Thursday, February 23, 2012

Library R&D, by Daniel Messer

“Where does he get those wonderful toys?" ~The Joker, Batman (1989)

Every librarian knows this story, so I won't take up a whole lot of time with it. See, around 2,300 years ago there was a library in Alexandria. It was a big thing, even by today's standards, because the staff at this library did their level best to acquire every single book and parchment that they could. Ah, but sometimes, there's a piece left out of the historical record.

The Library of Alexandria actually made things and took an active role in fostering progress.

The great library had more than its share of great librarians who took it upon themselves to move things forward. Zenodotus is credited with coming up with the idea of alphabetizing the scrolls. Aristophanes did the world of writing a small favor by creating punctuation. Eratosthenes did the world the small favoring of measuring it.

To put it more plainly: in Alexandria, when the librarians needed something for the library, they made it.

Now let's get a little more modern. Take a look at Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, or Ford. Where'd the iPhone come from? What about Windows 8? That Galaxy Tab is pretty sweet and Ford's Sync system is amazing. Where'd they get that stuff? Simple, they got it from R&D.

R&D, or research and development, is something common to big companies. You don't just make an iPhone. You have to design it. Test the specs. Reality check it. Prototype it. Test it. Fix it. Fiddle with it. It took years to make an iPhone. If you want to make something, you research it and develop it. That said; let me tell you a story. I'll keep it short, I promise.

When I scored an awesome job as the Head Circulation Guy for the busiest branch in my system, I walked into a really odd situation. Every day we’d process around 1,000 requests sent in from all over the county. To do this, we loaded the requests onto carts, checked them in using the ILS, and then looked at the patron's name that popped up on the screen. Then we'd hand write that name on a slip of paper and stick it in the item so it could be put on a public pick up shelf.

This process took all day. But wait a second, why couldn't the computer do that for us? Isn't that what computers are for? Well, as it turns out, that functionality was “coming in a future release,” but how far in the future was anyone's guess. Sure, we could ask the vendor to fast-track the feature, for a pretty hefty fee. Needless to say, the library isn’t made of money, so that wasn’t happening.

We were basically held hostage to the vendor for a feature that we absolutely need.

So I sat down and did some research. How did that patron's name appear on the screen? Where did it come from? Could I snag it and use it? Is there any way I could get that name to, say, print out on a receipt printer? As you can see, research means a lot of questions. When you get some answers, you're halfway there.

I'm not a programmer. I can write code. I can also sing in Japanese. That doesn't mean I should be allowed to do either. Still, desperate times and all that. Besides, singing a Chage & Aska ballad wasn't going to help us. So I hauled out my bag of tricks, which involved a small bag of coding which held an even smaller bag of Visual Basic 6. Using my research as a guide, I developed a tiny app that did one thing – grab that patron's name and send it to a receipt printer.

So it was that, my library, then other branches, and eventually other libraries soon had an app that printed hold pick up slips months before it was implemented into the ILS itself. I don't know if I saved anyone any money and I don't care. All I know is that we went from processing requests all day to getting them done in around four hours.

Libraries need their own R&D Departments. We have Circulation, Reference, Information Technology, and so on. We are sorely lacking in R&D. Think how much we could gain by such a thing. Think about approaching a vendor and saying “Hey, we need your widget to do X,” and when the vendor says that they can't do that, or that they could do it for a fat sack of cash, we could just shrug and say “Fine, we'll make it work on our own.”

There are experts all over your library system and I bet they are sadly under-utilized. Those experts could make one heck of an R&D division because they know more about something than anyone else working for system. But does anyone know about them, and are they ever approached for help? In any moderately sized library system or larger, I will bet money that there’s:
  • an architectural expert who doesn't work in facilities development.
  • a really good computer programmer who doesn't work in IT.
  • a workflow efficiency expert who doesn't work in operations.
  • a logistics guru who doesn't work for administration.
  • a master carpenter/plumber/builder who doesn't work for facilities maintenance.
  • a mathematician or financial expert who doesn't work for finance.
  • a master negotiator who doesn't work with vendors.

What if they got the support and encouragement to use their expertise to make a job easier, or save the library some money, or create a new service, or enhance an existing one?

Isn't that worth something?

Daniel Messer is a public library circulation supervisor, at Queen Creek Branch Library, who specializes in customer service and library technology and automation. He blogs at Not All BitsThis is his second guest post for this blog. His previous piece is "Managing Change."


  1. Libraries with R&D departments would be awesome. I think this post ties in with a couple of others I've seen this week about libraries bringing more of their operations back under their own steam and supervision. If vendors are going to charge out the ear or take months to provide a service or not provide it at all, it would be nice to be a bit more free of that and be able to develop and streamline services, apps, and programs on our own.

  2. Hmmm. While there is so much truth in this post, I don't know if creating R&D departments is the right way to solve the problem.

    Yes, we need our people and organizations to innovate and be proactive, rather than sit around waiting for a solution to our problems to come to us. Yes, we need to use the untapped talent we may already have in our institutions. Yes, libraries and library staff should feel empowered to create their own solutions... and share their solutions in order to strengthen the overall library industry.

    However, I feel like we often fall into a trap of adding to our own tendencies to become stagnant with levels of bureaucracy. I would hate to create a whole dedicated department or designate a set number of staff hours for R&D just purely our of fear that this would eventually develop into another ineffective and immobile silo within the already compartmentalized world of libraries.

    Doing R&D, or hiring in R&D services might be just what we need. But strapping ourselves with more dead weight in the form of long-term dedicated staff we can't afford to sustain could be the wrong approach, especially when we are increasingly competing in a business landscape where agility and flexibility are so key.

  3. I totally agree with you Emily! And what you describe is something that such an endeavour would have to be on the look-out for. The thing is, what you describe also happens to be the exact opposite of what an R&D department does.

    By their very nature, R&D has to be flexible, open, fast paced, and completely free to run around trying things. No idea is too crazy and nothing is left unexamined. Sure, an R&D department will have a goal or a product they're pursuing. I'm sure when Apple went to their R&D folks they said "GIVE US A PHONE!" and R&D went to work on a phone and not a better method of filling an iPod.

    The concern I'd have is that, when R&D presents their findings, will the people in administration be brave enough to implement it? R&D's task, by default, is to do something that hasn't been done before and that's scary to many people, and many of those people happen to be in charge.