Being an Information Innovator

May 26, 2011

Librarians obsess about silos - stores of bibliographical data that are inhospitable to outside developers, skill sets that are inapplicable beyond the profession, jargon that nobody else understands. Even when these silos are breached, escapees rarely get far. Few librarians move, for example, between the public and academic sectors, or from libraries to other cultural institutions. Crossovers between libraries and technologists have been remarkably unfertile. A profession that finds it difficult to talk to related professions (and, as recent coverage of threatened cuts has shown, needs to draw upon the help of celebrity cheerleaders to sell its message) is going to have difficulty engaging with market forces. The word "innovation" is rarely collocated with the word "library" (in keeping with the rebranding of the past decade, the author also uses the phrase "information organizations", but I have never understood what this means).

Yet as Jennifer Rowley points out, libraries and librarians are not antithetical to innovation and entrepreneurship. In this book's most successful chapter, co-authored with Siwan Mitchelmore, she argues for these concepts as a set of processes and behaviours whose social consequences are fully reconcilable with the aims of the public sector corporations that many libraries are starting to resemble.

The book's strongest sections outline the foundations of the modern literature on innovation and entrepreneurship. As a primer for librarians unfamiliar with these concepts it is excellent. It is at its most interesting when it argues that their assumptions are vital to modern librarianship, and the introduction contends that the challenges and opportunities of the digital age make engagement with such unorthodox thinking opportune.

But Rowley is too gentle on her readers. The structure makes it feel like a workbook when what is needed is a sustained polemic. Politics and economics are rarely mentioned, and despite the introduction's exhortations, the book rarely petitions key contemporary concerns, so it is unlikely to be of interest to non-librarians.

Despite its "review questions" and "group discussion topics", it rarely questions its readers and sometimes baffles them, as when a section begins "Entrepreneurial competencies have been identified as a specific group of competencies relevant to the exercise of successful entrepreneurship." As this carelessly sophistic sentence manifests, the editors sometimes rush over the niceties of grammar and fact.

Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brinn (sic) are wrongly identified as the founders of YouTube. The etymology of the word "entrepreneur" is bogus. Technology has radically transformed information retrieval and provision, but when it is addressed, Rowley is uncomfortable, or perhaps unfamiliar, with its recent trends.

She fails to note the radical innovation of a company like Google, surely the most successful of "information organizations". With the transformation of mobile devices being led by the parvenu trio of Apple, HTC and Research in Motion (maker of the BlackBerry), the choice of failing giant Nokia as an innovation exemplar is idiosyncratic. Two references to Web 2.0 feel contrived, and a brief section on social networking cites only one paper, written in 2000.

Ultimately, the unresolved hesitancy about capitalism and the profit motive, concepts that librarians generally recoil from, cannot be dissolved by prefixing "social" to the vocabulary of business schools.

The book abounds in dichotomies, yet the most obvious one - between market values and social values - is fudged. This is not to say that librarians should not be innovative and creative, and think like entrepreneurs. Today's successful libraries will be successful organisations that already expect these attitudes to be held by their staff.

Being an Information Innovator

By Jennifer Rowley. Facet, 224pp, £44.95. ISBN 9781856046718. Published 15 December 2010.

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