we doing this?” all the way to extreme specifics:

How did you decide which products to move forward with?

What happens to my dongle for a retired product?

I am a non-maintenance customer. Will my retiring product still work after Dec 31, 2015?

The Geomagic example anticipates any question that a user might have and gives them as much information as possible up front.

Communicate Sensitively

Slinger Jansen, a computer science professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, led a research inquiry into the software sunsetting process. The resulting technical paper has a softer side:

“Think, for instance, of the support engineer who knows every nook and cranny of the software product, or the user who has configured the product just to her specifications and is described as the wizard of that product by her colleagues. We advise practitioners to make compromises and be sensitive towards the emotions that surround legacy products, both in their internal and external communication.”

This is a good reminder that every single library service has a champion on staff. Sensitivity to the feelings of those “wizards” in your messaging about sunsetting – even internal communications – will help that devotee let go.

Megan Hartline


Megan Hartline (@wrybrarian on Twitter) is librarian at the University of Michigan, where she manages physical collections and provides professional development. She holds a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Leadership, and is passionate about building community by connecting people with resources.

2 responses to Sunsetting: What Libraries Can Learn from Tech Companies


    ValueLine Small & Mid-Car and Investment Survey! One, just one patron asks for the hard copy. And yet we continue to subscribe. We also offer the online version.

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