OK, I’ve had it. Too many meetings, too many presentations, too many blog posts, too many think-pieces along the lines of “here’s how to fix ______” (insert your choice of system in crisis: the economy, domestic security, higher education, scholarly communication, the Euro zone, the designated-hitter rule, etc.), all of them breezily touting the same sure-fire solution: innovation.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against innovation—far from it. Nor, more subtly, am I disagreeing with those who, when faced with a big and intractable problem, assert that innovation is essential to its solution. In many cases, innovation will indeed be an essential component to any real and lasting solution to our biggest problems. My problem is with those who invoke innovation as if it were a solution in itself.
Hear me now: innovation doesn’t solve anything. Solutions solve things (pardon the tautology) and they solve them not by being innovative, but by being effective. Radically new ways of doing things can certainly be highly effective, and may in many cases be necessary. But they can also be ineffective, or misbegotten, or knuckleheaded, while nevertheless being genuinely innovative.
This means that innovation is not synonymous with “improvement.” Nor is innovation like wisdom or integrity or diligence, all of which are intrinsically good and tend always to improve those projects on which they are brought to bear. Innovation does not equal utility, or quality, or relevance. Innovation, in other words, may in many cases be essential, but it is never sufficient.
Hence the title of my posting. I worry that when we aim for innovation, we are actually undershooting the mark. If our goal is to be innovative, then we may well achieve that goal, declare victory, and move on without having actually done anything useful. At best, this kind of strategic myopia may arise from an authentically sincere (but misapplied) focus on our patrons’ needs; at worst, it reflects a library-centered rather than patron-centered focus (“Look what an innovative library we are!”) and perpetuates the kind of inward orientation that, if unchecked, will eventually kill us as a profession.
Some readers will think the point I’m making is trivially obvious, and may wonder why I’m going to the trouble of making it in this forum. I do so for two reasons:
First, we in libraries are sometimes guilty of using innovation as a go-to buzzword to justify our fascination with New Shiny Things. Don’t get me wrong: I like a New Shiny Thing as much as anyone. My library is one of the few that owns an Espresso Book Machine, and I pushed strongly for us to acquire it. We’ve also been very aggressive in moving in the New Shiny direction of patron-driven acquisition, and we offer “innovation grants” to staff who want to experiment with creating new service offerings or products. Are these initiatives innovative? Arguably, yes. Is that why we’re pursuing them? No. We’re pursuing them because, in our judgment, they represent either good things we need to start doing or genuine improvements over fundamentally flawed ways of doing things that we’ve always done. We’re not doing them because they’re new; we’re doing them because we think they’re better.
Second, publishers and vendors are sometimes guilty of using innovation as a figleaf with which to disguise ill-advised changes to platforms or content and thereby to justify otherwise unjustifiable price increases. In this sense, “innovation” is usually linked fallaciously to “value”—as if value were defined and determined by the seller. In reality, of course, the seller can make a value proposition, but only the buyer knows the actual value of the product or service or of the proposed enhancement to it. (This applies equally to library services and products, of course.) What this means is that, for vendors and publishers as well as libraries, the link between innovation and value is tenuous: a genuinely innovative new library program or product feature may represent little or no increase in actual value despite the fact that it represents new or increased supply-side investment. This suggests a need for all of us to know our customers very, very well before making those investments—and, in libraries especially, perhaps to focus more of our energy on knowing our customers and less on trying to fix them.
Maybe you’re one of the many who feel that calling library patrons “customers” is somehow demeaning, either to them or to us. I tend to think that it helps to focus our minds on this important reality: that we are competing for our patrons in a marketplace of time, energy, and attention, and that we will only win their time, energy, and attention if we’re tuned in to them and their needs, rather than focusing on whether or not we, the library, are on the cutting edge. Trust me: our patrons don’t much care whether we’re innovative. They care whether we make it easier for them to do their work.