The constant innovator

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Sometimes libraries are perceived as resistant to change but in fact they are often at the forefront of innovation, argues Ben Showers of JISC

It can sometimes seem to users as though libraries are behind the times. In academia, for example, there is a perception that the cutting-edge research and activity goes on elsewhere in a university. In reality, however, libraries are often already testing ideas and new technologies and services and so can be thought of as models for innovation and change.

The library exists to serve the communities to which it belongs (be that academic, public or private). Even in a time of drastic financial pressures, this sense of community belonging gives the library an advantage as it transitions from the hard copy book to a digital online future.

One example is in the changing models of access to library services and content. In the UK, the University of Bath’s work over the past few years with quick response, or QR codes, demonstrates a library’s early adoption of a technology that is only now in use by many commercial enterprises and advertisers.

Libraries have also managed to exploit new methods such as the ‘crowdsourcing’ of effort to both enhance and create digital content. One of the best known examples is the Australian National Library’s newspaper crowdsourcing project Trove. The project aims to motivate the general public to help correct text from digitised newspapers and the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) text that accompanies them.

Another example of innovation is the way that the ‘gamification’ of library and information services is being tried and refined in a number of UK libraries. Lemon Tree at the University of Huddersfield library demonstrates how the idea of play can increase the use and impact of library services. Lemon Tree will allow library users to earn points and rewards for using and interacting with the library and its services, as well as integrating with other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Such innovative ideas and projects provide a test bed of innovation and help meet the goals of an organisation, such as improving the student experience in universities. However, it is worth asking how institutions like libraries, which are not usually perceived as nimble, are able to react and innovate. In a recent article in The Atlantic, entitled What Big Media can learn from the New York Public Library, a senior editor argued that the reason is that library employees care about the digital aspects of their institution, are supported in this and see their users as collaborators in improving their collections.

Libraries have been able to use their staff as passionate advocates for innovation and user needs, as well as realising the potential of their location within their communities and public spaces. This helps highlight the need to support library staff in constantly trying and learning new skills and the importance of activities and events such as the UK’s Mashed Libraries series and the work of Dev8D in bringing together the technical and the curatorial.

This is not an argument that libraries need less funding; rather it is that libraries have been able not just to adapt to incredible external pressures, but to continue to innovate throughout.

Ben Showers is a programme manager at JISC. A version of this article also appears in the  Library Journal