Leading the Library that Leads the Way in Innovation | Leading from the Library

Innovation comes in different forms. Library leaders support staff to achieve innovation that establishes the library as an organizational or community innovator. Using the right terminology makes a difference.

Steven Bell head shotInnovation comes in different forms. Library leaders support staff to achieve innovation that establishes the library as an organizational or community innovator. Using the right terminology makes a difference.

Consider a library organization that maintains the same services and resources year after year, with little, if any, change. Its leadership may even resist efforts to introduce new possibilities owing to fear of risks, unwillingness to learn, or simply not caring if the community is deprived of a potentially desirable service. While there is a certain level of security in maintaining things as they are and delivering what’s worked in the past, that mentality can do immense damage to the library’s ability to reach new customers with new opportunities for engagement.

Wherever librarians self-identify on the innovation spectrum between radical transformation and maintaining the status quo, libraries succeed when we find ways to help our organizations and communities advance through innovation. When the community expresses a need for a solution to a problem going ignored or unsolved, that presents an opportunity for librarians to demonstrate they can lead the way with innovation.



There’s considerable pressure for libraries to satisfy the needs of a diverse community that requires access to preserved historic material, contemporary technology, and content, while designing and positioning for the future. Consider, for example, technology deployment at a new or renovated library. What do we decide about basic quality of library life resources such as electrical outlets and desktop computers? These old yet established technologies still serve everyone’s device and computing needs. How do we balance this with a future of mobile computing where batteries may last weeks instead of hours, electricity is delivered wirelessly, or desktop computers are as irrelevant as rotary-dial phones? Going with the status quo is easy. Just put outlets in every desk, floor, and wall or plop down labs with hardwired desktops in every available space. Alternately, innovation could pave the way for the future with transitional technology. Consider instead a campus-wide laptop share, styled on bicycle share, where laptops can be borrowed from kiosks and returned anywhere on campus. Battery power packs are distributed the same way. Instead of costly, difficult to modify infrastructure investments, kiosks can be easily removed or replaced by the next wave of technology.



These and other innovations work best when an entire organization or community commits to adapting to them. Leaders could fully expect someone who wants outlets and desktops to question the wisdom of eliminating them. That’s where leaders use the power of influence to share a vision of the future that inspires library workers and external partners to accept the challenge of innovation. The challenge for leaders is overcoming skeptical and cynical reactions to calls for innovation, which academic leader Karen Stout states is “becoming code for doing more with less.” There is also the danger of library leaders inadvertently creating a culture where innovation is constantly discussed and elevated to the highest organizational priority. That can lead to innovation fatigue. Rather than incessantly promoting the need to innovate, leaders should consider introducing problems in need of solutions as “How Might Our Library ______” questions that can lead to staff design challenges for creative resolutions. In her essay on higher education innovation, Goldie Blumenstyk reminds leaders to avoid referring to innovation in terms of buzzwords that will strike library workers as a euphemism for unwelcome change. Instead, leaders should “be vigilant that they’re putting their energy into the right place.” Doing so can help to avoid the “change just for the sake of change” perception that often reflects staff experiencing innovation fatigue or overload.



The word “innovation” can elicit powerful reactions. When paired with terms such as “transformative,” “disruptive,” or “radical” there is greater likelihood of the type of visceral reactions about which Blumenstyk warns. One thing leaders can do to gain support for library innovation is to gauge staff’s openness to supporting it and adapt appropriately. It can also help to communicate that innovation is more nuanced than simply adopting any proposed change and that it is not always a “change everything” proposition. Consider three levels of innovation:

  • Incremental: modifications to an existing service that serves an existing demographic
  • Evolutionary: introduces a new service for an existing demographic or an existing service to a new demographic
  • Radical: creates a new service for a new demographic

Most library innovation is incremental, less risky, and likely to tweak what’s working for better results. In addition to requiring less staff commitment, it often tackles unambiguous issues with clearly defined and limited change. Evolutionary change is a greater investment of time and effort, but staff comfortable with incremental change are likely ready for more challenging innovations. Radical innovation is rare. Since it requires a far greater commitment of time and resources, it should happen primarily when a significant opportunity presents itself and the library can establish a leadership role. In all cases, what library leaders bring to the table is their ability to influence colleagues to believe in and support innovation. It certainly helps to show that achieving the innovation would position the library as a leader within the organization or community.

Leaders need to undertake evolutionary innovation, and especially radical innovation, with great care, given the impact it can have on library staff. Whatever challenges the innovation process may present, leaders and staff colleagues can collaboratively determine what to achieve, how to make it happen, and whether the rewards gained support the investment required.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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