Category Archives: Innovation

Responding to Change

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, and John Unsworth, vice provost for Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University, speak on The Hathi Trust, Google Books, and the Future of Research. The event was the part of the BNN Symposium on the Future of the Academy sponsored by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and the Boston Library Consortium (BLC).

The theme of the day was institutional responses to technological change: how do we keep libraries relevant in supporting research? How can emerging technologies enable new kinds of research using traditional materials? How can we take advantage of changing technologies while preserving our values and services? This event was a great opportunity for thinking about these questions from a big-picture perspective.

Courant had a few central messages to his talk, which I summarize and comment on below. His words, paraphrased, are in italics, and my thoughts and questions follow.

  • Technology is a set of mechanisms that get you from input to output. Libraries produce value by making things reusable and sharing them; that’s a technology. We’re all using technology; there’s no such thing as a “technophobe.” Hardware and software, devices and databases, are all tools that function within this technology. Books are a technology: they move ideas along, from authorial input to reader output.
  • In a disrupted world, build things to see what works. Don’t wait for all the ducks to line up in a row. Dedicate time and energy for new initiatives, but don’t require that they be perfect, or have buy-in from an entire organization. Create and support spaces that enable experimental projects. (Is the Harvard Library Lab still operational? Are there others?) Learn from the things that don’t work.
  • The old system doesn’t tell you what to build. What do we do because we’ve always done it? Are there traditions (services, functions, processes) that we preserve for their own sake? What is worth preserving and what can we leave behind?
  • Look to purposes, not to things, although things can be the only way to some purposes. Is a traditional reference desk the only way to provide drop-in research help? What are other ways that we can provide time-of-need assistance? Must we be in the physical space of the library to provide this kind of help? Or does having a physical service desk in the centralized public space of the reading room encourage patrons to use librarians’ services? Does the presence of a reference desk enable user interactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise?
  • The library isn’t there for itself; it’s there to enable scholarship and learning. This is one of the “no-brainers” that I forget sometimes, especially with collection development. Creating an ideal collection with its own integrity can be very rewarding, but so can assembling connections to materials that enable and enrich research, teaching, and learning.
  • Preserve outcomes, not business models. Use the language of learning outcomes to help shape the direction of new projects. What do we want users to be able to do as a result of this service or product? What do users want to be able to do? How can we meet those needs using the resources we have?

The Ebook of My Dreams

We all have our frustrations with ebooks. The problem isn’t just one of print vs electronic or Luddite vs early adopter. Even as I happily consume Kindle books on my iPad and the new Project Muse collection for work, I find that ebooks simply don’t do the things I want them to do – the things the electronic format seems to promise. In an ideal world, what would ebooks do that would make them not a substitute for print books, but better than print books? What features would make ebooks represent a true new step in the evolution of information delivery systems? Here’s what I’d like to see :

Interoperability: Ebooks need to take advantage of the spatial navigability of the electronic environment. For example, the index should not exist separately as an additional PDF file, as many ebook indexes do. Instead, I should be able to click on an entry in the index (say, “deckchairs, rearrangement of”) and be linked to the place(s) in the text where that topic is discussed. With endnotes, it’s frustrating to flip to the end, especially when it’s just a bibliographic citation. Can you give me the information without taking me away from the text? Can I mouse-over and get the information in a pop-up window? How much more work would it take to link up index entries and notes? How much more of an intellectual payoff would we get?

Intertextuality: Does the book cite other books? Journal articles? Blogs? Websites? Well, connect me – not just to bibliographic information that I can port into a link resolver and then cross my fingers. Take me there: right to the page that the author discusses. Make the connectivity that we expect on the web a standard feature of ebooks. Is there an allusion to some other text? Identify the allusion and give me the option of linking to it. But also give me the option of turning off all of the annotations — sometimes I just want to read without interruption. Especially if I’m reading James Joyce.

Sharing: Hey, I just read this great essay in that new collection – it would really help with that project we’re working on. Want to borrow my copy with all my notes?  Great, and you can add your annotations too. When we’re done with work, want to borrow this great new novel I just finished reading? Oh, sorry, I read it on my Kindle. You’ll have to pay $9.99 too.

Device Neutrality: You have a Nook instead of a Kindle? No problem! You don’t have a device at all and you need to borrow one? Sure! You need to put the book on reserve, or use it on your laptop? Be our guest! But most of all, you don’t want to have to download an app just to read a book. Well, neither do I, and in my flying-car, jet-pack, futuristic fantasy world of ebooks, we don’t need to.

Curating: As a bibliographer, I need to acquire for my library the information that will support the research and teaching needs of the faculty and students on my campus. I don’t want a package that has been created by a vendor speculating about the needs of liberal-arts college library collections. I want to buy ebooks for my library just like I buy print books — some on approval, some as firm orders, some through patron-driven acquisitions, some because a new professor has been hired in that subject area, and some because they belong in a collection of record. I don’t want to be told that I can’t have an ebook in my collection because my vendor’s conglomerate competes with its publisher’s conglomerate. If two print books sit happily next to each other on a physical shelf, why can’t they coexist on a virtual shelf?

Can we also decide: eBook? e-book? ebook?

Yes, some of these features do exist already, often as standalone apps. Many of these are features we’ve come to expect from ejournal (eJournal? e-journal?) environments. What ebook features do you dream about?

If You Can’t Reach Everyone Aim For The Passionate Users

Does your town still have a video store? Most do not. I don’t mean a Blockbuster or some other big chain store. Those are getting harder to find too. I’m referring to a small, independent, niche type video rental store. I recall that when movies first became available on VHS the rental stores soon began popping up everywhere. At first they were all independent, like individual bookstores with unique personalities. Then a few local chains sprouted up. Then national mega-chains started to dominate the landscapte, and with their lower prices and quantity they pushed out many of the smaller independents who had no way to compete on price, selection or convenience. It is all reminiscent of the retail evolution from mom-and-pop grocery stores to Wal-Mart.

The independent stores were usually much beloved, and as when long-time bookstores finally close, it makes the news. No doubt, public libraries, with their free videos, help to put a nail in the coffin, but nothing comes close to the spike delivered by Netflix. As it masters the art of streaming video to all devices, Netflix tightens its grip on the video rental industry even as its recent price increase has customers griping loudly. As the dominant player in its industry, Netflix is now every competitor’s number one target.

Despite the overwhelming odds against success as an independent video store in 2011, a few are actually surviving if not exactly thriving. What these survivors are doing could provide a lesson for academic libraries that face similar challenges in a world where our target population can find information elsewhere with greater ease and convenience. In an NYT article titled “Video Stores, Reinvented by Necessity” we learn these strategies include participative film viewings, presentations by filmakers, film classes, trivia nights and yes, better facilities.

I especially like that the core of these strategies is based on trying to compete with giants like Netflix and Internet-delivered video by focusing on the community and the building of better relationships. As one store owner said “What we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other,” Ms. Polinger said. “We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal.” This resonates with me because I’ve been emphasizing the importance of relationship building to capitalize on an experience we can provide that our community members cannot get with those nameless-faceless-corporate Internet providers of information.

Another lesson to learn is that personalization makes a difference – and that being different is a competitive advantage. Another independent store owner proclaimed that “People who work in the video store are very knowledgeable about film. There’s always a conversation, not just a click. Those kinds of real experiences, you can’t really duplicate when you’re getting a movie out of a vending machine.” That sounds vaguely familiar to personal reference services in a library. What’s different is that academic librarians often approach these interactions as simple and forgetful transactions when they are opportunities for a conversation. Every academic librarian’s goal should be to provide a better experience based on personalizing each transaction. We do not help ourselves by simply pushing out more content – even if we allow our community members a more personal role in choosing it.

Another potential lesson is to concentrate our efforts on the segment of the population that has the capacity to become the passionate users. The video store owners are conceding the bulk of the community to Netflix. They changed their strategy to focus on the passionate users who need more than convenience – those who want the conversation. I think this is what Brian Mathews is getting at in this interview when he said:

“There are just some people who don’t use libraries, and so we can’t expect to reach them…I think there is potential to further educate current users. There is a population of people who just love books or love being in large computer labs or who just want to get away from the dorm and have a more ideal learning environment. This is our base. It’s these people who we want to focus on and expose to other things that we have to offer. In this regard, I think we can tip people along to other aspects of the library that they might not be aware of.”

Given the size of our staffs and number of potential users we’ll likely never have the capacity to reach all of them – and many of them are not interested in what we offer. That was a major lament expressed by Bohyun Kim in her ACRLog guest post when she wrote “users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources…So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?” While we would never want to intentionally abandon any segment of our communities and we will always promote our openness to all, the place to go, I think, is where we put our energy into connecting with the segment that has the capacity to become passionate about using the library. Create the programs, conduct the activities and build the relationships with those who do care about the library.

I’ll paraphrase what Simon Sinek says in his book Start With Why (and in his TED Talk): “The goal is not to push your services to everyone who potentially needs what you have – your goal should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe.” That, Sinek tells us, is how you build loyalty and increase the likelihood that your loyal customers will tell their friends how great the experience is at your library. That’s exactly what those remaining, surviving video stores are doing.

Just as with other industries that are being displaced or disintermediated by disruptive innovators, newspapers, travel agents, music delivery, bookstores, higher education, there are lessons that academic librarians can learn from those who survive when all others are becoming irrelevant, marginalized and obsolete. There’s only a crisis in academic librarianship if we let it happen.

Do You Have The Tao In Your Toolkit?

In his blog post, The Tao of Librarianship, Andy Burkhardt reminds us how we can apply the ancient wisdom of Taoism to library policies and services. Burkhardt addresses library food policies, space design, planned abandonment of outdated formats and services, and adapting to change through the lens of Taoist philosophy, which he summarizes as, “instead of struggling against everything all the time, Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them.”

Another more colloquial way of stating this is the expression, “go with the flow.” Going with the flow is more commonly associated with surfers and hippies than librarians. Traditionally as a profession we tend toward rules, policies, standards. We prefer to “get things under (bibliographic) control.” A tweet at a program at ACRL 2011 put it this way: “Control freak streak runs in the profession. Sadly, yes. #lettinggo #acrl2011.”

Burkhardt is right to suggest that Taoist principles could help us more effectively deal with the change in our world and in our libraries. In addition to the areas that Andy brings up, Taoist ideas can also be useful when it comes to collaboration within and outside the academic library. In their ACRL 2011 program, Letting Go: Giving Up Control to Improve First-year Information Literacy Programs, librarians Meghan Sitar, Cindy Fisher, Michele Ostrow, of the University of Texas Libraries explain the difficulties they faced and the concepts they had to embrace in order to give up control and collaborate with other faculty and professionals on campus.

One of the more beautiful metaphors in Taoism is the admonition that we should be like water, fluid and responsive (Tao 8). Is your library frozen like a glacier or flowing like a mountain stream? Are you part of the ice jam or part of the break up? Have you come to terms with your inner control freak? As a profession, how can we become less controlling, and what should we let go? Can the principles of Taoism help us?

There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. An interesting one is The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.

Ideas For Innovation Are All Around Us

We are subject to a non-stop barrage of information about innovation. Experts give us advice on how to be more innovative. The stories we read in our library literature share news about innovative libraries. Yet we rarely learn how to be innovative. Ask a few librarians what it means to be innovative and you’ll get many different answers. It’s something new. It’s something different. It’s something creative. It’s something that comes from business. I know this because in preparing for a presentation about innovation in academic libraries, I asked many different academic librarians to tell me how they define innovation. The best definition of innovation I have come across defines it quite simply: something new or new for your organization that provides value. The emphasis is on “value”. You can come up with something new, different, unique or creative but if it fails to deliver value to members of your user community – or the library staff – it’s not innovative for them. Sometimes it’s our failures that lead to the real innovation.

Many of us academic librarians think of ourselves as being innovative or we want to be more innovative than we are. Succeeding at it is hard. The challenge is finding ideas that are likely to result in good innovations for your community. I do believe our future relevance (or indispensability if you prefer that) depends on being entrepreneurial and proactive about innovation. Not just innovation in the library, but looking for ways to be innovative in the campus community. That could mean aggresively looking for opportunities, for solutions to problems that students or faculty have, but for which no one is delivering a solution. It may not be a solution to a known problem, but a service or resource that the community needs that has yet to even be sought out. That’s the Apple philosophy – don’t give people what they ask for – give them the things they will want but haven’t even expressed a desire for yet.

Our success and sustainability can no longer be guaranteed by simply doing the same things we’ve always done and which is what everyone expects us to do – and for which they increasingly no longer really need us. When we innovate we seek out new services that provide value to our community members. To my way of thinking, anything that allows them to do something new that they can’t do now, or allows them to do something better, faster, easier, more expeditiously than they can now – that’s a breakthrough innovation. But where do you get the ideas for that? It helps to be an explorer, the type of person who constantly seeks out new mysteries and then seeks to unravel that mystery. It’s like Roger Martin says: All human knowledge is advanced by mystery. The explorer, through diving into new mysteries, will discover what people want to do or need, particularly something they can’t do easily now or that requires great effort.

The opportunities are out there. Here’s an example I want to share. During the first week of May the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a special supplement called “The Digital Campus”. There were several good articles. As I read this one I thought this is just calling out to librarians to get their innovation engines revving up. In “New Technologies to Get Your Students Engaged” author Ryan Cordell shares his techniques for getting students to interact with research material. He writes:

I want my students to conduct research using primary sources. Every year more digital archives publish historical books, magazines, newspapers, letters, tracts, maps, photographs, audio, and film. Delving into those archives allows students (nearly) direct access to materials that were once available only at colleges with extensive special-collections libraries. I’ve asked students in my 19th-century-literature classes to research historically grounded projects using the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America project, an open collection of historical American newspapers.

Cordell also talks about wanting his students to use personal bibliographic management software. He goes on to mention a handful of technology tools he exposes to his students, including Evernote, blogging and Omeka (for organizing digital collections). For Cordell, using these technologies is all about giving students an authentic research experience that enables them engage in his course as scholars.

It’s clear that Cordell is ahead of the curve with these technologies. Yet even he can probably discover resources offered by the library that faculty often overlook. But what about all the other faculty that may be encouraged by Cordell and will want to incorporate more primary research and scholarly engagement into their courses? They may not have the time or technology experience to replicate Cordell’s pedagogy. Who will be there to help them go choose the right technology tools, and help connect their students to primary research materials? We can be there, and that’s where entrepreneurial spirt is required. The ideas are out there. Academic librarians need to supply the drive and enthusiasm to find them, refine them and implement them.