Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tomorrow's Problems

"Thinker on a Rock"

This weekend I finally got around to reading a Harvard Business Review blog network piece that was published last year, "If You Were the Next Steve Jobs..." by Umair Haque, and it has me thinking lots of thinks. Two of the five problems he identifies are places where libraries have got it all over big business - areas where we excel. The other three, however, are places we need to work. At least that's where my thinking has gone, so I wanted to share:

The first problem identified by Haque is Singularity. This is the one place I think libraries differ from big business. He asserts that they know how to do things on a big scale. Libraries, on the other hand, aren't always the best at scaling up. The good news is that we do know how to do the opposite. Librarians are the kings and queens of singularity; making a difference for individuals is our bailiwick. Maybe big business could learn from us for a change.

Another area where libraries have got it going on is Sociality. We may not always understand how to do the social media thing, but we do know how to build relationships with our community/customers/patrons. Individualized readers' advisory and research assistance, study spaces appropriate for large groups and small groups and individuals, and programming for all ages. We've got relationship building covered.

As for the issues I see us having in common with Hague's typical audience...

Spontaneity is a huge problem for us. Even at small libraries like mine, there are still hoops to jump through. And what's worse, we are so inured to it that we don't always notice how stodgy we are. I know there are good reasons for checks and balances, but they get in the way as much as they help. For instance, it startled me when my last job called me within days of my interview to offer me that position, because I'm so used to academic hiring practices going glacially slow. Don't even get me started on the reactions I get from librarians who work at research institutions when I tell them it took me six months to get a new program started - "How did you get it done so quickly?!"

Synchronicity is another problem we face. There is so much "Us vs. Them" thinking in libraries and academia that it can be impossible to work together. I'll admit even I fall victim to this one. I do my best to build relationships across my institution; I like working with student life and academic affairs and even athletics, trying to build consensus with students from across disciplines, etc. What's best for the college is important to me, but I'll admit that I fight tooth and nail for what the library needs and wants. If I'm not careful, I can get deeply into "Us vs. Them" thinking when it comes to budget planning.

Finally, and this is a big one, he discussed Solubility. In Hague's words: "the biggest lesson — and the one hidden in plain sight — is this: creating institutions capable of not just solving the same old problems, forever." From buildings that were finished just before laptops became a thing to libraries and librarians jumping on memes that are sad and out-of-date, we are too often behind the curve. From graduate programs to individuals to the institutions where we work, too many of us are solving yesterday's problems. Looking forward instead of back is one of the biggest reasons I look outside of libraries to see what's coming, because if businesses are dealing with it now, sure as shootin' I'll be dealing with it soon.

I still have lots of ruminating to do, but the point of Hague's piece, of solving tomorrow's problems instead of yesterday's... Well, that's an idea that has a lot of appeal. I'm not sure if the problems Hague lists are the problems of tomorrow's library, but they are a place to start. What do you all think?

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