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Librarian Entrepreneurs

“Doing more with less” is a phrase that regularly comes up in libraries. It is also a regularly maligned phrase since you can’t really do more with less, you can only do less. Andy Woodworth gives an example of cutting a pizza into different parts. In doing more with less you really are just spreading your resources more thinly and giving everyone less quality service. I don’t believe that library budgets should continue to be on the chopping block. This country needs less ignorance and more enlightenment, more curiosity and creativity, not less. But the reality is that we’re in a period of less resources, even while usage and programming are up.

This is not something new for libraries though. They are used to not being flush with resources. And I think this can be a huge strength. Last Friday I attended the ACRL NY Symposium on Cultivating Entrepreneurship and there were some great examples of people finding creative ways to secure resources whether through working with other departments, developing their own technology tools and selling them, working with companies as sponsors, or leveraging free online tools. The best, stickiest, most succinct, definition I have come across for entrepreneurship is from the Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson. He says,

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”

We may be in a time of less resources, at least from traditional funding sources, but we are also in a time in which there is an abundance of opportunity. More students are going to college but less are graduating on time. People need to retrain, unlearn, and relearn to be a part of the now ever changing job market. Higher education is in a period of significant disruption. These are not problems but distinct opportunities that libraries can capitalize on, but in order to do that we need to be entrepreneurial.

Libraries are already scrappy. They find extremely creative ways of avoiding budget cuts and advocating for library voter support. What is needed in addition to being scrappy and creative, is an entrepreneurial outlook: seeing opportunities and pursuing them without regards to current resources. There may be less traditional funding, but that doesn’t mean the resources aren’t out there. Instead of a zero sum game where there are only so many slices of pizza to go around, maybe we start recognizing that there are also tacos, and chicken wings, and chili and lots of other resources we may have overlooked. Maybe we continue to leverage and expand our use of the abundance of free software, platforms, social media and web tools available. Maybe we strategically partner more with departments or offices around campus. Maybe we secure more funding and work with from those in the business community to whom we send graduates. Many of these are becoming increasingly socially responsible and want to do good in addition to making a profit. Maybe we crowdfund more really good and needed library ideas.

Resources are out there. They may not look the same as they always did, but funding should not hold a good idea down. Opportunities are also out there. We often see them as problems, as things that annoy us, or as things that scare us. When you start looking at things that make you uncomfortable though, you begin to see that it is often an area that needs attention and where good work can be done.

Let’s not do more with less. Let’s do more with more.

 

 

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Avoiding Mission Creep

World’s largest Swiss Army Knife

Last evening our president and provost were invited to chat with the faculty about their vision, past, present, and future for the college. It was an excellent event, and I appreciated the opportunity to have genuine conversations with the people making the big decisions on campus. One of the things that really resonated with me was when our president said that mission creep is one of the biggest challenges facing higher education. Everyone brings unique talents and strengths to an organization. This means that people will want to pursue different interests, but if those interests start getting too far outside the mission of the institution or what you’re actually trying to achieve there will be a lot of wasted energy.

In libraries, as a microcosm of higher ed, I think that this can be true as well. Libraries by their nature are a service industry–a helping industry. Because of this we often try to be all things to all people, or we continue things that still serve some people but perhaps not as effectively as in the past. Because we love helping others it makes it really hard to say no. Yet to innovate, and meet the challenges of the future, saying no is extremely important. The late Steve Jobs understood this well:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Librarians do need to serve, but we also need to learn how to say no. We only have a limited amount of resources, funds, and energy. If we say yes to everything and don’t continually reevaluate services and initiatives we risk spreading ourselves thin. This can lead to burnout and a lot of mediocre services as opposed to engagement and several services that delight and amaze our users.

We shouldn’t be asking “what else can we do?” We should be asking “who are our current and future users as opposed our past users, imagined users, or the users we wish existed?” “What should we be saying no to?” “What is going to amaze our users?”

 

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New Job Title: Innovation Catalyst Librarian

image via WilzDesign on Flickr

There are a growing number of positions that I’ve seen that are focused on new technologies and fresh ideas in libraries. From time to time I get questions or emails asking about my previous role as an Emerging Technologies Librarian and advice that I might have for people starting out in a similar role. While I think these roles are going to be very different from institution to institution I think there are some bits of advice that will contribute to success in a role dedicated to new tech and ideas. People in these roles should not think of themselves as the “tech person” though. Thinking only about tech is extremely limiting. They should think of themselves as innovation catalysts. That is the reason they were hired, though it’s not always that explicit. They were hired to make meaningful change at their institution. To do this sort of work, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Spend time in the future

For someone who wants to be a leader of meaningful change in the library, it’s necessary to focus on the future, not just incremental improvements. Being aware of trends inside and especially outside of libraries will allow you to more easily change course or seize opportunities you might otherwise miss. The thing is though, this takes time. You have to regularly set aside time to read, research, explore and engage with others. You have to purposely spend time in the future. Some of my favorite spots include blogs, people on Twitter, and even print magazines.

Blogs:

Twitter:
List of some Twitter Folks focused on the future (people like Anil Dash, Seth Brogan, Joi Ito, Richard Branson, etc.)
Magazines (a lot of this content is free online but I like the print design and can’t I check my email on a magazine):

Experiment…a lot

Not every initiative that you try is going to work. This shouldn’t  be discouraging though. As Churchill said, “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” As a librarian who is trying to invent the future, you have to do a lot of experimentation. You have to have multiple pilot projects going and be learning from them, especially the ones that don’t work. To do this type of work you need to develop an experimental, entrepreneurial spirit. A couple of great resources for this are Think Like a Startup and Too Much Assessment Not Enough Innovation, whitepapers by Brian Mathews.

Stop talking to librarians

Librarians are awesome, but they’re not always the best people to talk to if you want fresh, future oriented perspectives. That’s not to say that librarians are stuck in the past, for the most part we’re not. But being professionals we bring a certain perspective and it becomes hard to see through different lenses. The most important people you can talk to are members of your learning community. Talk regularly to students and faculty, not about the library but about their needs and what they feel success looks like. Attend faculty senate meetings and student advisory boards. Create opportunities to talk with and better understand your users and see the world with fresh eyes.

Whether you’re an emerging technologies librarian or an innovation catalyst librarian (I hope someone uses this title)  it’s necessary to be aware of larger trends, develop entrepreneurial habits, and get outside your limited perspective and your curse of knowledge. What other habits or perspectives do you find necessary in inventing the future of libraries?