A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Innovation Frustration

by Sarah Bean Thompson. greenbeanteenqueen@gmail.com on February 24, 2014

Innovation is a word that’s used around libraries a lot. Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “the introduction of something new” and “a new idea, method, or device.”1 According to MerriamWebster.com, innovation is in the top 1 percent of lookups.2 Obviously a lot of people are talking about, and interested in, innovation. And this is no different in the library world. I feel like every training session, conference, and staff meeting I attend includes something on how libraries can become more innovative. It can be overwhelming as a librarian to always be on the lookout for something new and exciting, a way to reinvent libraries and teen services.

As much as I love networking with my colleagues, reading blogs and library journals, and discovering programs and ideas that are happening in libraries around the country, I can’t always stop that little stab of guilt telling me that I’m not innovative enough. It’s an easy trap to fall into. I compare my library to other libraries and myself to other librarians. I think about what great ideas they have and wish I would have thought of it first. I convince myself I could never pull off a program like that because my budget is much smaller, or my building isn’t located next to a school, or I don’t have a good enough connection with someone in the community to bring in an outside guest. I feel as though I’m not creative enough to come up with an inventive and unique program. I convince myself that none of my ideas are new and fresh. I look at other libraries and compare my department with theirs—if only I had that display space, shelving, or furniture, then my department would be great.

For me, this is the frustration of innovation. We often get so caught up in wanting to try something new that we lose sight of what we already have. Sometimes it feels like the library is full of recycled ideas. From Listservs to blogs to library conferences and associations, librarians love to collaborate and share ideas. But it can be hard to think that what I’m offering teens is just the typical stuff that libraries are supposed to be offering teens. We’re supposed to be giving them great customer service, readers’ advisory, and homework help. We’re supposed to have teen nights, teen councils, and programs based around pop culture and teen interests. We’re supposed to lead book clubs and give book talks and make displays of new teen titles. We’re supposed to have a party or program for the latest book or movie release all the teens are talking about. But what I have to remember is that while I know this is what the library is providing for teens, not everyone else does. Community members, fellow librarians, and even teens themselves aren’t aware of everything that is happening in the library just for teens and how much libraries can offer.

Instead of trying to create more new programs or come up with something that will be the next teen trend or innovation, I focus on making the programs I already have great. Maybe I don’t think my program for teens is the most innovative program there is. But then I think about what else is offered in the community, what teens are asking for, and how the program is meeting their needs. What might seem like a simple program to me might not be so simple to those who attend.

A Hunger Games party might not seem innovative to me, but for the teen boy who attended and met his best friend, it was something new and different. A fan club meeting for Doctor Who might seem like a program that libraries are supposed to provide. Yet, the teens who attend the program, and tell me that they don’t know anyone else who watches it, are so grateful for the chance to connect with other fans and geek out about the show. To them, our program is innovative. The teens who attend library council and give feedback and share their ideas and are able to make a difference in their library find the council to be a place to suggest something new—the very definition of innovation. The teens who attend library prom and are given the chance to connect with each other, dance like crazy, listen to music, and make noise in the library think that is innovative. While I might tell myself these programs aren’t unique and creative, the teens who attend them see them differently. To them, these programs are something new and different, providing a chance to feel as though they belong in the community, which is what—to me—providing an innovative program is all about.

Sure, I would love to provide a big program for teens with lots of cool new gadgets and technology. I would love to create a makerspace or connect teens with books in a new and exciting way, or be at the forefront of the next big teen trend in libraries. And while those ambitions are great to have, and maybe someday I will get there, in the meantime I focus on the programs I do offer at my library and remind myself that they are innovative in their own way. They are unique to my community and it’s a chance to show the library in a new light. I’m always encountering people who are surprised to learn of all the programs and services the library has to provide. And when I can surprise someone and teach them something new about the library, that’s when I feel innovative.

I have enjoyed writing about YA programs and librarianship for Passing Notes over the past year. My husband and I recently welcomed our first child and so I say farewell to writing this column. I hope you continue to share your ideas about YA librarianship with me at greenbeanteenqueen@gmail.com or www.greenbeanteenqueen.com.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “innovation,” accessed Feb. 3, 2014.
  2. Ibid.