6 Principles of Innovation for Libraries

Adapted from Dieter Ram’s 10 principles of good design my 6 Principles of Innovation for Libraries was presented at the CILIP Scotland National Conference, 2019. I thought it was worth sharing with a wider library audience for further feedback. Are there any other principles of innovation we should incorporate into our library thinking?

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Principle Number 1: Innovation is Useful

Innovation is Useful: I have no apologies for being a very pragmatic, service orientated Public Librarian so for me the first principle of any innovation for libraries is that it is useful. I am not interested in innovation simply for innovation’s sake. In considering this principle, it must be useful for our users, not just for library staff. The problem should be identified and solved from the user point of view, not from the library staff point of view. It should be make a difference and be meaningful. It can be easy to prioritise the user pain points — simply ask library staff ‘Where do staff say No to library users when they wish they could say Yes’ . Often library innovation has been around automating staff tasks rather than rethinking our service offer with consideration of current community behaviour, both online and in the physical space.

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Principle 2: Innovation is Honest

Innovation is Honest: My experience is that libraries are full of cynics- partly because they have been party to over promised outcomes from an innovation project before and are understandably wary of getting on board the innovation train again. The death knell to innovation in libraries is the phrase ‘We have tried that before and it did not work’. So it is important that we are very honest regarding the Why of the innovation and what problem you are trying to solve. And sometimes the outcome of the innovation is simply to learn the community response, or to develop new skills for library staff, as it is not always a solution that is the outcome desired. It is also important to be honest that the first time trying something may not be a success. Do not apologise. Build in failure as learning into the project. And always remember that the user experience needs to be at the centre of any solution.

Being honest with both staff and community means the library can garner buy-in when trying something new.

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Principle 3: Innovation is Understandable

Innovation is Understandable: It is important to ensure library staff understand the outcome the innovation is trying to achieve. Have the evidence for the need for the new solution on hand to explain why the outcome needs to be achieved. Do some of the FAQ thinking from a staff point of view beforehand so that you are prepared for the staff questions — in any innovative culture questions are welcomed as it helps to hone the solution. Get rid of user click points — do not add more in. Keep it simple.

Aim to get one part right, do not over complicate the solution. Do not bet the library’s future on wholesale change with a new innovation. In libraries we implement a change and then often concrete the change in. Remember in today’s world we need to be change ready and willing to adapt quickly so we need to have processes and procedures that resemble gravel paths rather than concrete paths so we can quickly change the path’s direction.

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Principle 4: Innovation is Environmentally Friendly

Innovation is Environmentally Friendly: Libraries need to question every norm with the lens of environmental impact. It is definitely time libraries rethink our use of plastic, and over processing of our physical collections and also start to think of staff time as an environmentally precious commodity. Think ‘Less’ but ‘Better’ — got to love Dieter Rams! Lots of new library buildings have a ‘green’ rating but have our library practices evolved in the same way.

Principle 5: Innovation is Thorough

Innovation is Thorough: but maybe not perfect. It is important when allocating staff time and effort that the problem we are solving is a real issue and a solution has some longer term benefit. Not forever but certainly for a reasonable length of time. Even if the outcome is to learn, the longevity of this type of innovation is in having skilled adaptable library staff, knowledgeable in real user responses and needs. That is definitely an outcome worth striving for.

I like to think that there is opportunity for library users to have some capacity for self expression, some agency, or some opportunity for choice in any library innovation project. Bring the user into the decision making and build their capacity in developing the service the library offers — as the library and users and potential users can be partners in building engaged, tolerant and supportive local communities.

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Principle 6: Innovation should bring delight

Innovation Should Bring Delight: Above all innovation should bring some delight. Whether through the fun built into the project, or through the sense of community ownership and enablement in developing the solution, delight should be an emotion felt. Do not mistake delight for ‘cool’ as we can get hijacked by the latest sexy technology tool that does not actually solve a problem. The latest tech tool can be fun to play with but do not get trapped into thinking it can be an innovative solution.

So there are my principles of library innovation. What are yours?

Written by

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics

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