:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

The Engines of Innovation


   You don't need to be a futurist or a rocket scientist to know that our
   profession is rapidly changing. Our clienteles--not to mention their
   abilities and needs--are changing demographically, and the tools we use
   to do our work are different. The very content that we buy and provide
   access to is more diverse and often requires delivery in entirely new

   Such interesting times require imagination and innovation to create
   collections and services. Many libraries are rising to these challenges
   and taking advantage of new opportunities. Some are experimenting with
   online reference service, while others are experimenting with loaning
   e-books. Many more examples of library innovations (e-journals, local
   databases, tutorials, etc.) can be found at the web site Innovative
   Internet Applications in Libraries. Some of these projects may result
   in important, ongoing services, while others will fail. But even
   failures provide important lessons, and risk is an unavoidable part of

   What makes innovative libraries different from their counterparts? What
   are the conditions that help foster innovation and creativity? How can
   libraries make effective decisions about resource allocation that take
   into account existing needs while providing opportunities for
   experimentation? How do you encourage staff to take the inevitable
   risks that accompany innovation? And what can management do to create
   an organizational climate and management structure that supports

   To foster innovation within an organization, managers must make staff
   comfortable with sharing their ideas. For example, the web site
   Innovation Network (sponsored by consultants) offers a questionnaire to
   determine an organization's "innovation quotient." Although the site is
   aimed at businesses, it can still be useful for libraries.

   Pertinent questions include "Do you encourage and stimulate interaction
   between departments and promote cross-functional projects?" and "Do you
   routinely solicit, listen to, and act on suggestions from people from
   every level and function of your organization?" A quick visit to the
   Idea Workout Gym provides inspirational quotes from the likes of Victor
   Hugo, Albert Einstein, and Frank Capra.

   Another good place to get the juices flowing is at the magazine Fast
   Company. Although focused on business, many of the articles on the
   "Innovation and Creativity" page are good reads on those topics.

   Some of the most effective ideas are likely to come from those who
   interact most directly with the users. Staff should feel like they have
   opportunities to share their ideas in an open, nonjudgmental fashion.
   Some libraries use the old "suggestion box" method, while others
   promote brainstorming opportunities.

   Some libraries use "retreats"--time set aside for brainstorming and
   planning--to solicit ideas actively. A retreat need not be an expensive
   affair, but it can help free people to think creatively if they are far
   enough from the office that they cannot slip back to the demands of
   work. External facilitators can be helpful, as they lack the baggage of
   insiders and can offer a more objective perspective.

   As Richard M. Dougherty writes in "[123]Planning for New Library
   Futures " (LJ 5/15/02, p. 38-41), "Library staffs are much more
   knowledgeable than is often appreciated...I have found in my work that
   staff-driven answers are usually much better than answers produced by
   outside expert consultants." Tap into this knowledge and experience
   about local problems and possible solutions--encourage your staff to
   innovate. Front-line staff know what people are asking about, from
   e-books to Internet search strategies.

   Also, an administrative structure that relies on standing committees
   may tend to stifle innovation if those who have good ideas are not
   included. Ad hoc task forces provide an opportunity to bring together
   the right mix of staff to think creatively about a problem. Ad hoc task
   forces can draw from all areas of library operations, with the
   appropriate kinds of experience or skills.

   Once you decide to act on an idea, resources must be allocated from
   internal sources or augmented from external opportunities. Resources
   can include money or staff or both, but at the least something that had
   been getting done before will need to be put aside to create something
   new. Organizational buy-in by staff, especially management, to try the
   innovation will be essential and in direct proportion to the amount of
   resources required.
   Expect the unexpected

   Be prepared for the unexpected result. Do not get so caught up in
   trying to make your initial idea succeed that you miss the real lesson.
   By beginning with a prototype, you can gain some important experience
   during a time when you can still easily make changes. Later, when the
   innovation is in "production," it will be much more difficult to
   respond to discoveries you may make about how people use your new

   For example, librarians at UCLA discovered during their experimentation
   with digital reference that some users were actually quite near to an
   actual reference desk. These students did not want to get up to ask a
   question for fear of losing their computers. Discovering this means
   that UCLA (and others offering similar services) may be better able to
   serve those in-house users of digital reference.
   Providing a clean exit

   It's the nature of innovation that some experiments will result in
   failure. Besides knowing this going in, other preparations and
   responses are necessary. First, those managing the innovation must
   clearly state that the innovative service is an experiment. It may or
   may not result in a permanent new service.

   Have a public time line that includes set points for review and
   decision-making. Know when you will decide to end the effort
   officially, but make sure to allow sufficient time for the innovation
   to prove itself. Warn those who need to know that it may result in
   failure. Explain why it is nonetheless important to risk failure.

   If your innovative service fails and you decide to pull the plug, take
   several specific steps. Perform a postmortem on the project, including
   all those involved, from creators to implementers. Determine what
   factors contributed to its demise and, more importantly, which aspects
   could be considered to be successes. What have you learned from the

   Failures are almost never without some productive lesson. For example,
   a regional cooperative experimented with offering a "MyLibrary" type of
   customizable portal. It soon became clear, however, that the level at
   which such customization should be provided was not centrally but at
   the individual library, since the users identified more with their
   local facility.

   The cooperative was savvy enough to recognize this, put a cap on the
   project, and move on, recognizing that it had to consider more
   carefully the appropriate delivery method for services. If this project
   were to be revisited, the regional cooperative would be more likely to
   implement it as an easily configurable software package that the
   individual libraries could adopt.

   In any case, if you decide not to continue with an experimental
   service, communicate clearly to staff and the public why you are not
   proceeding and include any lessons learned or small successes.
   What it takes

   A library of any size can innovate. Imaginative solutions can, and
   sometimes do, come from individuals laboring in quiet solitude. But
   there are definite actions that an organization can take to encourage
   imagination, spur innovation, support a demonstration or a prototype,
   and make the tough call to either end the experiment and learn from it
   or pull together the resources to carry it into production.

   How well your organization performs these tasks will define how
   effectively it can innovate. In interesting times, innovation separates
   the vital, responsive organizations from those that are merely getting

Link List

   Fast Company Innovation & Creativity articles

   Innovative Internet Applications in Libraries

   Innovation Network

   "Planning for New Library Futures"