Recently there has been some heated debate, and even a backlash against the use of certain technologies in libraries.Aaron Schmidt at Walking Paper is planning presentations questioning innovation in libraries. A colleague here at Yale, started a debate by suggesting it was “reprehensible” for information professionals not to be on twitter.
I am going to frame my thoughts on this issue in a somewhat different light, talking about imitating and stealing in library innovation, and how those concepts relate to lack of overall strategy as libraries approach new web technologies. I will specifically use the analogy of “cargo cults.” To be honest I’d never heard the term “cargo cult” until I saw the following video of a presentation by Jeff Veen about Great Designers:
and while he uses the concept to discuss great design, I think it applies well to the use of technology, particularly social media, by some libraries and librarians.
In more blunt terms, too often librarian adoption of new technology seems like the native populations building airplanes out of straw and waiting for the cargo to arrive. We think because we have an account on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter that is enough to bring social media success, to start a flood of users/patrons waiting to “friend” us, and driving traffic to our library web sites and physical locations. We see librarians & libraries who’ve successfully implemented blogs and wonder why our own blogs don’t enjoy the same success.
But too often we have not successfully aligned these new technologies with the strategy, mission, goals, values, or even overall direction of the library. As Aaron stated in his blog post about library innovation, these technologies too often lead to feature creep, outside of the scope of the library focus. And so our library’s web presence becomes fractured, scattered among too many uncoordinated social media sites. The brand that is our library suffers.
Going back to the video, I think the problem comes from librarians imitating and copying what other libraries and librarians are doing. And like the cargo cults we will struggle to achieve the desired results.
Are our target communities active in these social spaces? Do we have plans for initially populating and maintaining our presence with content? How do these technologies fit with the strategic plan for the library? for our website? for our web presence? These are just a few of the basic questions we should be asking ourselves as we approach web technologies. Trying to imitate what other libraries have done will not work unless we fit them into our overall strategic framework. Wholesale implementation of someone else’s plan will often fail in a different institution, as there are complex and incompatible issues of culture, talent, and resources which must be considered.
But as Jeff Veen suggests, stealing elements of what other librarians have done and incorporating those elements into our existing strategy to create something new can be a recipe for success. The difference being that when you steal an idea, concept, element, plan, etc. you make that thing your own. Like the great designers, artists, and creative types described by Veen, Librarians should seek to take ideas that fit their existing culture & strategy rather than imitating someone else’s. We should pick and choose what to steal and discard what won’t work. We should not be afraid to take existing ideas in new directions.
I guess the same mantra from the video can be applied to libraries. Good librarians copy other’s ideas. Great librarians steal them. But in specific reference to library use of social media debate I would say: Good libraries create accounts on social media sites online. Great libraries create a cohesive and coordinated web presence.