The Long Run

Enthusiasm about new technologies is essential to innovation. There needs to be some fire in the belly of change agents or nothing ever changes. Moreover, the new is always more interesting than the old, which creaks with familiarity. Consequently, when an exciting new idea seizes the imagination of innovators and, later, early adopters (using Rogers’ diffusion of innovations jargon), it is only to be expected that the initial rush of enthusiasm can sometimes dim the cold eye of critical analysis.

Let’s pick on Library 2.0 to illustrate the point, and, in particular, librarian-contributed content instead of user-contributed content. It’s an idea that I find quite appealing, but let’s set that aside for the moment.

Overcoming the technical challenges involved, academic library X sets up on-demand blogs and wikis for staff as both outreach and internal communication tools. There is an initial frenzy of activity, and a number of blogs and wikis are established. Subject specialists start blogging. Perhaps the pace is reasonable for most to begin with, although some fall by the wayside quickly, but over time, with a few exceptions, the postings become more erratic and the time between postings increases. It is unclear whether target faculty read the blogs in any great numbers. Internal blogs follow a similar pattern. Some wikis, both internal and external, are quickly populated, but then become frozen by inactivity; others remain blank; others flourish because they serve a vital need.

Is this a story of success, failure, or the grey zone in between?

The point is this. Successful publishing in new media such as blogs and wikis requires that these tools serve a real purpose and that their contributors make a consistent, steady, and never-ending effort. It also requires that the intended audience understand and regularly use the tools and that, until these new communication channels are well-established, the library vigorously promote them because there is a real danger that, if you build it, they will not come.

Some staff will blog their hearts out irregardless of external reinforcement, but many will need to have their work acknowledged in some meaningful way, such as at evaluation, promotion, and tenure decision points. Easily understandable feedback about tool use, such as good blog-specific or wiki-specific log analysis, is important as well to give writers the sense that they are being read and to help them tailor their message to their audience.

On the user side, it does little good to say "Here’s my RSS feed" to a faculty member who doesn’t know what RSS is and could care less. Of course, some will be hip to RSS, but that may not be the majority. If the library wants RSS feeds to become part of a faculty member’s daily workflow, it is going to have to give that faculty member a good reason for it to be so, such as significant, identified RSS feed content in the faculty member’s field. Then, it is going to have to help the faculty member with the RSS transition by pointing out good RSS readers, providing tactful instruction, and offering ongoing assistance.

In spite of the feel-good glow of early success, it may be prudent not to declare victory too soon after making the leap into a major new technology. It’s a real accomplishment, but dealing with technical puzzles is often not the hardest part. The world of computers and code is a relatively ordered and predictable one; the world of humans is far more complex and unpredictable.

The real test of a new technology is in the long run: Is the innovation needed, viable, and sustainable? Major new technologies often require significant ongoing organizational commitments and a willingness to measure success and failure with objectivity and to take corrective action as required. For participative technologies such as Library 2.0 and institutional repositories, it requires motivating users as well as staff to make behavioral changes that persist long after the excitement of the new wears off.

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