August 28, 2014

No More Gatekeepers | From the Bell Tower

Thanks to a non-stop stream of talk about innovation we just start to tune it out. Let’s not give up on innovation yet. Now is the right time to find innovative ways to open our gates.

Back when Americans actually had a modicum of respect for financial institutions, a certain stock broker was well known for its commercial with the famous tagline, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” Nowadays, if anyone listens when an investment bank talks, it’s mostly in a state of disbelief as they trot out absurd excuses for losing billions of dollars. That phrase, however, is among the catchiest ever recorded, and many people still find themselves using it to compliment really smart people like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, as in, “When Jeff Bezos talks, people listen.” Bezos may not have many fans in libraryland these days, but he sure did make an impression on Tom “The World is Flat” Friedman.

So long gatekeepers

Friedman writes about his visits to the nation’s two hubs of innovation, Silicon Valley and Seattle. One thing in particular caught Friedman’s attention as he was listening to Bezos. He writes:

The excitement comes from not only seeing the stunning amount of innovation emerging from the ground up, but from seeing the new tools coming on stream that are, as Amazon.com’s founder, Jeff Bezos, put it to me, “eliminating all the gatekeepers.”

Bezos’ vision for the masses is to empower them to independently create content. Thanks to, of course, Amazon’s own cloud computing and commerce technology, the average citizen can now become his or her own publisher, app producer, or startup owner. “I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” said Bezos. Perhaps it’s librarians who should be listening when Bezos talks because it sounds like he sees an endangered future for this profession. After all, most of what librarians, across the various sectors, do involves establishing gates and keeping them in place, making sure that only the right people get to the content. Bezos wants to liberate the public, to free them from gatekeepers.

Innovation to the rescue

I came across a librarian’s tweet that said “every conference, every speaker, every article, every LIS class – says we have to innovate.” At times it does seem like “every” is the word that best describes the amount of time academic librarians spend talking about innovation. I suspect the amount of time talking about it far exceeds actually doing it. At least there’s an understanding that innovation may enable us to solve some of our most wicked problems. On a smaller scale it may simply enable us to create better ways to provide valued services to our community members. I’m not sure if the tweet was a sign of “innovation fatigue” or a reflection on the importance of getting serious about innovation.  Either way, the current innovation-centricity in libraryland, to my way of thinking, is a good thing if it will stimulate more academic librarians to build an innovation culture in their organizations. Most economists would argue that innovation is critical to America’s future if we want to be globally competitive. It leads to new products and services that satisfy needs, and even better if it’s something that cannot be easily replicated elsewhere. That’s why we cannot ignore innovation. It may be our best hope for differentiating the academic libraries as a provider of unique services.

Open the gate

Rather than waiting for the demise of gatekeepers, I recommend that academic librarians start looking for ways to open up the gates now. Be a gate-opener, not a gatekeeper. If Bezos is right and the tools are at hand to allow the masses to bypass the traditional middleman, then perhaps we should innovate to liberate our community members. What could we be doing beyond just providing access to content, that traditional “we connect people to information” mindset, that would enable them to be inventive? It might be offering them labs for writing, publishing, designing, hacking or participating in the maker culture – and some forward thinking librarians are already moving in that direction. The shift from being a gatekeeper to a gate-opener is about helping community members become passionate library users by focusing on meeting their needs and delivering on their expectations. That perspective can lead to all types of opportunities for providing value and meaning to the community. To get started we can give ourselves a simple fill-in-the-blank exercise: The Library isn’t in the business of connecting people with information, the library is in the business of __________. That may lead to something new or different, for your library, that provides value to people – that’s my definition of innovation.

Anything could happen

Anticipate reading and hearing more about innovation in the library community. It captures our imagination, and many librarians are enthusiastic about being innovators. The Library Loon makes a good point though in suggesting we have to do more than just hold conferences about innovation. We actually need to create the environments in our libraries that will foster innovation. For library administrators that may mean giving up some control in order to encourage experimentation. Library workers need to commit to sharing their ideas and engaging in the hard work needed to move from inspiration to implementation. Unlike the Loon, I support and encourage those academic librarians that want to organize an innovation-themed conference. There will likely be more talk than action, but my experience is that just bringing like-minded librarians together can spark some ideas that lead to real innovation. One of the most innovative projects I ever worked on began at a conference when another librarian and I struck up a conversation and discovered some shared interests. You just never know what can happen. The next great gate-opening idea might be hatched.

Innovation can’t be denied

All the talk and hype about innovation can grow tiresome – and it’s not just us in our library community. When an article in the Wall Street Journal is saying “enough already,” you know there is a growing weariness to our infatuation with all things innovative that extends beyond our profession. The more we talk about innovation, the less able we seem to discern what it really means, and as the WSJ piece suggests, everyone seems to interpret it in their own way. Yet it doesn’t seem to deter would-be experts from writing one more article or book about the importance of being innovative. And we’ll want to know what it says. I’ll leave you with a short video promoting one of these new books about innovation. They never stop coming—the books that is—and I guess the same goes for academic librarians’ pursuit of the next great innovative idea.

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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