Ecologies of innovation and public libraries

Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent more and more time in the “innovation” space, attending conferences and workshops, speaking with leaders in the public library field, visiting innovation hubs from Africa to South America, doing a bit of research on innovation spaces, and otherwise trying to grapple with what this all means for international development generally (and as it pertains to all of TASCHA’s work), and public libraries in particular (for our public library research).

When it comes to innovation in public libraries, as in many other sectors, it seems to be a truism that technology is the easy part–people are hard; institutions are harder. How do we nurture a culture of innovation in libraries? How do we foster an innovative mindset among library leaders and staff? How do we make the library institution more nimble, empower the edges, and institute other pro-innovation practices within structures that are typically resistant to change? In short, how can we create an innovation ecosystem in public libraries that amplifies and connects all of these dimensions?

Framing the challenge this way moves the focus from the products of innovation to the processes that foster and spread innovation, both within any specific library system and throughout the field (nationally and internationally). The Knight Foundation’s John Bracken, in an interview on Circulating Ideas, raises a similar point when he says the challenge is to ensure that the lessons, talent, and products that are being produced are not just one-offs, but are assets that the field can benefit, learn from, and integrate more broadly.

Last August I had the opportunity to participate in the Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation hosted by the Aspen Institute. It was premised, in my mind, on a very appropriate framing of the issue, namely that “the transformation of public libraries will be driven by three key factors: (1) new narratives about the library’s role in society, (2) a culture of innovation and adaptation that fosters new relationships and embraces new forms of knowledge, technology and participation, and (3) committed, transformative leadership from the library profession and partners in government, civil society and the private sector.” At the Roundtable we unpacked these factors, discussed everything from the meaning of innovation and where we are within an historical context, to specific ways innovation can be cultivated. There was no disputing the notion that more than the product (or technology), what matters most is the innovation ecosystem–the people, processes, connections, and environment–for stimulating innovation. The full report is Libraries in the Exponential Age: Moving from the Edge of Innovation to the Center of Community.

TASCHA is honored to have been selected by the Gates Foundation as a legacy partner to advance research and innovation for the public library field. Along with the other two legacy partners, IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and PLA (the Public Library Association), we have been working for two years to shape a long term initiative that will carry forward the foundation’s vision of public libraries serving as engines of development and critical community assets. Innovation is a prominent theme throughout all of the partners’ plans. It will be a particular emphasis for TASCHA and at center stage will be a focus on developing and testing approaches for nurturing ecologies of innovation. More to come in fall 2016 when the three partners, together with the Gates Foundation, launch the initiative.