Proposal: The Case Against Innovation in Libraries

What do many organizations usually do when it is time to enhance their products or services? Add features! Phones now take photographs, there are web enabled appliances and many cars tell you which direction to turn. Similarly, libraries now communicate with people via IM and even text messages. Libraries have added new features to their services in attempt to capture bits of people’s ever thinning supply of attention.

Many librarians have spent a significant amount of time advocating that libraries experiment with new, fun and exciting services, quite often with a glancing caveat that it is best done while keeping in mind community needs. This has lead to little more than aimless feature creep. It is now time to start spending time and effort on what has usually been treated as a simple aside.

This presentation will explore the problem with trying to grow through feature parity and propose that libraries start doing less rather than more.

I’ve been planning upcoming presentations and articles by prototyping session descriptions.

11 thoughts on “Proposal: The Case Against Innovation in Libraries”

  1. I think this is a really good point, Aaron. Although I don’t know if feature creep is especially innovative– certainly not if not guided by community needs.

    This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately, I want to take the time to offer elegant services (which I think you and DCPL have really captured well) while meeting the needs of a widely disparate community.

    However, I think there’s a pretty good amount of data to support a need to maintain some amount of parity with other fields.

    I would definitely like to see this idea developed and discussed further.

  2. Thanks, Matt. And to be clear, we’re in agreement re: feature creep not being a good way to go about “innovating.”

    I bet we’re also in agreement about libraries moving along with the info world and matching features. I’m just not 100% sure we’ve been going about it the right way.

    Thanks for the feedback, it will help me refine my prototype!

  3. I think this idea is great. But it breezes over what I think is the real issue: “Innovate” means something completely different in a library or nonprofit context than it does in the private sector. In engineering or science, to innovate means to do something that no-one has ever done before. In marketing or libraries, to innovate means to do something that everybody else is already doing but that is new to your organization.

    Being genuinely innovative means trying something new to see if it sticks, and I don’t think that one of the challenges facing libraries is that there are too many new things being tried. I think the problem you’re describing is really a user experience problem; libraries and other nonprofits don’t often have the discipline to cull the appropriate from the buzzworthy, or know when an experiment has overstayed its welcome. That leads to junk-drawer library websites, badge cruft, and an overall hit to UX quality.

    Part of the risk of the “just play with it!” approach to retraining is that it becomes so easy to mistake familiarity and comfort, which are very important to build quickly, for expertise and experience, which can’t be obtained in a 6-hour workshop. I know that adding a meebo widget is so easy a social media expert can do it, but maybe you don’t need all 23 things on your home page. =)

    It’s a lot like the gaming challenges, actually; staff mistake “able to do something” for “being knowledgeable and experienced about something” and stand there fiddling with the RCA cables while 11 teenaged A/V geniuses stand around tapping their feet. The expertise is all around us; we just need to stop flashing our Licensed Information Professional badges every time someone makes a suggestion.

    One of my most fervent hopes for the 21st century is that the phrase “Let the grownups handle this” will be transparently replaced by “Let the children handle this” as our society finally recognizes that from here on, kids will always know more about everything than grownups, which was kinda the whole idea in the first place.

    What were we talking about? =)

  4. Aaron,

    I think you have hit on a very delicate point. While it may be true that the “youngster clients/customers” might be more facile with technology fixes than some “professional librarian grown-ups”, I am seeing and hearing that many organizations are pushing their librarians to walk the technology cliffs. What I do I mean?

    Last week I talked with a professional librarian in a large county system in the Puget Sound area. She told me that their org was going to do a 14% reduction in staffing, remove professional librarians from the reference desks and have them do more important technology stuff. And, paraprofessionals would then run reference while the librarians would work with cutting edge technologies. Does this make sense?

    What is the right balance between innovative services and standard library services…like reference?

  5. Aaron,

    Does this path lead us directly to assessment? I.e. trying to find out what works, what’s not working, what our community needs/is using/might want? That’s the piece I keep coming back to…and the one I’m constantly trying to figure out. How do we assess these experiments? How can we concentrate our efforts on what is giving us the most bang for the buck…especially when we are facing a climate pressured by budget cuts, where we need to be able to demonstrate that what we are doing is worth the effort/time/manpower/etc.


  6. Coming back to this after seeing it favorited in Google Reader :-) Reading the blurb again and all the responses … I think this is a great idea! Seems to me one BIG thing that’s missing is planning. Having the ability to say “we want to attract more [fill in people category here]” – and then going after them. THEN – if that means Facebook Pages, and building Facebook apps that appeal to them … then so be it.

    That means you need to already be an expert with the tool. But it also means that you don’t jump willy-nilly into using the new tool just because it’s there and you are capable.

    Create goals, planning, etc first. THEN use the tool if it’s the best one.

  7. Hi Aaron:

    I think that there is another issue to the challenges of innovation in libraries.
    I have been discussing the innovation gap over the pastfew years and why the world of libraries seems so glacial. I try to address the following questions:

    Can organizations be truly innovative? Professions? Is the public sector different?
    What allows good ideas and innovations to diffuse through our organizations?
    What are the root causes or barriers to innovation?
    Are there some solutions to this puzzle?

    Anyway, this might spark some conversations with our colleagues for your presentation:

    So, why does the diffusion of ideas and innovations (even simple features on websites – getting to parity with public expectations would be a dream!) in libraries feel so slow?

    Some definitions of “diffusion” might help:

    dispersion: the act of dispersing or diffusing something; “the dispersion of the troops”; “the diffusion of knowledge” (
    the spread of a cultural pattern from one culture to another, and where no directed change agent is apparent (
    Technology diffusion is the dissemination of technical information and knowledge and the subsequent adoption of new technologies and techniques by users. Technology diffusion is a component in the broader innovation process. (

    At the SLA Leadership Summit in January, I met and heard Chip Heath, co-author with his brother Dan, of the book Made to Stick. I love the story in that book about ulcers. It’s almost an updated tale of Sister Kenny who (I learned in an old B&W movie) found a better treatment for paralysis caused by polio, but whose ideas were dismissed for many of the same reasons as those of the doctors in this story.

    This is the story of two Australian doctors, Dr. Robin Warren and Dr. Barry Marshall, who discovered that ulcers are caused by bacteria (H. pylori). This is accepted knowledge now, but the story of how the medical establishment resisted the discovery is illuminating. They found the bacteria and its effects in the early `80s and had great difficulty in publishing their results. In 1984, in a pique of frustration, Dr. Marshall (reminiscent of Dr. Banting injecting himself with insulin to prove its safety), had to make himself sick with pre-ulcers by consuming a large dose of H. pylori bacteria and then curing himself with simple antibiotics and Pepto-BismolT ingredients! Eventually (finally?), 10 years later, the National Institutes of Health endorsed antibiotics as the preferred treatment for ulcers. Hundreds of millions of people suffered needlessly for well over a decade because of this delay in accepting the innovation. It ends well with both doctors receiving the Nobel Prize in medicine in Fall 2005.

    Now, we information professionals know a little something about the value of information. We can improve health, learning, policy, discovery, competitive advantage, and infinitely more. Do we have to poison ourselves to get attention? I hope not. Can we get our ideas and innovations to diffuse more quickly through our profession, our host institutions, and enterprises? How?

    In their book, the Heaths offer that it comes down to trust, credibility, and belief. People believe because their parents and friends believe. (Just think how many people in your community believe that crime is up because everyone believes that – even though it is down in general over 65%!) They say that our personal experiences lead us to our beliefs and, beyond that, faith and the role of authorities that we trust is substantial. Just think of the amazing number of email hoaxes sent to you (if you’re anything like me) by people who should know better but who got it from a trusted source – their friends! Personal trust is a very powerful thing.

    Now, to be fair, the good Australian doctors also suffered from being outside of mainstream medicine – they were practitioners instead of traditional researchers, and they were from Australia instead of the primary medical R&D centers in the North America and Europe. They were from a hospital and not a university. At one of their early presentations they were openly mocked! That’s quite a hole to dig out of in the nasty world of R&D politics.

    Now, think about it. Are librarians mostly insiders or outsiders? Are we in the mainstream or on the fringes? Do we speak the language of those we need to influence or our own argot? Are we as trusted as we’d like? Are we personally connected to the social networks through which change and ideas diffuse? Do we have personal equity and professional equity? Hmmmm, I’d hazard that we’re not as connected as we’d like or need to be. Do we use our users, trustees, and boards effectively to diffuse our innovations?

    What are we innovative at? Does it diffuse through our own networks quickly? Think about some of the things we see that are exciting at our conferences and meetings: customized taxonomies, community programming, buildings, gaming tournaments, blogs, virtual reference and branches, excellent Web sites, creative licensing, imaginative training and marketing programs, research style innovations, and much, much more. We have a lot of WOW factor things to celebrate. What limits them from diffusing more quickly even in our own professional networks? Here are a few thoughts:

    In order to learn, we must develop and share our case studies – the whole thing, warts, errors, and missteps and all. Do we have the courage to do this or are we too perfectionist to be totally honest?

    Are we limited in many of our environments by worries about the competition, trade secrets, confidentiality, and privacy issues? Do we obey rules too literally? Are there ways to get the message out safely? Sometimes vendors see the innovation and have to make it vanilla in order to get the word out. It’s sad the innovators don’t get as much credit as they deserve.

    Are we just too self-effacing? Do we suffer either from feelings that it won’t measure up to public scrutiny or that we’ll be embarrassed? Does the solitary nature of many of our positions leave us without the team support to get out there with confidence? Do we just think someone is going to notice without that all-important pointing finger or look-at-me-Mom-on-the-diving-board?

    Do we lack the budgets to innovate? Are our environments too visionless to try edgier innovations with bigger payoffs? Do we have too weak of a connection to our organizations’ social networks, key influencers like IT, hierarchies.? Are we positioned strongly inside or outside our communities? Are there virtual walls? Maybe we don’t just recognize our actual power.

    Is our profession conservative and introverted by its very nature? I don’t think so, but it needs to be asked. Are we too isolated in our work environments and need the freedom of our associations to learn and experiment? Do we wait for permission instead of asking for it?

    All of the above might be true in degrees. Are they reasons or excuses? Are there good workarounds? However, wonderful innovations do happen and ideas do diffuse. How do we get this to happen more and faster, and involve more of us and our ideas and contributions?


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