Tag Archives: Innovation

Musing on Maintenance

I’ve been on sabbatical for almost six months, which has temporarily alleviated my need to use the New York City subway system with any regularity. This has come at almost exactly the same time that the subways (and the rail systems that use Penn Station) have experienced a sharply increasing wave of delays and failures. I love the subway, truly — it’s near the top of my list of reasons why I live in NYC — but I’m very grateful that I don’t need to ride it regularly right now. The subway unreliability plus hot summer temperatures are an especially awful combination, which makes this week’s news that the governor plans to allot funds for a fanciful bridge-lighting project on the city’s river crossings seem particularly ill-inspired. The subways are failing for the same reasons many other infrastructures fail: deferred and delayed maintenance. That these failures are happening at a time when the subway has hit a high in popularity and use is no surprise, too. The solution is more funding for maintenance, which the state and the city can’t seem to agree on, an impasse that leaves commuters stuck, too.

Yes, New Yorkers are obsessed with public transit (and I will admit to being more obsessed than many), but what does this have to do with libraries? As I was writing this post I remembered that I’d written about The Maintainers conference last year, thinking a bit about the conference’s discussion of maintenance as the opposite of innovation, and how to make space for both in our libraries. But this week, with cascadingly ridiculous subway news, I’m thinking about maintenance of infrastructure that can be critical and is sometimes too easily ignored.

Any organization or institution needs maintenance, including libraries. Like subways, the more popular we are in libraries, the more maintenance we have (and, I would argue, the more deferred maintenance can snowball). At the beginning of the semester our circulation desk has a rush of students checking out reserve textbooks; with the midterms and finals week rush comes more trash for our custodial staff to clean up; the more pages students print, the more often we need to repair or replace the printers. We try to allocate resources appropriately to accommodate busy times, but that can be tricky given flat or declining budgets. And with increasing popularity also comes a need for not only maintenance but expansion — we are absolutely struggling with that at the college where I work, which has seen nearly a 50% increase in enrollment in the past decade (and with expansion comes a neew for more maintenance, too).

Much of the work that we as librarians do is also about maintenance: continuing to meet the needs of our communities by offering services and resources that they need for their academic work. This work can be invisible, sometimes, because our community may not see the work as it happens (for example, in technical services). Invisibility can also be a result of the tendency of institutions to privilege the additive for planning and reporting. When we pull together our goals and targets each year, the tendency is to focus on what we’re doing that’s new. But the maintenance work for continuing services and resources is important, too, and I try to make sure that doesn’t get left out of our goals and reports.

One form of maintenance that I’ve tried to make time and space for during my sabbatical is for my professional and research self. A few times each year I update my CV and professional website, keeping track of what I’ve worked on both to share it (e.g. links to articles in my institution’s repository) and to make it easier to do my own annual report each year. Research, too, is additive: collecting new data, analyzing and interpreting it, and sharing the results. When time is short it’s easy to dump those files into a folder (bonus points for media files with unintuitive filenames!) to be dealt with later. It’s all too easy to let this kind of maintenance pile up, even for those of us who generally enjoy organizing physical or digital files. I’ve done a fair amount of professional and research file management during my leave. It’s been great to have some time to focus on this kind of maintenance, especially for the research that my colleague and I have been working on for many years.

I’m not sure how to resolve my concerns with maintenance in our libraries and for ourselves as librarians, other than to try to keep the focus on these maintenance tasks when we’re planning and reporting. How have you integrated maintenance into your work in libraries?

Maintaining in Academic Libraries

The spring conference season is in full swing, and one weekend earlier this month it seemed like there were conferences of interest to me all over the place, judging from the hashtags in my Twitter timeline: #PLA2016, #SAA2016 (Society of American Archaeologists), #OAH2016 (Organization of American Historians), #DifferentGames2016, and #AERA16 (American Educational Research Association), just to name (more than) a few.

But of all of those great-looking events, most of my conference envy (and associated hashtag-following) was reserved for #maintainers, hashtag for The Maintainers: A Conference, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. From the description on the conference website:

Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

From the tweets I caught this conference looked fascinating, and you can read more about it in the shared conference notes doc (with many links to full papers) as well as in the essay Hail the Maintainers published in Aeon by conference organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell the day before the conference. And since the conference I’ve been mulling over this tension of maintenance vs. innovation, and how it might be expressed in academic libraries.

Like our transit infrastructure, libraries require maintenance work to function, work that touches every part of our libraries: facilities, resources, services (in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of importance). This maintenance work, while crucial, sometimes seems easy to forget, especially as annual reporting season rolls around each year. Do we report the maintenance work we do? If we don’t report it, administrators, faculty, staff, and students outside the library might not know it’s happening, so I would argue that yes, we should report it.

But maintenance can’t be the only thing happening in academic libraries — as technology, access to information, and higher education more generally go through changes, libraries do as well. One danger of focusing only on maintenance is that it might prevent us from trying something new that could bring real benefits to us as workers or to the communities we serve. Adding new (or making changes to existing) facilities, resources, and services can also bring new requirements for maintenance. Perhaps there’s legacy maintenance that’s no longer needed, allowing us to balance between continuing and new efforts within the constraints of our time and budgets?

I bristle when I read the phrase “do more with less” because I want to resist the overwork and burnout that can happen to all of us, especially when necessary maintenance work can seem invisible or underappreciated. And I think that innovation as a buzzword can sometimes be used to encourage us to do more with less, to believe that innovation alone will overcome the limitations of funding and time. But I also don’t think that flat or declining budgets mean that we shouldn’t change — I think it’s worth our efforts to figure out if there is maintenance work that we can stop doing that can allow us to try something new (which, if successful, will of course require maintenance of its own).

Is maintenance the opposite of innovation in academic libraries? Can we do both? Must we do both? To be honest, I’m still puzzling through my thoughts about this, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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.

Innovation Moves Our Profession Forward

In a previous post I had a some fun pointing out some obsolete tools and technologies that were no longer important to the work of librarians. You must have had some fun with it as well. That post remains the most commented on one we’ve written here at ACRLog. Readers shared examples of their own obsolete equipment, technologies and techniques. By looking back we collectively measured the great leaps and bounds by which our work has evolved. We might likewise measure our progress by examining how innovation has changed what we do and how we do it.

Knowledge@Wharton published their list of the top 30 innovations of the last 30 years. I was struck by the ones that dramatically transformed my work since I first entered the profession in 1978. What didn’t I have then? No computer (#2). No Internet or Web (#1). No email (#4). No cell phone (#3). No GUI (#21). How did we ever manage? Just those few innovations alone have revolutionized and forever altered librarianship. Sorry gaming librarians – video games didn’t even make the list – but social networking did (#20).

At its most basic and fundamental foundations the library is about acquiring, storing, organizing and disseminating information/content. Every one of these functions is radically altered by just these four innovations. It is difficult to even imagine what new and future innovations will change our work in the next 20 or 30 years. Perhaps in just the next 10 years we’ll see as much innovative technology change as we did in the past 30. Electronic ink and foldable computer screens. Personal intelligent assistants. Advanced virtual world simulations. Ubiquitous VoIP integrated into digital technologies. Oh yeah, flying cars! These and other technology innovations stand poised to even more radically change the nature of library work. Well, maybe not the flying cars. There’s much to look forward to in our profession and the ways in which we’ll harness the innovations of the future to better serve our user communities.

Core Values Must Come First

In the past few weeks I attend two equally thought provoking presentations. Although the content was radically different, as were the presenters, – one a library science professor and the other a business faculty member and corporate consultant – there was a common theme in each talk that resonated strongly with me. Both talks, in a way, were about a subject much on the minds of academic librarians these days. How do we adapt to a radically transforming information landscape in which our very relevance is put to the test?

The first of the two was David Lankes, Associate Professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. I heard him present at the Connecticut Library Association where he spoke about the “library as conversation”. Lankes urged the audience to keep asking ourselves two essential questions: why are we doing this and why does it matter to the people for who we do it? The answers, it was suggested, would emerge from a fundamental understanding of our core values, from which we could then develop innovative resources and services to better serve our communities. Lankes’ advice to the audience: “Be the wave machine, not the wave”.

The other presenter was William Gribbons, Professor of Information Design and Corporate Communications at Bentley College, but also a consultant to dozens of corporations. I heard him give a talk about user experience at a professional development program at the Rutgers University Library. Gribbons made a strong case that academic libraries could no longer win over students and faculty with links to e-resources alone. When all information providers look the same, only by differentiating the library could progress be made. According to Gribbons a unique user experience is carefully designed and constructed, but whatever that experience is it should be shaped by the organization’s core values.

While neither speaker actually defined what a core value is or how one discovers it, I think Lankes came close by instructing the attendees to work at understanding what business their library is in. He thought the business of libraries was knowledge creation. I like to think it is learning and promoting academic success. There are other possibilities but I believe all of them must be based on creating relationships with our users from which they will obtain meaning. When we understand the business we are in and how that translates to creating meaning for our users those core values will emerge.

So where do we begin? Exploring and articulating a library’s core values, as you’d expect, involves some soul searching, both individually and collectively, and collegial conversations – among staff and with the user community. But these two rather different speakers pointed to much the same thing: core values must come first. Having a sound, basic and fundamental understanding of those values will drive efforts to develop a plan for innovation or provide a better user experience that will guide us through disruptive technology change, hyper-competitive information environments and the many other challenges that are sure to confront academic librarians.