Interview with Steven Bell, Part II -Driving Innovation and Change in Academic Libraries

I was pleased to catch up with Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University and the Association of College and Research Libraries vice-president/president-elect.  Steven is an expert on academic librarianship, learning technologies, design thinking, user experience and library management.  Steven blogs at Kept-Up Academic LibrarianACRLog, and Designing Better Libraries, a blog about design thinking and library user experiences. His column “From the Bell Tower” appears weekly in Library Journal’s Academic Newswire.
In the second segment, Steven shares insights on the training, skills, and spirit needed to drive innovation and manage change in academic libraries.

Mike: You have often highlighted the need for today’s academic librarians to develop an even greater capacity for innovation and user-centered design thinking.  How do you recommend that librarians expand their horizons in this area?

Steven:  In the area of innovation and design thinking, librarians need to follow developments within the profession but it is also critical to look for user experience insight from completely different organizations such as retailers, newspapers, airlines and other service organizations. Why are other airlines struggling while Southwest Airlines continues to innovate and achieve profits? Southwest has an innovation culture in which employees at all levels are empowered to be creative in the workplace and contribute their ideas for improvements. Studying the principles of design and understanding how to implement the design approach provide strategies for promoting an innovation culture. Even something as simple as an “idea project” can help a library organization expand its capacity for innovation.

In all types of organizations, work teams need to be led with a delicate balance of control and innovative spirit that empowers employees to harness their creativity in a way that enhances the customer or user experience.  This has important implications for how employees are managed and what you need to do in terms of training and development of work teams.  For some additional insight on how a vast array of organizations are tackling this challenge, I would recommend Joseph Michelli’s books When Fish Fly: Lessons For Creating a Vital and Energized Workplace From the World Famous Pike Place Fish Market and The New Gold Standard.   The first book talks about the great strides made not just at the Pike Place Market but also at Starbucks and the UCLA Medical Center.  The second talks about Ritz Carlton Hotel and their extensive system of staff development.  It is also important not just to think about what your organization does but also why it does what it does – what is its purpose, its beliefs, and its reason for existing. Simon Sinek has written extensively about how this distinction plays a critical role in optimizing the experience of customers/users.

Mike: In what ways do you expect that academic libraries will look different over the next 5-10 years?

Steven:  Five years ago, John Shank and I had just co-developed the concept of Blended Librarianship, along with the launch of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community.  We identified a critical library education gap and advocated for academic librarians to add more instructional design and technology skills to their existing library science skillset. Now it is much more commonplace to find academic libraries advertising for instructional design librarians or information literacy librarians who are expected to understand the latest instructional technologies and how to apply them for effective pedagogy.  Looking ahead, I can see more job descriptions for user experience librarians and an expectation that new academic librarians will be skilled in design approaches and employing user studies for designing better library services. While I don’t know with great specificity how academic libraries will look in 5-10 years, I do believe that new academic librarians with these new skillsets will lead to libraries that are far more focused on our user communities and building relationships with them than what we accomplish in our academic libraries today.

It is important that we appreciate the wide variety of skillsets that could be needed for the future academic library work force.  It is expected that the MLS will continue to be an important part of the academic library skillset, but it is also necessary to consider how profound changes on the academic library landscape could result in the need for stronger technology, business, communications, and human resources expertise.

The definition of the library will also continue to change. Librarians will continue to struggle in determining the optimal print to digital mix to serve their mission. On many campuses, aging facilities will also mean that libraries will need to re-evaluate their objectives and priorities for maximizing library space.

All of this will be shaped by the value of academic library conversations that are happening.  Why do we need to have academic libraries and librarians and what specific contributions are they making right now? What contributions do we need them to make in the future? The entire academic library profession has to engage itself in answering these difficult questions. We must be able to articulate to our superiors and constituents – in words and actions – that we provide added value to their professional lives that enables them to achieve success. Based on that proposition, while I don’t expect our facilities and collections to change dramatically, I hope we will focus more on the relationships we build and the staff who develop these connections and perhaps less on conventional library content as the primary purpose for our existence.

Mike: How can current library leaders best help their teams in navigating these changes?

Steven: It is important to underscore that leaders in the academic library context are not just library directors or senior management, but my definition includes anyone who wants to begin to influence the libraries’ direction in some small way. We need people who will step forward and take risks to help their libraries develop better experiences for the user community members. The best ideas do not always come from the top, and the best library leaders will seek to empower their staff to contribute not only to the navigation of change, but to the identification of purposeful changeitself.

In addition to keeping pace with developments in libraries and other relevant fields, I would recommend learning about change management.  A good book to read to start to think about this is called Switch.

Inspiration and diversity of views are critical tools for effective leadership so I also recommend viewing TED Talks, which draw from key experts who are dynamic speakers and thought leaders in lots of fields

Self knowledge and reflection are also important.  Being a pioneer with new technologies or processes can involve enormous risks but also big potential rewards. As innovations become tested and mature, you can benefit from the insight of those who came before you.  There is no right or wrong in these types of decisions, only what works for you and for your institution.

Mike: As you look at the rapid pace of change for academic libraries, how does that inform your objectives as vice president/president-elect for the Association of College and Research Libraries?

Steven:  While I was at ALA, I was particularly amused with a cartoon that I saw in Cognotes.  One librarian who has just attended a session exits and the caption says “We are doomed!” A second academic librarian emerges from a session and the caption says “I’m still relevant!”  It is hard to predict how the myriad changes that are occurring today will impact academic libraries. The most important thing for us to figure out is how to increase the odds that academic libraries can continue to stay highly relevant and important in the future. As I’ve said before there is only a crisis in academic librarianship if we allow it.

ACRL has a very clear and focused Plan for Excellence which is only two pages long.  There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish but I expect that the expectations for  my new role will be to support teaching and learning, scholarly communications, and the Value of Academic Libraries Initiative – those are the three goals of the Plan for Excellence.   Since there was vigorous interest in ACRL’s initial Value of Academic Libraries report and the associated tools and podcasts, we are looking at how we can continue to build on this research.  It is critical that academic libraries have tools to surface where they are adding real value and to be more effective in sharing this information with people.

I am also continuing to reach out to as many ACRL members as possible to better understand their goals and expectations.   As a new executive officer, I am focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the structure of the organization and its committees, how it functions, and the impacts of its programs. Getting to know ACRL really well is critical so that I can help to create an even better and more sustainable organization that anticipates and serves the future needs of academic libraries. What’s good for our academic libraries is also good for our association.



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