Libraries and Innovation

The idea of a library often brings to mind a classic old building filled with stacks of books and librarians bustling to and fro with arms full of papers.  Even today, the idea of a librarian is mostly entwined with books.  However, today’s libraries have become providers of far more than this.  Many libraries have embraced technology and the changes it brings.  Many more are facing the struggle to catch up with these changes.

In this environment of ever-changing tools, views, and needs, the American Library Association (ALA) has produced a set of Core Competencies that requires librarians to be technically knowledgeable.  The competencies state that a librarian should be able to make use of innovative new technologies, but nowhere does it mention that librarians themselves should be innovative.  This is a very interesting stance.

If librarians exist in a world that is constantly on the lookout for the newest, biggest thing, should they wait to simply use the creations of others, or should they begin creating on their own?  A quick browse through the requirements of the job market would suggest that libraries are looking for people who not only know technology, but who are able to use it creatively.  Terms like “leaders in changing times” and “innovative environment” crop up in many job descriptions.

Do the core competencies truly prepare new librarians to face the challenges of creating the next generation of libraries?  In the past, formal education was able to focus on the ins and outs of library science.  Solid skill sets, understanding of collections, and strict organization could be the foci of the curriculum, with smaller emphasis on other areas of study.

Today’s library science programs need to include courses that touch on sociology, psychology, legal issues, political science, computer science, and even design.  Thinking beyond the traditional library is encouraged.  Is merely thinking enough?  Many librarians are gathering ideas on innovative new ways to approach their institutions and patrons.  An article search for innovation in libraries will turn up thousands of articles on everything from technology to management.  There are many examples of libraries attempting new technologies, web designs, and discussions to bring about innovative changes.

In many libraries, though, it seems that change is thought of only as a tool for survival.  While it may be true that libraries often need to change to survive, should this be the goal of innovation?  How often is the adoption of a new tool or service based on the sentiment “we have to keep up with the curve or become obsolete?”  Just keeping up with the curve isn’t enough.  Librarians need to start creating a curve.  Wouldn’t it be nice to use a system designed for librarians by librarians instead of by outside vendors?

Many people may say this is an impractical idea.  It would cost too much or require too much effort.  Aren’t libraries already spending more time hiring technical staff of their own and diversifying their workforce?  It may be impractical now, but if the larger libraries can hire staff to maintain websites and build systems, could they not also share their own creations?

Libraries have already gone from closed stacks, card catalogs, physical collections, and individualized institutions to open stacks, online and shared catalogs, digital collections, and collaborative institutions.  Is it that much more of a stretch to think that libraries could also become creators of their own tools?  Perhaps the future of libraries rests in their abilities to not only use innovative technology, but create innovative new systems of their own.

– J. Cox
— Inspired by a presentation given by Mary Stansbury to the Special Library Association on 10/21/10.

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4 Responses to Libraries and Innovation

  1. Allie B. says:

    This is a very interesting post, and it raises some good questions. I do think it is important to have librarians who are not only up to date on new technologies, but who are creating these technologies themselves. I also think it’s interesting to think about the many skills librarians today need to have. As a future public or school librarian working with children, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can supplement my LIS background with a greater focus on psychology and education. I’m sure that there are digital and special library students who wonder about what they need to learn in terms of computer science that transcends the scope of an LIS program. This is not to say that LIS programs are insufficient, but it does seem that the technologies and services provided by contemporary libraries require a greater scope of knowledge of non-LIS skills than we sometimes acknowledge.

  2. I absolutely think that librarians need to be innovative – socially, technically, and creatively. Coming from an art and design background, I am used to processing information for creative purposes. As a librarian I will want to be more than just a wire that connects the community to information and technology, I would like to be an active participant in developing the system. I would like to think our field will expand by collaborating with other fields to make information systems exciting and accessible.

    J. A. Lee

  3. I think the idea of the librarian taking a more proactive role in innovations is very important. As an archives student I would not immediately apply this to the world of the patron, but to the idea of breaking out of the traditional curator role. It almost seems more practical to get a degree in computer and web design than in library and information science to become an archivist. Though the emphasis on appraisal and administration should not be overlooked, I believe that programs should integrate more technological advances into classes. From these foundations, archivists would have the knowledge to be able to apply and innovate, making collections accessible and housed in easier ways.

    Lucie B.

  4. This post brought up an interesting thought in terms of being innovative and in touch with changes in technology in the libraries. I think that as LIS students, we are more aware of the transformations that are occurring in libraries today, as we are analyzing current library studies and research for our classes. But what about the older generation of librarians that have been in the institution for decades, and are not at all up-to-date on the current trends in the library world. There are many librarians who are very stuck in their ways and refuse to adapt to the changing world around them. I think there needs to be more of a focus on intergenerational sharing between the younger and older librarians, and that it is our duty as the librarians of the future to educate the “experienced” librarians on technology matters in the 21st century library.

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