Monday, August 27, 2012

"We’re a copy-and-paste profession"

Brian Matthew's A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism [pdf] is probably one of the most thought provoking pieces on academic librarianship I have read this year so far.

It's the type of writing that makes one feel simultaneously depressed at how far one has fallen short and yet feel inspired to go out and "dent the universe".

The white paper is chock full of ideas but one critique he made about our profession that has been slowly resonating in me is that we are a "copy-and-paste profession".

Brian writes..

"A common strategy for innovation is the “copy-and paste” method-- see what others are doing and then follow suit. Alter the name or modify the template, but largely our ideas come from other libraries."

He then goes on to give examples on how libraries began to jump on band-wagons such as UX, Learning Commons without truly understanding what it was meant to do.

This gives me pause.

I wonder is one of the greatest strengths in our profession -  the fact that we share freely what we do, turning into potentially at least a weakness?

Unlike say in the scientific field where often there is fear of being "scooped" or where the Apples of the world wage patent wars, we librarians are generally very open and sharing.

Librarians share their works in progress, some even from the time the idea popped in their minds in a tweet, to blogging on projects in progress. Most will generously share what they know if you ask,  some even provide their work in creative commons licenses.

This is sometimes done to such an extent, that by the time the final paper is written or presented , the project can be well known to librarians who are hyper-connected.

On a personal level, when I look back at some of my most popular blog posts, I see a general pattern that the most popular ones tends to be "survey posts" or "summary posts" , long rambling blog posts comparing what different libraries have done in the same area. This is the same tradition as long "survey" type papers in library literature.

Some examples
Whether the area be web design of mobile sites, design of search tabs, branding of discovery engines, different uses of Google calender, library toolbars,  etc  we librarians love to see what other people have done.

In a time when we are doing more with less, such posts are no doubt useful and save people time, that's why I share them.

Unfortunately, perhaps this also helps promotes a "copy-and-paste-profession" as it makes it ever so easy to blindly copy a idea one read about or was shared at conferences or on blogs without pausing to think if it makes sense in one's context or if there is a better way.
If copying one idea is good, been able to "compare" several different options in the same area is better!

When all the hardwork is already done for you, does it limit thinking of new ideas? Or does it cause you to become lazy and just follow the first few leaders?

Do people (and I accuse myself too) create a list of options, features by looking at what other people are done, and then decide (with a committee of course) after some lazy superficial analysis the parts we want to use without truly understanding the context such decisions were made in other libraries?

Do we become the Samsungs of the world and miss out being the Microsoft of the world (at least with respect to Windows phone!) 
I believe we should strike a balance between burying one's head in the sand and ignoring everything else and obsessively trying to play catchup at all costs on the latest trend or fad because of the fear of "falling behind".  

Be aware of what others are doing but don't worry too much .... Work out a plan that truly plays to our strengths and weakness and applies to our unique situation and not anyone's else!

This is my advice to myself as I begin my 6th year in the profession today.

Addendum : I can't stress enough learning from others is critical, I have benefited tons from the experiences of other pioneer libraries in different areas, allowing me to anticipate issues when it was our turn to implement the solution. I just worry about going too far in the other direction.

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