Reflection 1: Librarians as Entrepreneurs

When I heard @michael describe his encounter with a library administrator during his first few days on the job (lecture in Module 3), I was absolutely stunned. How could a person say to a new employee, “don’t disturb me” when you were merely passing this administrator in the hall? What a way to greet a person at the beginning of their career! This story triggered a memory of a similar moment I encountered at the dawn of the Internet. At that time (circa 1995) I was working for a large database company — an intermediary that sold news content to corporate and academic libraries  connecting to our content via a modem.  (For a view on how it worked see The Internet before Search Engines).

A group of us in customer relations had visited Sun Microsystems to see what they were doing with a cool program called Java and how it would radically change text based Internet content. For months we kept going to our management pleading with them to at least look at what Sun was doing and consider the implications of this new technology. We were told to
manage our expectations (another way of saying “don’t disturb me?) and that the Internet was a flash in the pan that would never amount to anything. Their fixed mindset ultimately led to the company’s demise.

Fast forward twenty years and stagnation in my workplace is happening all over again, but now my organization wants to do something about it. We want to change, but we are stymied by indecision. Brian Mathews’ article  Think Like a Startup  gives me hope. Do we start innovating now or wait for the renovation?  We want to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit, but we are afraid of the effect it will have on our current services and the disruption it will cause our students.  Mathews states that libraries need disruption and instead of a strategic plan, libraries need a strategic culture, and instead of being afraid to fail,  embrace the failure and then “pivot to success”. We need telescopes to see into the future, and we need microscopes to get us through the day to day management of our facility.

Art of the Start book jacket

When telescopes work, everyone is an astronomer, and the world is full of stars. When they don’t, everyone whips out their microscopes, and the world is full of flaws. The reality is that you need both microscopes and telescopes to achieve success.

– Guy Kawasaki, The Art of the Start

So what are we so afraid of? There are many libraries who have gone through the same process and have become model academic libraries. Mathews cites a few in the article. What is needed is the willpower to beta test, learn, measure, beta test again, and so on and so forth.  The cycle of entrepreneurship never stops and we musn’t either.

9 Replies to “Reflection 1: Librarians as Entrepreneurs”

    1. @michael Yes, I think we often like the familiar too. Luckily, we had a library consultant visit and he’s working with us to think strategically about our future. I liked what @satisspiritus reference to the CIVICTechnologies report about how libraries assess themselves on the same services and clientele instead of trying to focus on new ways to assess our constantly changing demographic / resources.

  1. Your reflection is well thought-out. Yet, I actually had a much different reaction to Matthews: I am worried about “startup culture” or “entrepeneurialism.” Perhaps it’s because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (the current center of startup culture), but I get to see a lot of the negatives that Matthews doesn’t mention. For instance, much of the startup approach is focused on the quick return — venture capitalists want to create a marketable idea and sell it quickly. While some famous startups have continued for the long-term, the vast majority are in it to sell quickly and move onward. Another issue is that employees aren’t treated particularly well in many ways — they are expected to work lengthy hours and being committed to the cause means they shouldn’t have lives beyond the cause.

    I’m not going to go too far on this here — I’ll save it for my own reflection piece!

    1. Thanks for your keen observation. @gabrielm . Actually I too live and work in the SF Bay Area and I can agree with you on the negative aspects of the startup culture. I think Mathews’ article seeks to temper his entrepreneurial aspirations for libraries with the Kawasaki analogy — utilizing the telescope to see into the future while grounding yourself in reality with the benefits of a microscope. I have seen my college adapt qualities akin to a startup in the last few years and while some moves have been very positive others have not. Luckily, as a public institution, we have checks and balances in the form of shared governance and labor unions. Alas, I wish this were the rule rather than the exception in the startup culture!

  2. @infoeduc8r Hi Maryanne, Thank you for your enthusiasm to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit in the context of library innovation. Fresh perspectives, flexibility and responsiveness are crucial to ensuring our libraries remain relevant and purposeful. I just finished Kawasaki’s “Enchantment” and found it inspiring. I shall look into “The Art of the Start” as well.

    1. @jomake Sorry I am just seeing your comment on my first reflection. Thanks for the uplifting words. I just read a someone’s review of Linchpin by Seth Godin and I was reminded that we have to be Linchpin (indispensible) rather than a Cog (just showing up) in order to make the changes needed in our organizations. Here’s to Linchpins!

  3. “Manage you expectations.” What a horrible attitude. It’s sort of like saying “stop getting so involved” or “stop caring”. It wouldn’t take too many times of a person hearing this to simply begin to expect nothing, and indeed stop caring.

    1. @scottgarthwaite I know, right? I wrote an entire Toastmasters speech against the use of the phrase which I have heard from more than one manager over the years. Luckily, I’m in a situation now with a lot of support.

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