Rural Libraries as Innovation Incubators: Notes from a Session at ALA

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend a session at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Chicago: "The Future is Now: Rural Library as Innovation Incubator". Thank you to the presenters, Tameca Beckett, Youth Services Librarian at the Laurel Public Library (DE), and Andrea Berstler, Director at the Wicomico Public Library (MD), for the ideas and inspiration.




Andrea and Tameca are both leaders in The Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL). Andrea is currently the organization's president and Temeca is a board member. They encouraged session attendees to consider attending ARSL's annual conference, which will be held in Omaha in September (I'll be there!). The presenters also thanked the ALA Committee Rural, Native, and Tribal Libraries of All Kinds (RNTLOAK) for their support.

I. Write the new rules.

Tameca kicked off the session by talking about a quote from Jay Z, "Write the new rules." Jay Z is doing that in the world of hip hop music. His new album had already gone platinum, long before being released. In a recent 3-minute commercial for Samsung Galaxies, Jay Z talks about the need to innovate. He says there are no more rules of the music game and that the Internet has turned it all into the wild west. "We need to write the new rules," he says. Tameca says we're at a similar place in libraries and that we also need to write the new rules.

II. There is no box.

Tameca next turned to the Matrix for inspiration, referring to Spoon Boy's quote, "There is no spoon." When discussing innovation, people often talk about thinking outside of the box. Tameca suggests, however, that there is no box. Why does there have to be a box? We are making it up as we go along.

III. Have a vision.

Tameca discussed the importance of vision. Moving forward requires a clear idea of what is possible. The speakers encouraged everyone to spend quality time in their office with an empty screen or a blank piece of paper, doing personal brainstorming. Take the time to reflect on the statement: This is what the library needs to be doing.

Then you need to translate the vision into a reality for your staff. Andrea reminded the group that every community is different,

There’s no book for this. Every library needs a different book, which is your vision for your library that meets the needs of your community. You and your staff and your board and your customers have to write it down – create this book – this idea book for your library. If I write one for your library, it won’t be the right book."

IV. Failure happens.

Failing sometimes is an inevitable part of innovating. Andrea encouraged the group, "You have to be sure you are not afraid to fail as you write the book. There’s a difference between failing and being a failure. Failing means I learned something. Being a failure means I stopped trying." Tameca suggests that adults can learn from children when it comes to not fearing failure, "Don’t be afraid to try because it won’t work – your kids get this. 9 times out of 10 when they try something new… they try small. And they adjust. They get their friends to do it.  When we get to be adults, we feel everything needs to be perfect. Remember Thomas Edison – I haven’t failed. I just found 10000 ways to not build a lightbulb."

V. Look outside of the library for inspiration.

Research is showing more and more that the way we commonly try to generate new ideas is not necessarily the best way. Think beyond brainstorming: research is showing more and more that the way we do brainstorming is not the best way to do it. Get out of the building. Go to the beach. Go do laundry. That will help you come up with something new. Industrial design looks to nature for new ideas. Healthcare is looking at aviation. What if libraries started looking at … ??? Look at what is going on around you. Observe what is going on in your community.

Directors: don’t just talk to other directors about things. Talk to someone who runs a business in your community – an entrepreneur in your community – talk to people who don’t use the library – have a conversation with them – find out what’s going on in their world. Tameca says there are important lessons that can be learned from industrial design. Industrial design goes to the problems. Industrial designers create thousands and thousands of sketches. They try things on a small scale. And then iterate, iterate, iterate. See what happens. Tameca's mantra is:

Think big. Plan. Start small. Grow."

VI. View libraries as idea incubators.

The presenters encouraged the group to consider, "What if your libraries were to become idea incubators? This is beyond makerspace. It’s bigger than that. What if we were to tell people, bring us your ideas and we will throw all of the resources that we have at making them a reality. How would that change your library?"

Andrea reminded the group to start by inventorying what your library is already doing. When designing the makerspace at the Wicomico Public Library, they started by looking at what they already had. As they wrote down everything had, including STEM stuff, knitting club, legos, anime club, and more, they were amazed at all of the creativity they were already engaged in and realized, "We’re already doing a lot of stuff!". It was a bolster to the staff!

Tameca has had great success with youth in her community and a library program called “Get Your MESS On," which includes math, engineering, science, and social learning. At the making sessions, she gives participating youth no direction but instead she gives them the stuff – squishy circuits,  doodle boxes.... She buys a lot of materials from the local dollar store and also gets creative with things she already has on hand. She gets teens to assist younger kids. It's fun to receive calls from parents saying, “I want to enroll my child in the MESS program” Tameca says, “It’s amazing to see what happens when you just let kids go.”