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In libraries and higher education in general we’re constantly adding things. Adding new buildings to campus. Adding new and innovative services for our users. Adding more resources to our collection. Adding to the cost of tuition. But this is not always the most helpful way to think about things.
Perhaps we should start thinking about what we should drop. What should we stop doing? What should we do less of so that what we are doing flourishes. We trim plants that get too large. We pick off sick leaves and remove excess foliage. By doing this the plant flourishes.
In order to think strategically in libraries and best serve our users, we should, from time to time, stop asking “what else we can do” and instead ask “what can we stop doing?” This doesn’t mean we stop trying new things, but we shouldn’t become overly attached to things that we’re doing. We shouldn’t continue things because “that’s the way they’ve always been done.” Perhaps you really love a certain set of reference books, but if no one is using them whose interest are you serving? Yours or your users? It’s important to periodically survey what you’re doing, and drop what doesn’t effectively serve the needs of your community.
A mindset of less, of removal goes against the common wisdom, but often it is the most helpful to growth and moving forward. A great thing about libraries is that they’re small. Much smaller than Google, a company who’s trying to “organize the world’s information.” Libraries can better serve their particular community better than Google because of their small size. They know their patrons, their interests, and what they could care less about. They build relationships with their users. But when we start trying to be all things to all people, we lose this advantage. We’re no longer nimble. We become bloated and a second rate version of Google. It’s necessary for us to stay small and diverse to compete in this information soaked world.
We can’t do it all. We have to strategically choose what to give attention and resources to.
So what can you drop?
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Research is an exercise in failure. You try a search in Google, or the catalog, or a database and often you don’t find what you’re looking for right away. You then try something else and perhaps get a little closer. Each time you try a search though, you learn a little more. You find new useful keywords to try in your next search. You learn what doesn’t work or what kind of works.
The reason librarians are research experts is because they realize that research involves failure. It doesn’t scare them and they don’t easily lose heart. They often see it as a challenge. They fail, but fail quickly, trying different iterations and learning along the way. Their searches are like the process of evolution involving multiple failed mutations until something comes along that works and flourishes.
Failure is necessary to succeed. It’s what allows us to learn. We should take the same approach in our careers that we do with our research and see failure as a tool… a necessary means to an end. Failure means you’re trying. It’s nice and safe to perpetuate the status quo. You won’t fail doing that. But you also won’t grow, and the library will stagnate.
Do something. Anything! Even if your idea isn’t fully fleshed out, start trying it. Your failures will help you to flesh it out. We don’t start research knowing the answer. We create our answer from a mix of failure and success. We also don’t know exactly how we’re going to build the perfect library. But we can figure it out. Sure they’ll be some failure, but you won’t even notice if you’re focused on what that perfect library looks like and how to get there.
In Borders the other day I happened upon this display. Glancing at it, I figured “oh, looks like they’re hocking the Twilight books pretty hard still.”
But on closer inspection, that wasn’t the whole story. There was a Twilight book or two in the vicinity, but the books they were hocking were a bit older. In fact, they were classics. Playing on the black and red cover styles of the Twilight books, they had Wuthering Heights with the tagline “Love Never Dies,” and a sticker that lets you know it’s “Bella & Edwards favorite book.” They had Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the tagline, “The Original Forbidden Love…”
They were attempting to fleece young people into reading classic literature. Kind of a good idea. There’s that hackneyed adage about not judging a book by it’s cover, but that’s exactly what everyone does. People who enjoy Twilight have probably read all the books by now, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to read. Repackaging classics into thicker volumes with larger print and a flashy cover just might get young people to read these fine works of art. Most of the time it’s all about appearances.
How can libraries steal this idea? How can we change the appearance of something to make it more appealing or relevant to users. An example might be your library’s website. There’s good content and useful tools on there, but maybe the way they’re displayed isn’t exciting or makes users turn to something easier.
Perhaps by reformatting the website content, making it prettier and more interactive, users might be more inclined to navigate to your website and stick around for a while.
Are there other ways we can change the appearance of something, either physically or online, to increase usage?