DIY vs. STARTUP: choose your flavor of change

April 14, 2013, 8:57 pm

I attended an ACRL session titled “From the Periphery into the Mainstream: Library DIY culture(s) and the academy” and I was expecting something about makerspaces and related DIY-eque topics, but that wasn’t the case. Instead the panel asked the attendees questions about org culture.

I was surprised by the attitude that the session generated. There was a lot of “damn the man” talk and being a library administrator I guess I’m part of the problem now. As I listened I kept contrasting their attitude with startup thinking. While both DIY and startup argue for change, they differ quite a bit. Here are a few quick notes:


Destruction vs. Disruption
Many of the DIYers mentioned the need for creative destruction. In startup the aim is for innovative disruption. DIY wants to rebuild from scratch whereas startup wants hack the code—redefine what something can do.


The biggest question I had: “what does an ideal DIYed Library look like?” Draw it out with images, not words. Show me what it looks like—mock-up it. What does it do differently? How does it operate? Who pays the bills? It’s a raw concept that needs some bones and vital organs.


There was a lot of talk on how the current “system is broken” — OK – so what should the system look like? Don’t all systems break eventually? Can you build an agile system? There didn’t seem to be a roadmap, just a lot of rhetoric. And maybe it’s too early for tangible plans, but that would be my advice: create a vision that people can understand, respond, adapt, remix, personalize, scale, and implement. Show us the change you desire.


Startup works both sides of change: continuous and discontinuous. Work is done to improve current operations (needs) while breakout / game-changing ideas are explored as well.


DIYers talked a lot about “I” and “We.” Here is what I think. Here is what we need to do. I don’t believe I heard anyone advocate for the users. Here is what users need and hence we need to change. It felt more librarian-centered rather than user-centered. Maybe their focus is on changing the profession not the performance of libraries– but that all seems interconnected.


Entrepreneurship is closely aligned with niche creation—find a need and fill it. It’s the pursuit of filling in gaps or adopting new tools and creating new behaviors. The outcome is helping users with whatever their task or job-to-be-done involves.

DIY seemed concerned with personal expression and less so with connecting with user needs.


Independence vs. Partnerships
DIY relishes the self-made. Independence is a critical attribute. One of the panelists argued for building our own software tools, such as platform-agnostic e-readers or a Mendeley-like service.


While startups share this inventive spirit—they either want to get bought by “the man” or to “become the man.” The objective though, is addressing problems with creative ideas and then shipping the solution widely. Sometimes this involves working with competitors. Helping Eliseiver develop a better product is better than doing nothing and just complaining about Eliseiver. Which helps users more in the end?


Startup tends to want a large user base, while DIY tends to prefer a more narrow audience. Mass appeal vs. artisan appreciation?


DIY relishes self-funded—in fact, it is a point of pride.


Startup begins self-funded but then gains prestige or legitimacy when external partners invest: the idea is validated.


Angry vs. Optimistic
During the DIY session there was a lot of “traditional libraries are dead,” “down with the system,” and “subversion of bureaucracy.”


I could not tell if this was part of a hipster aesthetic or genuine frustration. Was it that people didn’t like their bosses or their colleagues or their libraries or even libraries in general? I don’t know, but I do know that no one stood up and said: a faculty member had a particular need, so I went around “the system” and developed a something for them. That would have impressed me. A critical part of being a librarian is looking for backdoors, loopholes, ways-around, and doing whatever it takes to deliver the solution.


In contrast—every startup entrepreneur I’ve met has been wildly (naively) optimistic and excited about what they are doing. That’s the attitude I want to hire: someone who believes that everything is possible. Someone committed to pushing the boundaries. Someone who makes changes from within the system. Use whatever label you want but people who makeithappen


Granted, this session focused on org culture and not necessary on job performance or DIY practices, but all and all it felt more like a vent session rather than one about empowerment.


Survival vs. Reshaping
One of the panelists posted:


“DIY culture in libraries is less about creativity and more about basic survival. A traditional library is a dead library. We know this: if libraries don’t change they will fade away, eclipsed by the free, the instant, and the easy.”


While Library DIY is focused on survival, Library Startup is about shaping or reshaping the delivery of services. Startup isn’t focused on sustaining libraries– it is focused on helping libraries evolve. When you take the long view — some roles of the library today might end of being distributed around our campuses. The entrepreneurial concern is on finding the best service models and practices to advance the needs of users.


Closing Thoughts
If I had to sum it up, based on the conversation of the session, DIY seems focused on “rebellion” whereas I see startup is focused on “programming” or “reprogramming.”


Both movements, if we can use that word, are traveling in similar directions, but they have different destinations and ultimately different ways of getting there.


Both are useful for getting librarians and staff (and others) to think and talk about change. Both are calls to action. Both are trendy right now.


DIY feels more like a political statement than an innovation statement. Maybe it will take shape.  Or maybe its leaders prefer the vagueness? Regardless, I wish the Lead Pipe well but encourage them to draw it out. If DIY was an operating system, what would it look like? And what might it look like if Library DIY and Library Startup came together?

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