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Innovation in Public Libraries

by Carolyn A. Anthony on February 24, 2014

Librarians understand that innovation is important to the future of public libraries. One need only look through the program listings for any library conference, through the titles of recent articles in library journals, or newer position descriptions from public libraries to observe that the words “innovation” and “innovative” have become ubiquitous. Syracuse University has a certificate of Advanced Studies in Information Innovation. Library Journal’s (LJ) 2013 Directors’ Summit was titled “Innovating from the Top: Where Design Thinking and Impact Measures Meet.” At some public libraries, one can apply for a position as an “innovation and user experience officer.” Is an innovation officer in a public library an oxymoron? Can librarians who have established reputations as conservators of knowledge also be innovators?

Although one of the definitions of “innovation” is “the introduction of something new,”1 we have come to understand that just because something is new it is not necessarily innovative, and something innovative in one community may not be innovative in another. There is a temptation to label the latest technological product as innovative whether it is RFID, an espresso book machine or a MakerBot. However, for something new to be innovative, it must also be useful and add value, that is new and better, not just new. Innovation is related to creating customer value. If the latest bit of technology is not useful to people in your community or does not add value to their lives, then it cannot be considered innovative in its application.

A 1950s housewife commonly used a household machine called a mangle that had long, hot rollers for pressing items such as sheets and table cloths, which were generally made of cotton or linen and emerged full of wrinkles after being washed and hung out to dry. While an improved design for a mangle might have been something new at the time, the introduction of permanent press fabrics was truly innovative. Innovations solve problems, sometimes even before people realize they are problems. If talking about mangles sounds old-fashioned, one might think today of Apple or Google as companies which are continually innovating.

Clearly, problem-solving and innovation require an understanding of the customers’ needs and how they are changing. At the LJ Directors’ Summit last November, Michelle Ha of IDEO spoke about the firm that employs people with diverse skills to design products and services at the forefront of innovation.2 She said, “We always start with people.” Another basic premise for her is that “it takes field work to gain true insight.” She talked about problems as “design opportunities in disguise” and the importance of observation to gaining an understanding of the problem. For example, the designers at IDEO observed that children hold a toothbrush tightly in the fist while they brush their teeth. This observation led to the design of chunky, padded handles for children’s toothbrushes. Note that the designers did not lament that children do not hold their toothbrushes correctly, nor did they decide to teach children the proper way to brush their teeth. They met children where they are. Whether designing a toothbrush, a public program, or an organizational structure, the approach is the same.

In October 2013, I attended the Public Innovators Lab, a three-day workshop presented by the Harwood Institute which is engaged in partnership with the American Library Association (ALA). The core principle of the Harwood Institute is to “turn outward” toward the community: “Only when you gain a deep and authentic understanding of the nature of a community and people’s lives can you understand the conditions you must create for change to come about.”3 Note that the concept applies whether the community is the geographic area served by the public library or the library itself, as in the case of a new organizational design and structure. Rich Harwood defines a public innovator as an “individual who holds ideals that guide him or her; who is pragmatic in his or her work; and who understands what it means to take risks.”4 Harwood also offers a simple value proposition: “If you turn outward and make more intentional judgments and choices in creating change, you will produce greater impact and relevance in your community.“5

To be innovative, add value, and produce impact, one must understand the context for the user and also the institutional mission of the provider. Only then can one be strategic. Kathryn Deiss observed that, “Innovation and strategic thinking are critical to any organization’s future and have direct correlations to the organization’s mission and purpose.”6 Business books abound with stories of industries such as the railroads that lost their place in society because they were unclear about their mission. The public library’s mission is not about circulating books, but about supporting lifelong learning. As learning has become more interactive and collaborative, public libraries have become social learning spaces. The change from a passive institution, of potential use to motivated individuals who came to the library to check out a book, to an institution actively engaged with individuals and groups, welcoming them to classes in digital learning and to collaborative spaces in the library, or meeting them in their afterschool care centers and church social halls for programs, is a true innovation in public library service.

The Urban Libraries Council, whose motto is “Inspiring Libraries. Transforming Communities,” has an annual Top Innovators award program with recognition for public library innovations in ten categories: (1) learning; (2) civic and community engagement; (3) collections; (4) customer service; (5) economic and workforce development; (6) health, wellness, and safety; (7) operations; (8) organizational change and strategic management; (9) positioning the library; and (10) sustainability.7

Another Merriam-Webster definition for “innovation” is “something that deviates from established doctrine or practice.”8 There is a danger for libraries in seeing that deviation as a one-time leap that will lead to the firm ground of newly established doctrine or practice. In fact, it is necessary for library staff to see innovation not as a single breakthrough, but as a sustainable practice leading to continuous improvement and progress. I am reminded of the slogan of General Electric in the 1960s: “Progress is our most important product.” There are always problems to be solved and better ways of doing things to be discovered. As Brian Fabes, the CEO of the Civic Consulting Alliance in Chicago, queried at the LJ Directors’ Summit, “If we’re so good, why aren’t we better?”9

Accepting the need for constant innovation will require that public libraries adopt a disciplined approach to turning outward toward the community to understand how the library can adapt to people’s changing lifestyles and patterns. It will also require that public libraries hire people who are creative, analytical, and social to engage with community residents, and to form partnerships with agencies staffed with workers having diverse skills who can work with us to help the community achieve its aspirations. Learning and innovation skills are part of the suite of “21st Century Skills” as outlined by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).10 Creativity, along with critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, cross-disciplinary thinking, and innovation are all cited by IMLS as essential skills, not as inherent attributes of certain people. Public libraries should enable staff to practice these skills through encouragement of experimentation, work in cross-functional teams, and a tolerance for failure.

So what is holding us back? Inherent in innovation is change. We will never achieve the transformation of libraries that is possible with constant innovation unless we can persuade librarians that the need for change is urgent. In his book Leading Change, John Kotter outlines an eight-stage change process that begins with a sense of urgency.11 This preliminary stage includes looking at the market and the competition and also considering the crises (or potential crises) and opportunities. Is it possible that some people do not see the confluence of the Internet, Google, e-books, and ubiquitous mobile technology as creating an urgent need for change in how public libraries operate? Indeed, the abundant significant developments in technology, along with concomitant social changes, have created a compelling need for change in public libraries. Everett Rogers talks about “clusters of innovations” that lead to major technological advances in medicine or agriculture such as the innovation of the heart pacemaker that depended on the invention of transistors, tiny batteries, and other such developments.12

It would seem that, at the current time, we have experienced such a cluster of innovations and we are now poised for a major advance in the delivery of public library services. Important steps in the diffusion of innovation include the decision to implement an innovation in whole or in part and then the actual implementation, which involves putting the innovation to use. Successful implementation requires application of the innovation in the local setting and the possible need to adapt the innovation for local use. Rogers asserts that a “higher degree of re-invention leads to a higher degree of sustainability of an innovation.”13 William Duggan encourages a very broad look at how similar problems have been addressed in other contexts: “Be careful of straight benchmarking. That’s a way to copy industry leaders in that function, but it’s not a path to innovation. Looking as widely as possible outside your industry is the key to functional innovation.”14

The diffusion of innovation in public libraries is not about installing maker technology in every library outlet. It is about considering local circumstances and community needs, conducting a participatory and extensive process of seeking solutions, and then adapting—rather than adopting—innovations to solve local problems and create value in the lives of local residents. The future of the public library depends on sustainable and continuous innovation. To truly innovate, we should begin by turning outward to understand our community and its potential.

References and Notes

  1. Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “innovation,” accessed Jan. 14, 2014.
  2. Michelle Ha of IDEO, conference presentation at Library Journal’s 2013 Directors’ Summit, Nov. 19-20, 2013.
  3. The Harwood Institute, “About,” accessed Feb. 10, 2014.
  4. Richard Harwood, Public Innovators Lab Guide, The Harwood Institute in collaboration with ALA, Washington, D.C., October 28- 30, 2013.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Kathryn Deiss, “Innovation and Strategy: Risk and Choice in Shaping User-Centered Libraries,” Library Trends 53, no. 1 (summer 2004): 17.
  7. Program descriptions for the winners and other contributors can be found on the ULC website.
  8. Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “innovation.”
  9. Library Journal Directors’ Summit conference presentation, Nov. 19-20, 2013.
  10. Institute of Museum and Library Services, Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills (Washington D.C., 2009): 23-24.
  11. John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business Review Pr., 2012): 23.
  12. Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation, fifth ed. (New York: Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, 2003): 162.
  13. Ibid., 183
  14. William Duggan, Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation (New York: Columbia University Pr., 2012): 60.