A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

It’s All Around You: Creating a Culture of Innovation

by R. Toby Greenwalt on February 24, 2014

Innovation, you say? Ha, I respond. Being an innovator is easy. All you need is a brilliant idea that no one has ever come up with before. It also helps if you have the resources and team to make the idea a reality. And you should probably also have the ability to knock out these brilliant ideas on a regular basis.

Okay, maybe this isn’t as easy as it looks. There’s a tendency to mythologize the “lone innovator”—you know, someone like Steve Jobs or Ron Popeil. But that myth ignores the fact that Apple and its brethren have massive teams working together to capture lightning in a bottle. Some of these ideas may come from the top, sure, but there are just as many ideas emerging from the trenches. The lone innovator isn’t just a myth, it ignores the fact that anyone can make innovation happen.

Innovation is a value that needs to permeate the organization. New ideas can’t simply be the territory of the new kid in the library, or the one staff member who answers all the e-book questions by default. (It also bears mentioning that technology is only one of many arenas in which innovation can occur.) If you wish to pursue and implement new ideas, you need to create an environment where staff at all levels feel comfortable proposing improvements to any aspect of library service.

Websites often have developer environments, spaces where web designers test out new design features or software tools before they go live on the main site. This is a place where developers can ask “hey, what happens if I do this?” and not have to worry about breaking publicly accessible services. Failure is an option here—it helps build a better product.

Just as with web developers, libraries should have analog developer environments, areas where staff can experiment with new ideas and find ways to improve upon any of their services. Do these have to involve technology? Not necessarily. Whether you’re pursuing innovation in virtual space or meatspace, it’s increasingly important for libraries to get their entire staff involved in positive change.

Creating a Collective Brain

You can’t predict when innovation will strike. Some of us get our best ideas at four in the morning, when we’re walking the dog, or when we’re in the stacks shelf-reading biographies. I almost always have a pocket-sized notebook with me, just in case something crosses my mind. (This also means I have a large collection of pocketsized notebooks, each with about three pages filled out.) Not every idea that emerges in these unguarded moments is worth pursuing, naturally. But having a stack of unfulfilled ideas is much better than having one great idea vanish as soon as you hit the snooze button.

How does this scale? Documenting those initial ideas is a first step, but for innovation to really be an organizational value, these thoughts need to bounce off one another in order to truly coalesce into viable improvements. I often find that it’s the informal gathering spaces that tend to be the best breeding grounds for this kind of thinking. Hallways and break rooms are great opportunities to spark dialogue between disparate departments. If you’re removed from the front line, it’s also your chance to find out how your procedures translate into practice. I’ve found that my coworkers tend to be more willing to be candid if you approach them on level ground. If you can set up a dry erase board in that space, it can be a catalyst for interaction between the lunch crowd and the late shift.

But having a virtual environment for these conversations might be where things really take off. You don’t have to worry as much about running out of space, and you’re far less likely to erase something should you accidentally brush against the screen.

Regardless of budget or technical know-how, there is a tool for you. Even something as simple as a WordPress blog can serve you well, if all you need is a blank canvas for conversation. It’s easy to make the site private, so that only invited users can view the site content.1 This is probably most useful for organizations with a smaller number of staff, as viewers will have to be invited individually. Open-source bulletin board software (such as phpBB) requires installation, but can help you facilitate multiple threaded conversations on a variety of topics.2 And learning management software (such as Moodle) can be incredibly helpful if you wish to create dedicated communities of practice around specific topics.

Tools for Catalyzing Innovation

Whether you’re working in the break room or on the intranet, it’s likely these spaces won’t become useful until staff feel comfortable putting their own ideas out there. Fear of failure is a very real thing. If employees have never felt like they’ve had a voice, it will take time for them to feel confident in their own abilities.

Create Prompts

In 1975, music pioneer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt published Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards designed for musicians to provoke creativity and override mental blocks. When drawn at random, each card offers a unique prompt (such as “work at a different speed”) for examining your creative process from a new perspective.3

We may not want our prompts to be as esoteric as Eno and Schmidt’s, but we can create our own library-centric provocations. Questions and prompts such as “what’s the most relaxing spot in the building?” or “design a new checkout desk from scratch” can go a long way toward getting staff thinking creatively. Offer new prompts at regular intervals, and make sure people have access to past responses. Invite staff to create prompts of their own, and introduce them into the rotation.

Over time, this process should help your coworkers to feel more confident about potential innovations.

Think Visually

Along with all my notebooks, I am always taking pictures. Some of these things might have direct ties to the library: an appealing display I saw at the supermarket or a unique sign on the street. If you have colleagues doing the same thing, you can pool your efforts.

Using a Dropbox, Evernote, or Flickr account, you can create a shared repository for all of these unique things your coworkers find out in the wild. Pay close attention to patterns—if different people take photos of the same thing, there’s a good chance that something in the image is worth adapting for your library.

Take It Public

I used to teach a very formal Introduction to iPad class. By the second session, I abandoned my lecture, because attendees simply had too many questions about specific features on their own devices. I switched the class to a show-and-tell model, where each person had a chance to share their favorite apps and ask questions about their own trouble spots.

Not only did my students enjoy the class more, but it helped them realize just how much they knew about their own devices. It gave them a real sense of confidence that emerged every time they came back to show me what new apps they had discovered.

I think we can apply this same principle to other library services. People have a lot of personal attachment to their home libraries, and with that a need for customization. By bringing more of our patrons into the conversation, we can improve those feelings of involvement across the board, hopefully upping our usage in the process.

Learning to Breathe

These strategies may seem simple at first. But simplicity is key when it comes to getting staff members to start working collaboratively with new and untested ideas. The “fake it ’til you make it” principle is definitely at work here. Each staff member has their own comfort level with this stuff, and you want to make sure those who are less comfortable with change aren’t drowned out by the more enthusiastic members of your staff.

In time, having a more flexible, collaborative approach to change will click into place. Once that happens, innovation becomes like oxygen: new ideas are simply part of the environment. As libraries continue to adapt to this rapid cycle of change, it’s going to be the responsibility
of staff at all levels to make innovation happen. Digital resources will be an important part of this, but it’s a shared attitude toward improvement that will really move things forward.


  1. See the instructions at http://en.support.wordpress.com/settings/privacy-settings. If you are hosting your own WordPress installation, you will need a plug-in such as Private Only (http://wordpress.org/plugins/private-only).
  2. Many commercial hosting sites offer one-click installations of this software. If you have space on something like BlueHost or DreamHost, this could make it much easier to create one of these environments.
  3. You can draw from a virtual Oblique Strategies deck by visiting www.oblicard.com.