Stanford already thinks like a startup

On Saturday morning, I’ll be part of a panel discussion at ALA discussing Brian Mathews’ white paper “Think like a Startup: A white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism.” (pdf) It’s a very good paper, full of fresh thinking and great ideas and examples about how to encourage innovation in libraries. I decided to jot my pre-discussion notes down here.

My first thought (and I’ve struggled with how to say this without sounding like an arrogant jerk), was “Great ideas .. but we’ve been thinking like a startup here at Stanford for years now.” My second thought was that I’m proud to work at a university described as “the germplasm for innovation”, and in a library described as having been “a juggernaut of innovation over the last 20 years”. So I’ve decided that I can take the panel as an opportunity to share with others what has worked for us at Stanford and what lessons we have learned along the way; and hopefully I won’t sound like an arrogant jerk while doing so.

I think Stanford’s success in producing innovation is a great example of Mathews’ assertion that real innovation requires a “strategic culture instead of a strategic plan”. Mathews rightly emphasizes the role of library administrators in fostering and inspiring an entrepreneurial spirit. I would add to that the fact that the Stanford Libraries have benefitted from a university administration and a general university culture that encourages and supports strategic innovation.

One major factor that supports innovative thinking and action at Stanford is the fact that we have the resources to innovate while also maintaining excellence in core services and resources. For example, although we deployed SearchWorks, our next generation discovery environment based on the open-source platform Blacklight out of UVa, in Fall of 2009; we have continued to maintain our legacy catalog, Socrates. Because we have the resources to maintain both systems, we can add innovative features (like the ability to load non-MARC metadata for digital objects and an image view for example) more quickly in SearchWorks, while not worrying (yet) about making sure that SearchWorks replicates essential functionality in Socrates.

Another lesson we have learned is that innovation has to be context-specific. For example, Stanford isn’t likely to adopt demand-driven acquisition models anytime soon (if ever); not because we aren’t innovative, but because we’re committed to collecting and preserving the scholarly record as broadly and deeply as possible. And 3d Printing isn’t something we are likely to start doing at the library, because Stanford has an innovative Product Realization Lab that has that covered. On the other hand, we’ve been doing visualization services for a while now, in part because we have faculty across many disciplines doing ground-breaking research with visual components.

I like what my boss says in the American Libraries article about why we innovate:

“The big idea isn’t innovation for its own sake, but rather, the question that we ask ourselves everyday is: ‘What opportunities and assets do we have that can make scholarship and learning better?’”

The focus on leveraging our assets is really key. When we make choices about what ideas to pursue, we look for places where we have unique talents and resources to offer. Rather than shifting away from what we have always done well, we build and expand on our traditional strengths in ways that support new research efforts. The Super Enlightenment Project is a great example of an innovative project that tapped curatorial expertise, traditional collections, technical expertise, and faculty interest.

When you have been thinking (and acting) like a start-up for as long as we have, you also have to find ways to sustain those innovations that continue to support research and teaching. One key aspect to that is making sure that our efforts are integrated, coordinated, and complementary. We are a big complex organization, with innovations happening in all corners, so making sure we build on each others’ successes rather than reinventing wheels is important. Making sure that we innovate openly helps, and our Library Concierge Project is definitely designed to promote collaborative innovation across the organization.

Hope to see y’all at the Think like a startup panel.

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