Tools for the library innovator

The word innovation is losing its power. If everything is innovative, nothing is innovative. True innovation, however, exists and will have an impact on how librarians do their jobs and how people perceive information.

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Innovation. It's the new buzzword, not only for librarians but also for business, industry, science, and popular culture. Every new product and service is described as "innovative". Anything vaguely different, even if it's only a tweak here and a pinch there, is an "innovation". Barbie Keiser began her article on innovation* in the November/December 2015 issue of Online Searcher with

"Apparently, you can't write an article or author a white paper these days without "innovation" in the title."

By its very ubiquity, the word innovation is losing its power. If everything is innovative, nothing is innovative. True innovation, however, exists and will have an impact on how librarians do their jobs and how people perceive information.

Let's focus on what's truly innovative for internet librarians. And don't forget that what was innovative in the past is now the status quo. Air travel was once innovative. Just think of the Wright brothers. Online databases began the innovation process for research 40 years ago with Dialog, Lexis and Orbit. Even lending libraries were once in the forefront of innovation. They were certainly a concept very different from the medieval idea of books chained in place.

True innovation is necessary for progress. What does innovation look like in libraries today? It could be ebooks, maker spaces, fab labs, information commons, publishing, linked data, even Pokemon Go. Innovations are new, they're novel, but more importantly, they have to be useful.

What about innovations in search? The early days of search relied on exact matches. Search for cat and cat was what you got. Not feline, unless your query was cat or feline. Many of our traditional library subscription databases still require this type of searching. But when it comes to searching on the web, it's much more complex. Web search engines are algorithm driven, context aware, and always learning. Cognitive computing and predictive analytics influence search results. Lab projects at places like Harvard and JSTOR concentrate on the practical. Information professionals need to take a close look at these innovations. Just because a new technology is innovative doesn't necessarily equate to being beneficial or providing new avenues for truly innovative information discovery.

Looking ahead, search is going to get a lot more complex. Virtual and augmented reality will change search drastically. Mobile devices encourage innovations in voice search. Semantic search and knowledge graphs bring new aspects to determining relevancy and presenting search results. And what about delivery mechanisms? Can we look forward to receiving library books by drone?

Innovative tools for librarians require a shift in thinking. Acknowledging the fact that almost everybody defines themselves as expert searchers, what can we do to capitalise on that rather than wringing our hands in despair? How about crowdsourcing projects?

Search and analytics tools for Big Data add new dimensions to what librarians can create—and help library users create. The proliferation of databases, although not what librarians traditionally call databases, screams out for more quality control. Born digital publications, even those which are reputable and of high quality, can escape inclusion in library databases. Uptake of open access publications creates educational opportunities for information literacy. The pervasiveness of the web raises questions about privacy, sponsored content, and bias.

Innovation challenges the status quo. It needn't be expensive or complicated (although it may be both). What breakthrough solutions do we offer people through our libraries? True innovations affecting library services and information delivery are those that internet librarians can put into practice right now.


*ironically, I presume!

Marydee Ojala (Marydee@xmission.com) is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher and co-chair of the Internet Librarian International conference.  She will be speaking about library innovation at Internet Librarian International 2016.