Creativity Killed the Library Star

I listened to Dr. David Lankes’ “Killing Librarianship” keynote last week and I keep thinking about one particular aspect of the presentation. Namely, that slide early on saying that what is killing the profession is not Google, eBooks, or Amazon, but a lack of imagination. I agree with this statement but the thing that hitches in my mind is this question:

Is imagination an attribute that the profession values?

It’s a question that has stymied me because I’ve gone back and forth on an answer. The nearest thing to an answer I can come up with is “Yes, but so long as it doesn’t interfere with workflow”. We have many creative individuals in the profession, but recruitment (whether into the profession or a position) on the basis of that attribute is rare to the point of being virtually nonexistent. I don’t believe our graduate programs encourage or nurture such a quality nor is it something that is sought to be rewarded within our associations. As it related to the current prominent figures of our profession, I don’t see the terms “imagination” or “creativity” springing forth as an attribute related to their prominence. (Let me rebut arguments for specific people right here: they represent a minority of that overall group.) I would say that our professional literature isn’t completely bereft of imagination but that it is heavily niched into the arenas of design and technology. Even then, the overarching emphasis is placed on the ease of use, the time saved, and/or the plug-n-play nature of the device, website, tool, or service. Yes, librarians place a value on imagination but with some potentially fatal caveats.

In essence, creativity and its output is treated in a way akin to how a small child regards pet ownership; we just want the kitten, but not all the work that goes into feeding, caring for, and cleaning up after the animal. We aren’t interested in the process; we just want the final product and without the potential burden of the fuss and mess. I don’t know if that is a product of laziness, ignorance, or apathy, but I think it is an condition that is without question fatal to the profession if it continues to persist. It operates under the irrational notion of guaranteed success without margins or methods for coping with failure. This is not an environment that creates innovation, but squashes it in all but the most insulated and/or isolated cases.

While there are those who utilize imagination and creativity as its own reward (and I would consider myself in that camp), there is no other reward, bonus, or boon offered to encourage imagination as a desirable professional trait. I will be honest and say that I don’t have a remedy to this particular issue; frankly, it might just be a condition of the professional culture that will take generations of librarianships to alter. Even then, it will be a vastly different information landscape that the profession will be facing; this change is not simply over the next twenty years, but the next five. If librarianship does value imagination, it has a long ways to go to encourage, nurture, and otherwise support it.

What do you think? Is imagination a value of the profession?

25 thoughts on “Creativity Killed the Library Star

  1. Imagination is an essential component of creative reference in my view. Taking things from books, databases, indexes, and what not, and helping folks to put them all together in a new way to answer questions, direct people in new ways or offer new options is an act of imagination. Not all questions fall into this category, of course.

    Dave Combe
    Ventura County Library. CA

  2. Seth Godin’s blog post today was called “The new frontier”, his premise being what’s wrong with the old frontier? He said this, “It’s the old frontier that actually presents the most interesting opportunities, because the shine has worn off. This is your platform for real innovation, innovation in a place or a market or a situation that truly is ready for it.”

    He wasn’t talking about libraries, but he could have been. We are the old frontier and our shine has definitely worn off. And as you point out, it will take imagination and innovation to give us new luster, which I definitely think is possible. While I understand what Dave is saying (and I agree that creative reference takes imagination), I believe the kind of imagination that is needed is the kind that turns the traditional library on its head, in some ways at least. And, no, right now I don’t believe that kind of imagination is valued in the profession.

    I think you hit the nail on the head–workflow is valued above all else. And it’s hard to be creative or imaginative when you’re just concerned with a smooth operation and work product. But I believe more and more people joining the profession, or even those who have been around for a while, are beginning to see that this kind of revisioning is necessary to our survival. I just wish I could envision what that revision should be.

  3. I’d go perhaps beyond imagination to inspiration, Andy. Creativity results from inspiration, but you’ve got to feel the motivation or need to do something with what has inspired you.

    Too often, I see long-standing staff standing around waiting for something to happen in front of them, instead of going to the nooks and crannies of the libraries (or even just the Nooks) to find something happening. Or people who don’t bother anymore, because they can get by just fine with much less effort. Read that oldie but goodie on negative closure to find out just how we avoid even answering a question.

    My students in library school are tremendously excited about all the things they will do once they graduate and get real jobs. I worry about the crossover point when the excitement is no longer worth the effort.

    • The crossover point is when they actually get into the workplace. I came into my job with a ton of awesome ideas – I was going to do tutorials, and online outreach, and digital displays! Well, the reality is that I have to get approval for things, and they have to match our image, and that digital display that was going to be awesome? It requires approval from several people and the creation of a template and font choices and colors and you can’t use that one thing because…

      Creativity is a challenging thing to maintain when you have a very specific role to fill within a bureaucracy and any new initiative requires a committee and approval from 4 different offices. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, but it does mean that you need to pick and choose what matters most to you.

      • Beth, I’d argue that those kinds of restrictions are common to any business. They certainly were at my three previous careers. But it’s scary that the same people managing all these restrictions (we have to show we’re spending public dollars wisely) are the same ones telling us we need to be more creative in the way we do our jobs. And because we’re spending wisely by understaffing, we don’t have time for the tutorials and outreach because we’re too busy policing drunks and screaming children, which makes people wonder why they hire people with advanced degrees since they’re basically babysitters anyway. Not that we’re paid much better than baby sitters. OK, now *I’m* depressed!

  4. I think we sometimes default to letting others handle our problems for us–let’s just wait for the vendor to create an appealing OPAC. While conferences highlight some innovations, they haven’t (in my experience) discussed the structure that fosters creativity that leads to the innovation. So, while we may attract highly innovative and entrepreneurial individuals to the profession, we may quickly disappoint and frustrate them if we haven’t as organizations and a profession given the proper resources (as you point out) to foster creativity. “Survival is not enough” — Seth Godin

  5. Imagination is and should be valued; but, in agreeing with you, I think it often takes a back seat to workflow or just getting the work done. Many libraries are doing more with less; so, the idea of having time for imagination and trying new things or god forbid, just thinking about things, seems like a luxury. But, it is actually a good survival skill. I’ve heard Google let’s their employees spend 20% of their time on their own projects. Hmmm. What could be create with that 20%?

    Some of our innovations and some of the projects that keep us relevant and healthy are from the imaginations of our rank and file. Blyberg’s SOPAC comes to mind and what about the Anythink people out in Colorado.

    I agree with Bryan that sometimes we do sit around doing our daily tasks and think “let’s wait for the vendor to create” fill in the blank. But, I also think Digital Library of America and the Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive are good examples of librarians being imaginative.

    Maybe we need some bold library directors to assign us our own 20%.

  6. Imagination/creativity/inspiration/etc. all seem to be in the class of traits that are given lip service as being desirable, but are never actually supported. I think this also kind of goes along with the “wait your turn” and “don’t rock the boat” and “well, maybe it’s not the best but it’s familiar and comfortable and validates my existence” and “eat our young” sort of mentalities that (in my experience at least) proliferate in the profession.

    And it kills me daily, because imagination/creativity and workflow are not mutually exclusive, thinking creatively about daily issues does not mean some large scale annihilation of all that has been, and it doesn’t have to be antagonistic… I really believe that if we collectively, as a profession, let go of fear, we could do some truly awesome things.

    MPOW’s Plan of Service is up for renewal, to initiate that process we are having a focus group session facilitated by a professor in the SUNY Buffalo State College Center for Studies in Creativity ( I am really eager/trepidatious/hopeful/impatient to see how it plays out.

  7. I think alot of creativity and imagination comes from line staff willing to try and do. I’m in children’s library work and there seems to be lots bubbling up all the time – not content-wise (oh, here’s a new horse book for storytime) within programs but some gut-busting BHAGs that take us way outside the box of traditional programs, services, collections and content. And it is coming from all ages/career points right now in that part of the field. In children’s work, the networking around imaginative and creative solutions and concepts is pretty good

    Of course there are turds in the road – clueless management; entrenched staffers afraid of change; municipal funders willing to cut rather than support innovation and service. I don’t get discouraged though. Maybe its the optimist in me. Great creativity and imagination helps serve the patron better and make the workplace more responsive and fun. But I think it is really stealth and doesn’t get the press or exposure that design and tech get in our library world.

  8. Yes. I am in agreement with this post. Imagination, creativity and innovation are not words that are celebrated in many library systems, especially the one where I currently work. I am a recent MLIS grad and some many of my professors didn’t try to foster creativity either. We really should be recruiting really innovative and creative people who are in undergrad programs. Maybe by changing the negative stigma that librarians seem to have, different types of people will join the profession.

  9. I never thought of myself as creative until my professors and internship supervisors commented that I was; ideas and creativity are valued in my library school program, the University of Maryland’s iSchool. At the iSchool I couldn’t tell you how many times I have said, “I have an idea!” It is also true that the library of today is not the library of 5 years ago – in the era of “doing more with less” innovations may be born out of necessity, but they should not stop there. When faced with management decisions, I would want to nurture creativity, flexibility and resourcefulness in my staff and would choose to remove rather than add obstacles to their path by rigid adherence to bureaucracy or workflow considerations, which can be very demoralizing over time. Bryan is right. Once librarians and employers in general establish a culture that fosters creativity in the workplace, our best and brightest will become interested in and remain in the profession. I have an idea about how to encourage that… I have never seen creativity in a job description, but generally agree that resourcefulness is a value in our profession.

  10. I think it’s valued in our workplaces more than it is in our literature and exchanges through blogs/presentations/etc. I don’t think there’s much coming out of left field, and I feel like there’s ongoing entrenchment through LIS programs that pushes us further from our roots as librarians everyday. It isn’t until you get out of school that you can start to really be creative.

  11. I think children’s librarians are an especially imaginative and creative bunch, but that this is so IN SPITE of the training. We knew we just had to get the credential so we could go out there and share the beauty of story with our customers. And public library service offers much more opportunity for creativity than school librarianship. The people with that credential don’t even know what to call themselves (I was/am one of them) and are willing to do anything to keep their jobs, including taking on the worst drudgery the English Dept doesn’t want, because they aren’t trained to value stories or the serendipitous individual search for information.

  12. Pingback: Creativity Killed the Library Star? « Y's Guide to resources for School Librarians

  13. I’ve been reading these responses with interest and thinking about this because I believe the topic is so crucial. And I realized that my blog is one example of creativity not being valued in the workplace. I would not be encouraged to write my blog on work time even though I think getting my message out there is vitally important to raising the profile of libraries and informing the non-librarians who read my blog about the issues we face. We have an official, system office blog that is news only and not written by me Of course it is well done and worthwhile, but it is a venue for reporting facts only without any real thought to doing that creatively. I guess I wouldn’t really want my blog to be the official blog because then I would have to stop writing about the non-library issues that I also love to write about. But my point is that if I used any work time to write a post, even if it was library-related, my efforts would probably be viewed as wasting time that could be put to better use churning out cataloged items. And I’m not so certain that one is always more important than the other.

    • By the way–my comment is in no way meant to be a negative reflection on the person who writes our official system blog. She is a very creative person! It’s just that the blog is intended to be more of a newsroom, not a forum for creative writing or personal views on libraries or library issues.

  14. Love this! Yes, librarians really have to break out of their mould–not only within the profession, but in the minds (and hearts) of our clients.

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  18. Another aspect of innovation and creativity in libraries lies in developing an organizational climate that is futile to nurture and facilitate these seeds to grow and flourish and grow or wilt and die (in which case much is learned). Up to now I believe this has been expected of the “leadership”. Now we are seeing some changes come about within clusters of the organization so there us hope.

    Langes talks about the “responsibility of everyone” and I believe the culture of the organization is also the “responsibility of everyone”. This is an aspect of libraries that is not often talked about (except the negative views expressed above). Making it OK for library members to develop and voice their ideas in the organization is a must for survival. Appointed leaders can no longer do a satisfactory job. It must be a leader in every chair!

  19. Pingback: Creativity Killed the Library Star « Agnostic, Maybe | The Self Efficacy of Librarians: becoming "future confident" |

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