The Ultimate Debate: Do Libraries Innovate?

Hello LITAblog readers! I’m Julia Bauder, a student in the MLIS program at Wayne State and one of the LITA conference bloggers. I’ll be blogging three sessions this weekend. First up is The Ultimate Debate: Do Libraries Innovate?, featuring Andrew Pace of North Carolina State University as the moderator, Joseph Janes of the University of Washington, Karen Schneider, and Stephen Abram of SirsiDynix.

Unfortunately, I missed the beginning of this panel. There are two Renaissance Hotels hosting ALA programs, I discovered today about five minutes before this discussion was due to start, and the Renaissance Hotel hosting this program was not the one right across the street from the convention center—it was the one two Metro stops away.

When I got there, they were discussing the Maricopa County Library branch that shelves its books bookstore-style, rather than by Dewey. Karen noted that, despite all of the uproar in the library community over this non-Dewey library, they have not had one single complaint from the public about the shelving system. All of the complaints have come from other librarians.

Everyone on the panel agreed that it is innovative to buy a product developed outside the library world and implement it in a library, but they also agreed that it would be nice to see more R&D in libraries as well. One panelist (I’m sorry, I was still trying to sneak into a seat and get set up at that point and I’m not certain whether it was Stephen or Joseph) pointed out that lots of libraries don’t have the scale to handle R&D, and that development is more important that research: basic research is a nice thing, but libraries probably can’t do it. Development with a research focus, the panelist said, is probably a more realistic goal. Another panelist (see above comment) countered with the point that you have to do research before you can do development. “We are not a research-driven profession,” was the reply. “That’s probably why we’re not innovative,” was the response.

When the panel was asked if libraries are not innovating because library schools are not innovating, both Joseph and Stephen pointed out that library schools are innovating. Joseph noted that trying to innovate in education can get you as much flak as the Maricopa library got for abandoning Dewey. When the University of Washington became an I-school, he said, some librarians thought it was the end of civilization. Stephen mentioned the fuss over launching a Second Life library school. It might be a terrible idea, but let’s try it!, he said. People thought distance education wouldn’t work until it was tried, too.

Karen wondered if age is one of the problems that keeps us from innovating. She noted that she was more of an innovator when she was younger, but she now finds herself defending the status quo more than she thought she would. Joseph and Stephen both disagreed. Joseph said that librarianship as a profession is inherently conservative, and for good reasons—so much of what libraries do is about explaining, storing, and preserving the past—but that when tradition becomes important for its own sake, that’s when it becomes dangerous. Stephen noted that as he gets older he feels more free to say what he really thinks.

A member of the audience asked if libraries need to view themselves as being in competition with tech companies for hiring creative computer programmers etc., sparking a discussion on the role of non-MLS-holders in libraries. The panel agreed that it would be a good thing to hire people without MLS degrees for certain library jobs—or, at least, that there is no reason not to try it and see how it works out—and that people who currently work in libraries without MLS degrees ought to get more respect. Karen noted how amused she is by the job ads asking for people who know Python and other programming languages and then saying that the person will be required to spend four hours per week on the reference desk. It’s crazy to expect people to be tech people <i>and</i> librarians, she said. Reference librarians aren’t expected to spend four hours per week rebooting servers!

Another audience member launched an extended tangent on the role of ALA and other library organizations in encouraging innovation. The panel agreed that ALA has an “archaic” (Karen’s word) association structure—emphasis on the “structure”—and that that can be a hindrance. We need people inside the glass house throwing rocks to let the air in, Andrew says. Karen says that it’s actually about taking rocks and stacking them up and making a new place.

The panel members also had some great advice about working within ALA to change things. Did you know that for membership meetings, a quorum is 15 people? (I certainly didn’t.) And, according to Joseph, a membership meeting can do “whatever the hell they want.” So, he says, gather up some of your friends and go to a membership meeting and wreak havoc! Or, you could help Karen in her quest to convince ALA to allow meetings to be held online. It’s not fair, she says, to ask people to pay for a plane ticket and a hotel room to be allowed to participate in ALA governance; that’s not a democracy. (She says that she’s been trying to get ALA to make this change for a decade.) Stephen’s take on this was that blaming associations (or governments or employers) for the lack of innovation is not helpful, because it discourages individual librarians from taking personal accountability for making changes. The culture of librarianship needs to change to recognize people who take personal accountability and go ahead and make changes, he said.

Throughout the debate, Karen and Stephen emphasized two overarching theories for why libraries have trouble innovating. For Karen, the problem is that libraries don’t have the resources to be able to support failure, and if you can’t accept the possibility of failure you can’t innovate: innovation is risky and uncertain. For Stephen, the problem is within the culture of librarianship, which he says is a culture of victimization. Librarians share disaster stories and commiserate over low salaries and other challenges, and then they come to believe that these disaster stories are the reality of all of librarianship and don’t even try to change it.


This blog post was based off of a semi-verbatim transcript I typed live. (I would love to be a fast enough typist to do a fully verbatim transcript, but I’m not.) Anything in quotes is a direct quote. The rest of the statements attributed to the panelists vary from nearly or completely verbatim to summaries of longer comments. If you’d like to see exactly what was said in any portion of the session, someone from LITA was taping the panel and plans to post a video of it shortly.


  1. Eliza

    In many small rural library systems, reference librarians do spend hours re-booting systems, explaining to people how to “sign on” the public computers, picking up trash, sometimes breaking up fights, collecting money for prints, trading for dimes for the ancient copy coin box which only takes dimes, working on the circulation desk, hardly ever leaving the desk and doing anything I need to do from the desk and that is the rare day that we are fully staffed.

    It is not age. It is not lack of curiosity. It is not that I am not willing to try new things. It is time. There is only one of me and not enough time. I bet I am not alone.

  2. K.G. Schneider

    “Karen wondered if age is one of the problems that keeps us from innovating. She noted that she was more of an innovator when she was younger, but she now finds herself defending the status quo more than she thought she would…”

    wow, I said that? I’d like to hear the podcast. I think I remember saying younger people bring energy. If I said that, geeze, that’s like saying I can’t innovate because i’m old. Eek. Verification, anyone?

    I also very strongly agreed on the issue of “victimization.” I believe I only mentioned cost issues once.

    I think that quorum comment is all wrong. Could use a little fact-checking.

    Whatever. Thanks for blogging this.

  3. Eric Lease Morgan

    Regarding the “bookstore-style” approach to shelving, I advocated something similar for the organization of electronic materials in 1994. I called it the “used bookstore model”. See the archives of PACS-L (http://tinyurl.com/29s2mb).

    BTW, I sincerely believe innovation happens in libraries, albeit slowly. Innovation requires creativity and the ability to think outside the established norms. Almost by definition, these sorts of activities are shunned by institutions. Innovation starts with individuals. In an an environment of intellectual and/or technological turbulence, it is increasingly important to spend resources on innovation in order to learn how to adapt to the impending changes.

    Eric Lease Morgan
    University Libraries of Notre Dame

  4. Lisa Gieskes

    Thanks Julia Bauder!! I could not attend The Ultimate Debate: Do Libraries Innovate? but I feel like I did after reading this blog.

    I’ll be working on a quorum (hopefully we can do this virtually) too.

    Any takers?

  5. John Marquette

    Innovation REQUIRES youth. Youth, or rather young BAs, need to have compelling reasons to select library and information science as their master’s degree.

    Young(er) people often offer creative approaches to daily tasks. They also come equipped with skill sets which match our true target market – the computer-literate.

    New MLIS holders should be welcomed into our systems because they have the education and new expertise to help anyone evaluate a possible reference source (i.e., a Google page), and more importantly, offer options which are more in depth and more comprehensive. Young librarians can help established libraries design and implement service models.

    I still don’t know what all of the options are on my Treo 700p (a PDA/smartphone). It has a crippled web browser. The new Apple iPhone has a real browser, if the ads are accurate, and its competitors are going to provide true online experiences in a Library 2.0/Web 2.0 environment.

    Seasoned librarians should seek out every opportunity to partner with younger ones. Younger librarians can help older ones over technological humps, and older librarians can help younger ones understand how to serve their communities.

  6. Pingback: Do Libraries Innovate: Blogging at ALA « [ArLiSNAP]

  7. Karen Munro

    Thanks for posting this! It’s great to get a sense of what was said, and there are some very interesting points of view here. Long live conference blogging!

  8. Kevin Rogers

    I agree w/ Eliza. I am a manager at a small rural library and the computers really tax our time here, but the technology is helping us stay connected to the public. I work in the Jackson County Library system in Michigan and we, if I may say so, innovate: computer classes, we have a HUGE selection of reference data bases that patrons can axcess at home via internet; we really strive to meet the needs of the community.

    We also have a cat wash every summer. Have you ever seen a mad-wet cat tangled in a librarian’s eyeglasses chain?

    Our web site is http://www.jackson.lib.mi.us

  9. Lisa Horowitz

    The quorum quote was just Joe Janes way of talking, if I remember correctly. I think he was sarcastically commenting that fewer and fewer people are needed these days to constitute a quorum in ALA (because the by-laws are continually rewritten and approved to have fewer and fewer people in a quorum), but I don’t believe that the figure is anywhere near that low.

  10. K.G. Schneider

    Ok, I listened to the podcast, and someone from the audience talked about younger people innovating, not I. Whew!

  11. Joe Davis

    Way to innovate, Julia! I agree with Karen.

  12. Pingback: Do Libraries Innovate « Library 2.0

  13. Pingback: ALA’s 2007 Annual Conference « Information Obliteracy

  14. Pingback: crowdsourcing the modern library « infomational

Comments are closed.