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.

3 thoughts on “Ideas For Innovation Are All Around Us”

  1. Steven, it’s interesting to me that you mention online digital primary sources. I’m a History librarian (as you know after our chat on the shuttle bus at ALA!), and I am so frustrated by the discoverability challenges of these archives and collections. There are so many strong digital libraries out there, and they are not even a tiny bit organized. It’s hard enough for a librarian to keep up, and I’m not sure how students and faculty are supposed to do it. (Just this weekend at my school’s alumni reception I happened to learn that the National Library of Medicine has some amazing digital collections. I had no idea–and only learned about it because I was sharing a drink with an old LS school friend.)

    I wish some ALA section or committee was doing this, but they are not. (Or if someone knows of a website that’s actually been updated that has some listing or database of digital libraries, please let me know!)

    We added the Chronicling America project to our list of databases, and I’m sure other libraries do something similar. But as another friend, an electronic resources librarian, said to me this weekend, we have a solid process for acquisitions of stuff we have to pay for. But most of us don’t have a formal way of selecting free materials. What criteria do we use? Who maintains it? Who vets it? We can add a link or two to a course guide for specific assignments, but sometimes the digital collections are big enough or good enough that we’d pay for them if they weren’t free. Just because they are free doesn’t someone lessen their worth.

    Sometimes having these materials vetted by and through the library can open them up even more to students, because they become more discoverable, but also because then they are no longer the dreaded “online materials” (as some faculty fear), but excellent collections that just happen to be open access.

  2. Great post Steven. The point you made in your post about delivering solutions to problems that no one is addressing yet is a good one. These areas are fruit that is ripe for picking. You are correct in that sometimes it is hard work, but this is where new ideas really can deliver value.

    I saw a presentation at ALA called Innovation in an Age of Limits and it talked about some similar concepts. An example on the presenters gave was that he showed logos for different companies. There were a lot of logos, but among them were Facebook and EasyBib. The thing that all these companies have in common were that they were all started by students. Students are already innovating some of the things they need and they make it work for them. EasyBib addressed the student need of dealing with cumbersome citations. There are other tools as well like EndNote or RefWorks, but whenever I ask in any classes the vast majority of students say they use EasyBib. Designing from a student perspective as opposed to a librarian or teacher perspective seems to be important.

    But there are plenty of perennial problems in the academy that go unaddressed and these would likely be spots for innovation, either in services or in tools or resources.

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