What does it mean to be an innovative library?

This is the second in my series chronicling our journey to build the Alameda County Library system as a best-in-class innovative library. See the previous article, “What Does Innovation Mean to a Library” here.   As before, thank you to my InnoTeam members, Erik Berman, Sloan Denton and Chris Kyauk for all of your help thinking through this, to John Kao for your ideas and guidance along the way and to Dr. Cindy Chadwick, the County Librarian, for making this work happen.

Since my first article, ACLibrary has formally adopted the definition of innovation as “the ability of people to continuously create their desired future.”  This provides much-needed clarity when we use the term “innovation”. Our next realization was that innovation can happen on many levels-individually, on a team or organization level, and even nationwide. The definition of innovation as “the ability of people to continuously create their desired future” starts with people, so our next challenge seemed to be defining innovation at an organizational level.  We needed to define an “innovative library”. This would help us establish a goal and create a way to measure our progress.

Our first step was to study the winners of last year’s Urban Libraries Council Innovation Awards, because, surely, the libraries that won innovation awards were innovative. These awards honor libraries that:

  • Enable community members to learn, play and document their personal stories using cutting-edge technologies
  • Open channels for more impactful, direct collaboration between libraries and their local schools and community partners
  • Empower people of all ages to engage in library resources and learning through platforms and programs that are relevant to their personal interests and learning styles
  • Help marginalized community members gain the job skills, certifications and education needed to advance their careers or start their own businesses

In each case, the winning libraries had created a new initiative that met the needs of their members, helping them to imagine and create a desired future. In each case, the libraries provided their members with the tools and learning opportunities to create this future.

Since our definition of innovation is “the ability of people to continuously create their desired future,” what surprised us is that each of these awards only honored a single program, in some cases created by a single dedicated librarian.  These awards did not recognize a organization-wide commitment to innovation.

To achieve the future that we desire — an innovative library — we realized the ability to create a single innovative program is necessary, but not sufficient. We had to look further.

Our next step was to visit libraries that have a reputation for innovation within the library profession.

We started in Adams County, Colorado, north of Denver, where Pam Sandlian-Smith has led Anythink Libraries through a 10 year reinvention to become a “catalyst for innovation in the community.”  Anythink believes that the mission of a library is to understand the needs of the people it serves and then adapt itself accordingly.  This was apparent in surprising ways throughout the branch we visited.

Instead of sitting behind a large wooden desk, librarians stand at “perches,” so there’s no physical separation between them and their members. The buildings are designed for community interactions in the front part of the library and more silent activities towards the rear, with plenty of seating available everywhere.  The library even has a café to create a community gathering place and provide sustenance. It felt as though every single part of the library has been reimagined from the point of view of the people that it serves.

Going a bit farther afield, two of our AC Library team members presented at a conference at DOKK 1 in Aarhus, Denmark this summer.   They were impressed with the architecture, the public spaces and the fact that the community voted between a new airport and a new library and the library won.  But their biggest take away was a more subtle part of DOKK1’s culture. DOKK1’s leadership set the tone for celebrating failures and lessons gained from those failures.  Phrases like “Yay, I made a mistake,” floated in and out of many conversations as a way to bring to light and celebrations for teachable moments. Their culture seemed to recognize that failure would be an integral part of any innovation and a requirement for learning.  They created a “failure positive” culture and institutionalized it.

Those were only two of the libraries, businesses and museums that we investigated, but they left the biggest impression.  After this data gathering, we felt ready to develop our own criteria for an innovative library. An innovative library will have:

  1. A vision or point of view that helps the team make important decisions about how to allocate scarce resources. For example, defining a vision to be a “catalyst for innovation in the community” helps decide which programs you will offer and which you won’t.
  2. An established process for recognizing changes in the needs of their members, creating offerings to meet those needs, testing these offerings, measuring the results and scaling the ones that work. Even better, they create a continuous improvement process that assumes that the needs of their members are going to change over time. We will dig into the innovation “process” further in a later article, but developing this process requires building a set of capabilities that can be deployed when new challenges arise, as well as an ability for the library to mobilize these capabilities in order to adapt to the ever-evolving needs of the community. For example, getting community input, designing new programs, evaluating them and scaling them are each different capabilities that an innovative library might need.
  3. A culture that supports experimentation and learning.  Culture is the operating system that tells people how to work.  In our interviews within our own library system, we heard that our culture is (still) very supportive of the status quo and unsupportive of new ideas. Successes are not celebrated, failures are not corrected and basically it’s just easier to do what we did yesterday –  again. So if we are going to become more innovative, we need to figure out a way to shift the culture to be more supportive of experimenting and, in particular, failing.
  4. A way of measuring innovation.  As a library, we have lots of metrics around circulation, attendance, impact, HR, diversity, finance and even square footage of library space per citizen that we serve. If it’s important, we find a way to measure it.  As Peter Drucker says, “ if you can measure it, you can manage it.” If innovation is important, then we need to find a way of measuring it as well.
  5. A defined place. Yes, in an ideal world, the entire organization would be innovative. But as Kosta Peric writes in “The Castle and The Sandbox”, it’s really helpful to create a place where staff can play with new ideas without fear of consequences. We have tried to create that for our innovation team and now need to spread the concept across the organization. We believe that it is a first step for cultural change–a place to set the example.

So an innovative library would have a vision of what it looks like when we innovate, a process to be innovative, a way of measuring innovation, a culture that supports experimentation and learning and a physical place to start.  We recognize that each one of these is both a huge idea and change for the organization. But this is where we think we need to go.

Next up–  by these criteria, are we innovative?   As always, please send me your thoughts and suggestions.


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