The Constant Innovator

When library workers expand their horizons, so do libraries

March 10, 2014


A superior way to innovate is to gather a varied mix of people to think about problems and solutions in much the same way that variety enhances a species gene pool. But getting everyone from frontline staff up to administrators on board and actively innovating is time-consuming and could disrupt the daily functions of a library. This time must be managed somehow, and indeed there is a way.

Google’s “20% time” is an inspiring model for allocating time for innovation at a sustainable level over the long term. The model provides employees with a significant number of work hours—ideally 20% of their total hours each week—to devote to unstructured, unregulated innovation. According to Google, many of its best ideas, such as Gmail and AdSense, are products of 20% time.

Twenty percent of a full-time employee’s workweek is one full workday. Trying to squeeze in an hour here and there to think is probably never going to happen; meetings run over, a patron has just one more question, and too many distractions clamor for attention. Having a full eight hours, on the other hand, is analogous to having parentheses on either side of one’s day: a closed office door protecting one from the minutiae that pop up just from walking across the building. Another advantage to a 20% time program is the ability to work from home. Telecommuting is an increasingly desirable alternative arrangement that has the added bonus of boosting employee morale. Alternatively, one’s 20% time could be used to meet with a group and collaborate.

Grouplet power

Group work is an important part of how Google handles its 20% time model. Work in grouplets (Google-speak for “teams”) happens “when the thing you really want to work on is to make a broad change across the whole organization, [and] you need something new,” Google’s Bharat Mediratta said in the October 21, 2007, New York Times (“The Google Way: Give Engineers Room”). “These grouplets have practically no budget, and they have no decisionmaking authority. What they have is a bunch of people who are committed to an idea and willing to work to convince the rest of the company to adopt it.” These parameters—a limited or nonexistent budget and the need for a broad change—align perfectly with library needs and resources. This shift in management style—from independent work and decision making to collaborative processes—can improve function at the individual library level, too.

Perhaps the most important aspect of effective national and international innovation is sharing ideas in a timely fashion. If one library comes up with an excellent new service, that library’s patrons will be thrilled. But that is not enough. One of the library profession’s greatest strengths is its willingness to share great ideas; libraries are not in competition with one another and the success of one does not injure that of another, even that of a neighbor. Of course, libraries already share ideas through conference presentations and journal articles, and more informally through personal blog posts and social media, but the former methods are too slow and the latter either reach too small an audience or have a limited forum in which to expound and explain. Alternatives are needed.

While it is important that staffers at all levels embrace the importance of transformation, workflow changes and staff redistribution simply will not happen without buy-in from the top down. Library leaders and managers must acknowledge, in an Upton Sinclair The Jungle–like moment, that libraries are at a critical juncture and that idea generation and service creation are critical for the profession’s continued existence and relevancy. Librarians are already skilled at putting individual needs, such as privacy, over those of the corporate, so it is not such a stretch to put the needs of the library as an institution above those of the individual library from which a librarian receives a paycheck. It is vital that employees receive not only permission but also encouragement to pursue such projects.

Library administrators need not worry about their subordinates aimlessly wandering the internet searching for ideas. In What They Don’t Teach You in Library School (ALA Editions, 2010), Elisabeth Doucett has come up with an excellent strategy for finding, identifying, selecting, and obtaining good ideas. It may be challenging to determine which technologies will become part of library patrons’ quotidian lives and which are simply fads, but predictive research, such as Gartner Research’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies will help.

Each year, Gartner Research says, it publishes visual and narrative reports that “provide a graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications, and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities,” tracking various technologies from their “trigger” to a “plateau of productivity.” These reports are published online every year, and its Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies is especially useful for librarians. A similar resource is the Horizon Report (Higher Ed edition) published annually by the Educause Learning Initiative and the New Media Consortium. Taking the conjecture out of determining what is a fad and what is the future will enable librarians to become proactive, instead of reactive, by creating solutions for problems that don’t yet exist.

Next, libraries of all types must create a vision they can strive toward. The profession is currently in a state of flux, a condition not unlike a midlife crisis: Who are we? What do we do? Many groups have been working to create a vision for libraries, but unless these questions are addressed first, libraries will continue to flounder, exhausting limited resources on services that users do not expect and do not use. Cutting tangential services will free up resources necessary to implement the library’s vision. As Carl Grant of the University of Oklahoma Libraries notes, “Our end goal should always be to become the best at providing those [core] services for our library members.” Creating this vision will also save time and energy that would otherwise be spent fixing historical library problems that will not apply to the library of the future.

Achieving transformation does not require the upending of all established workflows; on the contrary, many suggestions described here are already happening. For example, libraries of all types have noticed a reduction in the number of reference questions that come their way. Where once librarians handled reference by triage, patrons now rely on free, web-based services like Google and Wikipedia. Rather than reacting with dismay to a reduction in reference desk demands, librarians can look at the bright side: They now have increased time to work on projects. Less expensive library clerks or student workers can replace librarians at the desk, as indeed they already have in many libraries, to answer ready reference questions and refer more complex ones to a librarian.

Success through sharing

The Google grouplets model of organized innovation takes advantage of one of the most wonderful characteristics innate to our profession: to share, rather than hoard, good ideas that work. Currently, this sharing of ideas happens informally through word of mouth, Twitter, and blogs, and formally through journal articles and conference presentations. These methods all have serious drawbacks, discussed previously, that prevent them from being utilized as media for sharing instantaneous, useful information. However, these methods are the only substantial ways in which librarians share ideas and collaborate.

Even at the institutional level, how many libraries—or organizations of any type—have a reliable, accessible medium through which to disseminate success stories? On the other end of the spectrum there is the librarian “in the field,” working “largely in isolation on a daily basis” (as blogger Hugh Rundle noted on April 4, 2012 in “It’s Not About the Books”), encountering the same challenges as her colleagues in the library the next town or state over. Not all of these problems are worth discussing at the conference or peer-reviewed-article level, but these librarians would certainly benefit from increased collaboration with their peers. As Steve Matthews pointed out on his 21st Century Library Blog on December 14, 2011, “Doesn’t sharing experiences with colleagues equate to professional development? Who doesn’t need professional development?”

What is needed is a centralized conduit that librarians can use to pass information to colleagues so they need not read dozens or hundreds of different information feeds. This conduit could be a centralized repository—a Library of Congress of good ideas. Ideally, this conduit would be able to share information quickly and inexpensively and organize ideas by topic: readers’ advisory, collection management, and so on. The Netherlands–based internet TV series This Week in Libraries, which American Libraries described in its May 2010 issue as featuring “global library news and interviews with individuals involved in library innovation,” is already doing something along these lines. Such a conduit, whether an internet television series, a podcast, or a news feed blog or e-newsletter with quick links, could become a Channel One for librarians, where watching the latest installment at the start of every workday or week could be obligatory.

The benefits of adopting a Google grouplets model of innovation are many. Libraries will no longer be bogged down by bureaucracy and professional caution, unable to adapt quickly to new technologies and cultural shifts. They will be able to take the initiative and create the software and services they need. Libraries continue to be underfunded and understaffed, but by distributing the time for innovation among all current staff members, they will have more time and money to create new services and hire new staff. Staffers will enjoy improved morale because they will grow beyond their quotidian duties and become invested in the big picture of the profession.

As Google’s Mediratta noted in the New York Times, “It sounds obvious, but people work better when they’re involved in something they’re passionate about.” Most important, the profession will be nimbler and more dynamic, more effectively staying ahead of trends and providing services that not only meet the needs of patrons but also amaze them.

MEGAN HODGE is teaching and learning librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. This article is an excerpt from Planning Our Future Libraries: Blueprints for 2025, edited by Kim Leeder and Eric Frierson (ALA Editions, 2014).



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