I’ve been talking about libraries and startup culture for the past two years. There are two common responses: excitement & doubt. Some people really get into it and start telling me about the types of projects they want to do… while others dismissive: that’s nice but it wouldn’t work in my library.
Lately though I’ve noticed a new response: anger. Maybe disgruntlement is a better word. At conferences or online, some librarians are lamenting that they work in environments that are not innovative. And since I write and talk on that theme they expect me to have the answers for them. I don’t. I’m not a consultant. I’m an experimenter. The objective of my paper was to get people thinking, talking, and acting more entrepreneurially. It wasn’t designed as a blueprint, but as a conversation starter.
Changing culture is tough and I definitely have a lot to learn. But with so much changing all around us, we need to be able to change too. We need a framework that encourages this to happen. And I hear it from both sides at every conference I attend. Administrators wishing that their employees would embrace new roles. And staff or librarians wishing that their administrators would embrace new ideas. It seems there is a lot of disconnection in our libraries. Perhaps the first step is having a shared vision: why does your library exist?
This is why I think change requires a flexible label. Change needs a brand. It needs texture and context. Change without a wrapper is just chaos. The wrapper that I use is startup. It’s a temporary construct. It’s a guiding framework. It’s an operational vision. It’s a working draft waiting to be edited.
What I like about startup is the attitude. Perhaps everything is smooth sailing in your library, but everywhere I’ve worked has been undergoing tremendous transformation. There is a lot of uncertainty. There are a lot of unknowns. There are a lot of changes outside of our control: pedagogy, publishing, research requirements, technology, and so on.
Startup addresses this uncertainty with a group-bonding framework. We don’t know the future so let’s figure it out together. We’re going to explore new service models. We’re going to explore new audiences. We’re going to explore new user needs. We’re going to dabble with new technology and tools. We’re going to add new expertise. Things are going to change and then change again, but that’s okay, because we’re in startup mode– we’re expecting it.
Change becomes something that people invest in because they are helping to drive it—they’re looking for it. We start talking about outcomes and aspirations. We have permission to be wrong, to pivot, to succeed, or to fail. We have permission to dream and follow unusual ideas. We have permission to seek new problems or to test new approaches. We have permission to work with different people. We have permission to stop doing things that no longer have an impact. We have permission to change our schedule and workloads.
In short, startup puts us into a mindset to be creative and innovative — that’s what I expect from my employees and what they expect from me. This becomes the fabric of our culture.
So there’s that— the attitude, but startup is also a methodology: build, measure, learn. Details here. This application is being used by government agencies and non-profits. It’s not just students in their dorms with billion dollar ideas– it’s a project management tool.
Startup isn’t about profits or IPOs or websites– it is ideation and implementation. How do we find new needs? How do we address these needs? What isn’t working that we should stop doing? How can we absorb this new role? What do our users need us to become? What does the library enable people to accomplish?
Maybe this framework doesn’t work for you or your organization. That’s cool. I’ve found it very helpful as I’ve moved into administration. Startup offers a change-oriented, collaborative, invent-the-future mindset, while also providing a functional toolset for evaluating, developing, designing, and delivering new stuff.
My advice — find a shared vision that works in your organization. Maybe it’s DIY, or Grassroots, or user experience, or whatever label you need. Talk about it. Name it. Use it. Build a brand. This helps everyone understand expectations and aspirations. This helps the culture.
I expect my employees to ask for time, money, support, advice, recommendations, partnerships, etc. And from them I expect a return on investment—a positive new impact on our users, a new service or teaching model, greater operational efficiency, a new web feature, a new capacity, or a case study of what went wrong. That’s the culture I’m developing around my employees.
More info about what we’re building at Virginia Tech: Hubs & Centers