Experimenting and innovating. Luca Fois

Experimenting is the main common denominator which liaised the talks of the Library Performance Measurement Conference I attended at the end of July in Oxford. Unusual techniques and applications of findings drawn from different study areas have demonstrated to be the cause of multiple sparks of genius which lead to useful insights on how to read the changes within the library profession.

Ayub Khan, Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and Digital Lead for the Society of Chief Librarians, offered the first amuse-bouche for thought. In a section of his opening talk, he stressed how a leap of faith into the unknown is much needed when teaching the profession to aspiring new librarians. Teachers must train (library and information) students to be ready for never-ending, fast-paced progress, unforeseen problems and consequent new definitions of library job [or jobs, as different speakers through the conference stressed during their talks]. And they themselves do not know what future is going to be brought forward: this might require an intense foresight exercise from the trainers’ part, but I think students should have an active role in this and could help read the signs for the future developments in the library world. To be ready for an always changing and evolving society, the library itself is always evolving to adapt and answer to needs yet to be expressed. As Ayub highlighted, this concept of undergoing change in the library is the very same concept of Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science, which dates to 1931 but is actually relevant now more than ever:

The Library is a Growing Organism.

How experimenting and assessing relate is left untold, but it is easily understandable from the various examples Ayub presented: considering my current residence, I want to mention among them, the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) and their unfriendly acronym HGIOPLS (which stands for How Good Is Our Public Library Service), an experimental toolkit used in Scottish libraries to “evaluate the quality and effectiveness of their service provision” (for more information see here). Collaboration, sharing experiences and public availability anywhere and anytime of these various tools are one of the ways in which SLIC is promoting change in Scottish libraries with impacts which still need to be evaluated.

Later that day, Professor Judith Broady-Preston, Chair in Information Management and Director of the Institute of Professional Development at Aberystwyth University, presented her research which analyses the changing world of library. During her talk, she traces a parallel between libraries and tectonic plate studies: the presentation, being very bubbly and witty, showed how a comparison between geography and library science can offer new ways to interpret changes and continuous tensions.

These interesting comparisons between different fields help to investigate better some of the library science issues, and the new light which a change of perspective can bring when affronting different library issues shone through various presentations throughout the 3 days of the conference.

When evaluating the impact of the library in PhD research methods, Frankie Wilson, Head of Assessment at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, used a method originated in anthropology and psychology by collecting feedback and ideas through cultural probe methodology: this research method has been tested in libraries before, even if it still quite a new approach to the study. There is also an extra layer of experimentation and adaptation: if compared to previous applications of the method, the research period has been extended, research scope has been narrowed down to a very specific target and research question and it has been made easier for participants, reducing the hands-on activities for PhD students who took part to the research. And this brought forth interesting insights and at the same time, gave new ideas for another extensive study to follow.

On the second day opening speech, Steve New, Associate Professor in Operations Management at Saïd Business School and Fellow of Hertford College at the University of Oxford, drew an interesting parallel between car factories model, especially referring to the Toyota Production System (TPS, precursor of the lean system) as a point of improvement with respect to Fordism. Three points could be easily applied to the library environment:

Give great relevance to the place where problems occur (concept of gemba=lit. original place=crime scene) and analyse them thoroughly;
Make the system fragile enough so that when a problem occurs, the process cannot progress until the problem is solved; and
Focus on improvement.
Showing application of the TPS in the health environment, he gave examples on the relevance of experimenting new methods in any working environment. To improve the impact of experiments and their chance of success in implementing new practices or new methods of analysis, Steve New also mentions the importance of making the experimentation a top-down activity, making sure that all staff take part in experimentations and sharing their ideas.

Later that afternoon, one of the most anticipated moments of the day was the ethnographic research workshop by Andrew Asher, Assessment Librarian at Indiana University, and Donna Lanclos, anthropologist and folklorist. After a quick definition of ethnography and explanation of some general techniques in ethnographic research, the audience was sent to experiment this research method in real life: everybody was excited to go out the ‘classroom’ and play with the “new tool”. I did feel like a “junior ethnographer”, studying the surrounding of the Keble College and then reporting all the findings and sharing the experience with Andrew and Donna. While it felt difficult to be objective for most of the reports presented, and there was bias noted here and there, the audience agreed that ethnographic research could be easily applied to their library environment, helping them to come up with evidence-based choices in their workplaces. The very provocative conclusion that libraries ask too many specific questions is something I will try to bring in my future practice: even if I do not know yet an answer to this issue, I agree that a serendipitous approach to assessment is a way which might be taken and worth being explored and experimented. I can affirm that ethnography as a tool applied to library evaluation allows librarians to observe actual trends in their original environment and, similarly to grounded theory, it might help noting problems, directions trends etc. which would be otherwise unnoticed when investigating a specific (and predictable) question.

On the last day of the conference, the theme of innovation and experiment was still shining through most of the talks. Dr Colleen Cook, Dean of Libraries at McGill University, delivered the last keynote starting with a simple and effective claim: “I am always trying to make things work”. After an analysis of the good, the bad and the ugly of library assessment, she affirmed that assessment should stop focusing on old vs. new because that is a meaningless dichotomy, while it should focus on effective vs. ineffective methods. Another point of which assessment librarians should be aware of is also combat the vogue of qualitative methods, while they should instead focus on methods which are appropriate to the questions. Dr Colleen Cook presented the idea of guerrilla librarian, for which a librarian needs to be pragmatic and savvy in the exercise of their profession, while also actively embedded in analysing society issues. In conclusion, she stressed again the necessity of pragmatism during assessment: while trying is an important part of the process, expertise should not be overstepped, correlation and causation concept must be kept clearly distinct and data must be used as evidence. Results must also be fun and made relevant and poignant for the audience they are presented to.

At the end of the conference, during the colloquia, the key speakers referred to the experimentation motif, and here are the most significant concepts I will bring with me in the future practice:

Let’s try.

Become a guerrilla librarian.

New visualisation trends

Librarian as an interpreter/translator

Being a newly graduated librarian, attending this conference has inspired me to be more creative in my future profession: I know I should carefully consider consequences of “experiments”, but trying new assessment methods as well as exploring every kind of material from different fields will only bring innovation in the place I will be working in the future. Among all, I will keep in mind Dr Cook’s statement which might have sounded arrogant, but also very practical to me.

“I have never needed to prove my value”

I would like to become a librarian like this, whose actions and ideas prove their value without need to further assessment, but I have to experiment a lot to arrive there!