Catch And Release For Ideas

lightbulbs in a cage

image by Graham and Sheila on Flickr

We have ideas all the time. At conferences, in the shower, talking to co-workers, lying in bed, riding the bus, there is no shortage of ideas. Some are great and some are duds, but it’s necessary to capture them if we ever want to act on them. In fact, generating and capturing ideas is a key step in the innovation process as I learned in a presentation by David Dahl at the ACRL national conference. If we do not purposefully and regularly capture our ideas, it’s easy to lose them.

On a personal level, I am sure most people have preferred ways of capturing their ideas. My colleague Sarah uses nice notebooks and different colored pens to capture her idea in an analog format. I use Evernote on my two PCs, my iPad, and my Android phone to capture notes anywhere at anytime and automatically have them sync across devices. Other people might use lists or sticky notes or different digital methods to capture their ideas. There is a wide variety of ways to capture ideas and not every solution will work for every person. You need to find what works best for you.

But we also need to capture ideas on a shared staff-wide level. We have good ideas about how we can improve library resources, but if those ideas aren’t shared, they’re useless. I have a Evernote notebook titled “Work.” My colleague Sarah has her stack of notebooks with library thoughts and ideas in them. I bet if we brought some of these ideas together, we would both get excited and some of them would get implemented. There can be a lot of magic that happens when ideas collide.

Just like personal idea capture, there are a variety of ways to bring staff ideas together. David Dahl in his ACRL presentation mentioned some of the more obvious ones like wikis, intranets and even less obvious ones like innovation management software. In talking to Steven Bell at the ACRL conference, I learned about another cool way of capturing ideas as a staff. At a library staff retreat at their institution, staff members were given small notebooks. They were to use the notebooks to capture ideas about library stuff or ideas that came from observing library users. Then at some point in the future they will come together again and share their ideas. I thought this was a creative and fun way to collect ideas, and it showed that not everything has to be shared digitally. Analog can work just as well and sometimes better.

No matter how ideas are captured, they can’t just sit there. Ideas die in captivity. They need to be shared and examined and studied to be able to flourish and become an actual change in your library.

How do you capture and share ideas?


New Ideas: Separating The Chaff From The Grain

a scythe on grass

I enjoyed both Karen Schneider’s post and Meredith Farkas’ follow-up post about devil’s advocates. They talk about new ideas and how they require a lot of experimentation and iterations as well as people to challenge them to make them stronger. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and I think it’s a very important one for people in the library profession to think about, especially those in leadership positions.

Like I mentioned in my last post I am reading the book What Technology Wants. In this book Kevin Kelly relates a story about a missionary in China introducing a new technology which serves as an excellent parable about the resistance to new ideas:

“The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible — but wholly improbable — way it could significantly harm their society.”

Devil’s advocates are useful people to have around, but they can also stop new ideas in their tracks. If we try to imagine every negative thing that can happen with a new idea it will surely die. Often devil’s advocates imagine unrealistic or unlikely situations that have little chance of happening. Looking at something new as a threat leads to no new ideas.

A new idea is a very fragile thing. It needs a healthy environment to germinate and time to grow. We as librarians and people in leadership positions should try to cultivate this environment among our teams and in our workplaces. There is a place for devil’s advocates and looking at possible challenges that a new idea could face, but it seems that should come later in the process. Libraries are desperately in need of new ideas. Just as in the case of the scythe in the story above, if we only see the negative aspects of an idea or technology we will become really good at maintaining the status quo.

So when people are proposing new ideas, listen first instead of criticizing. Bobbi Newman shared an excellent sentiment recently about contributing more than criticizing and it very much applies here. I know at times when someone is proposing a new idea I think to myself, “that’s stupid, it’ll never work.” But instead of dismissing it or nitpicking it, the more productive course of action would be to contribute to the idea to refine it or make it better. Not every new idea is a polished gem, but there may be the beginnings of something great in it. We just have to give it the proper environment to let it flourish.


7 Ways to Cross-Pollinate Yourself and Your Staff

bee pollinating a flower

photo by Express Monorail on Flickr

The staff at our library recently had a meeting in which we were brainstorming new ideas. The question that the director asked to guide our brainstorming was “if time was not a factor, what would you really like to work on or do?” We could think as big or small as we wanted and we came up with some really interesting ideas. One theme I kept seeing in people’s answers was having the chance to look at things from another perspective and being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Cross-pollination is a way to get fresh ideas and break free of a certain way of thinking. It’s important in libraries to not constantly be focused on ourselves and “the way things have always been done.” Sharing and exchanging ideas improves relationships and makes everyone stronger. There are few ways we can do this in libraries:


This is one of the most common ways to cross-pollinate in librarianship. At conferences you can talk to hundreds of other library professionals and hear what they are doing. You can watch and participate in presentations that expose you to new ideas. You can take ideas that you find at conferences, tweak them, and implement them at your own institution. Getting together with a lot of different librarians is almost always a recipe for fresh ideas.

Non-Library Reading

I read a lot of librarian blogs (and if you’re reading this, you likely do too), but I also try to read outside the field as well. I read marketing blogs, education blogs, business blogs, tech blogs. It is from these blogs that I get a lot of new ideas. I learn things about higher ed in general or try to find creative ways to use marketing ideas to promote the library.

Visit Other Libraries

Whenever I am in a new city I like to try to see a library or two. Whenever I attend a conference or event at a library I like to explore their building. Visiting other libraries helps you to envision your own library differently. Perhaps a library you visit has great signage or perhaps they set up their public areas in a very interesting way. You can get a plethora of ideas for how to arrange your library by examining what others are doing. Anyway, libraries are just fun places to hang out in general.

Business Field Trips

No, libraries are not businesses, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn anything from them. Some businesses have almost unbelievable models of service (like the Nordstrom employee who refunded a customer returning snow tires even though they did not sell that product). Some businesses have really cool ways of approaching problems. You don’t have to always go very far either. I’ve posted in the past about places locally that have provided a wonderful user experience. You could attend a place like this as a staff and then debrief about what you’d like to imitate.

Observe Professors or Teachers

Librarians are (or very much should be) educators. Why then do we not learn more from our educational peers. My good friend Gary Scudder just won the Vermont Professor of the year. I think it would be very enlightening to attend one of his classes or see how other folks approach teaching. Not only could we learn teaching and classroom management techniques, but we could also see what students are learning and understand the questions their struggling with. In addition, we could observe our fellow librarians in their classes. Seeing how other people approach teaching is immensely helpful to me.

Job Switching

One of the reference librarians here at Champlain College has mentioned this idea multiple times and I think it is a really cool one. Instead of constantly being in public services perhaps you could spend a semester cataloging or working on collection development. Or instead of doing only cataloging, maybe you want to volunteer for a couple of hours a week at the desk. This might not be feasible everywhere, but putting yourself in another librarians shoes for a little while can help you appreciate their perspective and what they do.

Librarian Exchange

I’m not sure if any libraries are doing this, but wouldn’t it be fun to spend a semester or a few months as a librarian at another institution (locally or internationally)? Both librarians would learn a lot and gain a lot more experience. They would also bring fresh perspectives to their host institution. They’re not bogged down by seeing the same things everyday which would allow them to try different approaches to problems.

These are just a few suggestions for how to cross-pollinate yourself and your staff. What are some other ways to spread new ideas hither and yon?