There are a lot of popular assumptions people make in this profession that lead us to make classic blunders. These can be assumptions about the change process, assumptions about our colleagues, and assumptions about our patrons. We can go into developing a new service or technology with the best of intentions and fail spectacularly because of the blinders we put on due to these strongly-held assumptions. Sometimes things fail in libraries because they weren’t a good idea or fit, but sometimes the failure is caused by the approach taken to creating change. And those failures truly can be avoided.
As I work delicately and slowly at my library to build a culture of assessment, I’ve been thinking a lot about implementation failures and thought it would be nice to look at some of the classic blunders I’ve seen in both libraries and higher ed over the past seven years related to implementation. Here’s the first.
“Why don’t we try it and see what happens” is always a good way to approach new services
No, offense intended, Andy, but I have to disagree with you here (though I certainly would have agreed strongly with you when I was new to the profession). I am definitely not a risk-averse person in my work. I have experimented many times over the years with new services, service models, and technologies. Some have been successes and some failures, but I’ve always learned from the experiences. One thing I’ve learned is that while in some cases the “try it and see what happens” mantra is a very reasonable way to approach things, other times, it can be a disaster. This Fall, I did a pilot project with some colleagues to provide synchronous online workshops for students using web conferencing software. What we learned was that there wasn’t much need for general research instruction workshops, but grad students in particular were very interested in online instruction on specific topics, such as using Zotero and Mendeley. So, based on that information, we retooled for this term with more discipline-specific sessions and I continued offering my Zotero and Mendeley workshops. In that case, trying it and seeing what happened was a totally reasonable approach because whether we were wildly successful or a total flop, we could handle either eventuality.
Back in 2006, when I was the distance learning librarian at Norwich, I tried an embedded librarian pilot for our online Masters degree programs. Having been one of those students who never asked for help at her library, I wanted to make sure I was available as possible to our students as they started out in their program. I also wanted to try and put a human face on the library, which is even more critical in the online learning environment. The first term, I embedded myself in the first seminar of our two most research-intensive classes (both of which had several sections). I had an “Ask a Librarian” discussion board (that was front and center) in each classroom where I could both answer questions and proactively provide information literacy instruction at key points in the term.
The major issue was that I had to check each WebCT classroom separately to see if there were any messages from students — there was no way to get alerts when new content was posted. It took me 4-7 hours each week to monitor the boards and answer questions. This wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d been deluged with questions, but that was far from the case. Occasionally, a single class would have a lot of questions one week (if their prof asked them to check with me about their research topics), but for the most part, questions were few and far between and some classes never used the discussion board at all. And even when I (and the program administrators) strongly encouraged faculty to encourage their students to ask for help, only some chose to do so. I was basically routing traffic from the reference desk to myself and taking 4-7 hours/week to answer anywhere between 0 and 12 questions. Clearly not a great value proposition. Had I gotten a lot of questions, it would have been worth the time spent, but for so few, it clearly wasn’t.
The big problem was that the faculty and administrators thought this was a great service as did the students who used it. Even though I’d called it a pilot, no one outside of the library saw it that way. They wanted the program to expand, not go away. It was very difficult to pull out of providing this service, but it had to be done. Had I really considered the worst-case scenarios of either wild success or failure, I would have realized that this had the potential to be a HUGE problem. If a potential consequence of not being able to sustain a service means losing credibility with faculty and/or administrators, then it’s not a risk to take lightly. Building credibility with one’s faculty is a painstaking process. It often takes years to build their trust and to get them to see you as someone who can offer something useful to them and their students. You don’t want to risk that. As anyone involved in instruction can attest, it sometimes takes just one bad session to lead a faculty member to never request instruction again.
There are a lot of awesome services we could be providing at PSU, but we are constrained by our extremely small public services staff relative to our student population. In many cases, we have to worry about what it would look like to be the “victims of our success,” because we are already stretched to the point where everything we do is an essential service. I believe strongly that “try it and see what happens” is a great idea after you visualize potential outcomes and realize that none of them will be truly damaging. If we had tons of demand for online instruction, we could have handled it. That we didn’t (except in the Zotero and Mendeley classes) also wasn’t a problem. All we really were risking was our pride. But when the risk is alienating students/faculty/administrators or seriously overworking already stressed librarians, I think there needs to be a serious discussion about how to handle that eventuality and whether it’s worth risking without understanding the service population better.
I’m a huge believer in seeing service development as an iterative process. That part of perpetual beta appeals strongly to me. I believe in trying something, assessing it, and retooling based on those results. I see that as a continuous loop that should continue to happen even when you think the service/technology is mature (since populations and their needs change). However, I also think that in some cases assessment has to start before we ever offer the service. I think perpetual beta, whether in the tech world or in libraries, can sometimes be an excuse for putting out things that are truly half-baked. Putting out something (service, technology, etc.) that risks our reputation, credibility, or relationship with our service population requires more than a “let’s try it and see what happens” attitude.
The next classic blunder I’ll be tackling: the assumption that resistance to change is bad and something one needs to defeat.
Perhaps the most dangerous form of this blunder is ‘if we build it, they will come’, leading to the web development of powerful advanced search tools, customisation options and social functions which are completely ignored by users.
Yup yup. Part of evolving as a professional is learning that no experiment or initiative is too small for an element of strategery. Not to mention intentionalism, planning, coordination, communication, contingency planning, etc.
That’s so true, Martin, and I’ve certainly made mistakes in that area myself. I remember several years ago when a lot of librarians were saying that every catalog absolutely must have tagging, RSS, and reviews. I’m not saying that those are bad things (they’re great), but I’m thinking that the percentage of our user who use RSS and tagging at all are small and the ones who would use those features in their library catalog are even smaller. It’s certainly less of a priority for me with the ILS than being able to easily run reports that allow me to see how our collection is being used so I can make good collection development decisions.
“Even though I’d called it a pilot, no one outside of the library saw it that way.” Being able to kill off something that doesn’t work, or did work but is old and tired, is vital but not something I think we’re good at as a profession.
Although I like the idea of trying something to see what happens, I’d have to agree it’s an approach fraught with problems.
We’re about to start a year long trial of opening some smaller branches on a Saturday morning, so this is an issue that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on resistance…
Cath, I can especially see something like changing hours as being potentially problematic. If you decide to pull back on that, many patrons won’t say “well it was a pilot.” They’ll say, “why did the library take away those early hours I loved?” (even if it’s just a small number who used it) It’s hard, because sometimes you have to take the risk to improve services and no amount of surveying your population can substitute a real-life trial.
Our awesome assessment librarian has pushed me this year to create assessment plans for our new events and programs. Before the initiative launches, we have to have defined what would total success, partial success, and little/no success look like. (He works with us to make sure our indicators are measurable and valid.) It’s been a great way to start the conversation about the goals of a program, and for us to come to consensus beforehand what it would take to stop a program. Too often, we can fall into the “if it helps even one person it was worth it” line of thinking- and our staffing just can’t accommodate that sentiment.
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Solid post Meredith. The iterative process that you talk about at the end of your post shouldn’t get lost. I think that we can avoid trying new services or initiatives by trying to do everything right the first time. If there is no tolerance of risk in an institution, there is going to be a lot of stagnation and furthering of the status quo. And it sounds like in your significant experience you have had some things that didn’t work as well and that you have learned a lot from (like your example about being embedded in online classes). You do learn a lot when you actually try something and it doesn’t work.
But I don’t disagree with this post. I agree with your point that there does need to be thought and reflection before offering a service that could be unsustainable. I could definitely learn the lesson of forethought and foresight better. We need to be strategic in what we take on and also what we continue. If we are keeping a really expensive database or service because only a small but vocal fraction of our community uses it, are we really serving everyone as effectively as we could? We do need to take into account our credibility when getting rid of services, but we also need to take into account our credibility in continuing services.
I think that those of us who are pro “let’s give it a try and see what happens” probably are doing the idea a disservice because we make it sound like we’re not in favor of doing a little strategic planning beforehand. As you correctly point out, it’s important to look before you leap and consider things like, “What happens if [insert new program here] takes off and eats up all of my time?” Those considerations frequently get lost in conversations about the merit of “just doing it” and seeing if the program/idea/service works. I’m willing to bet that if people were able to peek behind the curtain of libraries that experiment with new resources/services a lot, they would see some level of pre-planning and evaluation going on.
I think one of the main problems with “Let’s just try it and see what happens!” is our profession’s tendency to posture new services for the sake of appearing cutting-edge. Why do we sit through presentations on QR codes or haptic iPhone interfaces when hardly any other service entity- corporate, nonprofit, academic, or public- rolls out similar services? On another trendy tack, why do many libraries insist on connecting with their patrons via social networks when studies and actual behavior demonstrate that our presence is at best tolerated by many but essential to few? Perhaps the problem is not trying new things, it’s trying the wrong new things (for fear of becoming irrelevant perhaps?).
Now I’m not saying your project(s) are poor, Meredith; rather, I see your post as an excellent entry point into a conversation regarding appropriate technology projects. I’ve encountered far too many librarians regurgitating ideas that have not worked in years (roving reference- hah!) simply because it makes them feel progressive. These sorts of ideas are doomed to fail, whereas others- embedded chat widgets on webpages for example- are a sure bet and hardly require discussion.
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