Recently I was asked to speak at the CILIP Scotland National Conference in Dundee Scotland on the subject of libraries and innovation. It is always a privilege to interact with other passionate library professionals keen to learn and share ideas. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to share with these passionate colleagues from far away and it really came down to for me is the need for all library staff to learn to think differently. So here are some of my thoughts on innovation and libraries that I shared with the Scottish Librarians.
Innovation rethinks the library experience: Libraries have fallen into the trap of thinking that new technology tools that do the the tasks we have always done in libraries is innovation. Often these tools actually do nothing to enhance the experience of using libraries nor do they help us rethink the user experience. The whole library industry has shown how adaptable we are in our quiet, practical response to the rise of the internet in the provision of information and content. Libraries carved out a relevant and useful place in the provision, delivery and access to digital content and also carved out a space in the delivery of teaching digital literacy to our communities. Now we need to think, not about delivering a task, a book or even an event using technology, but instead how to connect people.
Connect people to people: more important than ever to provide a place for real social interaction. Today it is far easier to disconnect, plug in the earphones and not have that awkward social small talk interaction. But a crucial human need is to be social with other people and libraries often see the social, people side of libraries as an ‘extra’ and our collections as the core. It is time to change this in the face of a huge rise in loneliness, social isolation and the disconnect large portions of our communities are facing.
Connect them to content: but the right content. Customer research is showing that people can be overwhelmed by choice. Instead of libraries showing everything to everyone there is a need to get personal and to use AI to curate a more personal list of content that is of interest. A Netflix for libraries if you will. Solus UK is working with partners to build such a discovery layer — a library discovery layer with the user at the core, not the library collection. The library collection is definitely the product but it is curated to meet the user’s needs. Solus UK is definitely looking for more partners so if you want to get involved contact Neil Wishart, CEO, Solus UK. The image below gives an overview of what LUCi is being developed to do.
Connect them to their place — so people can feel they belong, build a real sense of community to combat isolation, to feel local, and know local. Libraries are definitely where people go to find out about what is happening in their local communities and this is something that libraries could amplify with key community partners.
Innovation needs time and a culture to support it. I have written about building a culture of creativity previously and really want to stress that innovation and new skills creation needs explicit permission from all levels of management in the library to build this culture of learning, skills development and innovation. We need to build it into our daily work practice — just like we roster the shelving. Nothing is ever finished in libraries — there is always another shelf of books to shelve or catalogue, another schools program to design or an event to plan so we cannot wait till everything is finished to learn. We must build it into our everyday practice. We also need to build in a culture where it is okay to fail, as a way to learn. No longer hold off till something is perfect — build in a culture of learning so that staff can and do try new things, seek new partners and have a culture of evaluation so that what is learned is used to be better next time.
Library staff can interpret this type of fast prototyping as a waste of their time as they want it to be perfect and then cement it in because doing the same thing every day is comfortable. But being comfortable and doing the same thing every day actually kills off our learning brain cells and our creativity so we need to do something new every day — celebrate being uncomfortable, celebrate learning, celebrate not being good at something as you learn. Spark your creativity this way and share with library staff the joy of learning something new. An innovation culture gets excited about the unknown.
Innovation needs constraints. Celebrate the constraints that definitely exist in libraries instead of using them as a reason we cannot innovate. Constraints are not the enemy, they help to shape and focus the problem and to hone the solution. Libraries, bless their pragmatic hearts, also need to foster a healthy disregard for the impossible as well.
Innovation needs curiosity. As the library industry has adjusted to momentous change there has crept into some library cultures a cynicism in library staff as we have tried that sexy technology that was meant to change the world when really it just created a different type of task. We do need to encourage staff to ask questions — the positive kind. Those driving the innovation also need to interpret those negative comments for the anxiety or concern that staff are trying to express and to help staff reframe their negative response to a positive questioning model. We also need to help staff get excited when the answer to the question is ‘We don’t know’. They then understand that this part of the project is to learn. It is important that no question is off limits. And to remember that when designing a solution we need lots of possible solutions — not just one, and we need to understand the Values pyramid for our users and I have written more about that here. Convenience trumps free for all people now and we need to understand that our responses need to lessen people’s anxiety, not add to it.
Innovation is a volumes game: Need 900 ideas to come up with the one idea that is the good idea. Now I know your idea is a good idea but that person next to you — no, their idea is the terrible idea. WD40 is named this because of the 39 times it did not work. Sometimes Library staff can see the 39 failures as a waste of time and we really need to turn this thinking around. All the thinking around the project needs to be shared so staff have an understanding that this is a pilot, that learning is a valid and valuable outcome and this is a valuable part of their work. Key questions for any idea are What if?, What came before? and What could come after? This type of rapid prototyping is hard — recognise this and congratulate staff for being involved.
And finally I do believe that Libraries have all the tools they need to be good at innovation.
My full presentation can be found at the CILIP Scotland Slideshare account.