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.

More To Bezos Than Books Or Kindles

If you’re about my age you may remember when Bruce Springsteen appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek the very same week (Oct. 27, 1975). It was a pretty big deal. Outside of a president or other world political figure, simultaneous mutual admiration by multiple highly read national magazines is pretty rare. While history didn’t exactly repeat itself with multiple covers, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, came pretty darn close. He is featured in major articles in Wired (May 2008), BusinessWeek and Fortune (May 5, 2008). All the articles appeared within a week’s space.

When academic librarians talk about the conversation is mostly about their book business or, more recently, the Kindle. But we should perhaps spend more time directing our attention to the person that runs Amazon, Jeff Bezos. When people think of books I don’t doubt that many of them think of Amazon before they think of libraries – if they think of libraries at all. And Amazon is certainly far ahead of libraries in providing a platform that allows customers to add content to their website and engage in conversation with each other. I’m not suggesting that academic librarians should view Amazon as a competitor. After all, we’re not even in the same business. Amazon is an online retailer. Academic libraries are in the learning business. What we should be doing is studying how Bezos has turned Amazon into an innovation machine (although the Fortune article sees Amazon as an “iteration” machine – one that makes lots of small moves and learns quickly from its missteps).

For the last year or so there’s been a fair amount of chatter about innovation in the library world, on blogs and at conferences. That’s good because as a profession we need to drive innovation in our libraries. What sometimes concerns me is that some of what I hear about innovation sounds like a mixed bag of platitudes. Perhaps just understanding innovation is part of our challenge. I prefer a description of innovation from an article titled “Innovation in Organizations in Crisis” in the fall 2007 issue of Design Management Review. According to the authors, Cherkasky and Slobin, innovation is finding new ways of creating value and bringing them to life. Simple and elegant. It’s not about inventing something new and it’s not about making big changes at your library at a pace that makes heads spin. Here’s what Bezos has to say about innovation in the BusinessWeek article:

Companies get skills-focused, instead of customer-needs focused. When [companies] think about extending their business into some new area, the first question is “why should we do that—we don’t have any skills in that area.” That approach puts a finite lifetime on a company, because the world changes, and what used to be cutting-edge skills have turned into something your customers may not need anymore. A much more stable strategy is to start with “what do my customers need?” Then do an inventory of the gaps in your skills. Kindle is a great example. If we set our strategy by what our skills happen to be rather than by what our customers need, we never would have done it. We had to go out and hire people who know how to build hardware devices and create a whole new competency for the company.

I commend you to read these three articles; your libraries have them if you can’t find them online just yet. We can learn about innovation from the thought leaders of business. Some of our best successes – considerable innovations for academic libraries such virtual reference, cafes in the library and self-service automated operations – had their roots as innovative business products. Given that the ACRL conference is in Seattle (Amazon’s HQ) in 2009 I was hoping that Bezos would be an invited speaker. ACRL recently released the keynote and invited speakers, and while it looks like a great lineup, Bezos is not among them. Releasing the Kindle was a significant innovation for Amazon, and a major risk for Bezos. Innovation or iteration, there are lessons academic librarians can learn from Bezos about ways to lead in the learning business?

BTW, thanks for some good comments to some recent posts. While I still think some of you are misunderstanding me when I use “leaders” and “library directors” (or library deans or whatever you like to call it) interchangeably, I appreciate it when you share your views. But not everyone leaves a comment. Some bloggers prefer to put their response into their own posting. ACRLog readers may not catch those so here are two I recommend to you: “But What If I Don’t Want it All?” over at Academic Librarian and “Teaching Technology/ies” over at info-mational.