Lazy Consensus and Libraries

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user enggul

Librarians, as a rule, don’t tolerate anarchy well. They like things to be organized and to follow processes. But when it comes to emerging technologies, too much reliance on planning and committees can stifle creativity and delay adoption. The open source software community can offer librarians models for how to make progress on big projects with minimal oversight.

“Lazy consensus” is one such model from which librarians can learn a lot. At the Code4Lib conference in February 2012, Bethany Nowviskie of the University of Virginia Scholar’s Lab encouraged library development teams to embrace this concept in order to create more innovative libraries. (I encourage you to watch a video or read the text of her keynote.) This goes for all sizes and types of academic libraries, whether they have a development staff or just staff with enthusiasm for learning about emerging technologies.

What is lazy consensus?

According to the Apache software foundation:

Lazy Consensus means that when you are convinced that you know what the community would like to see happen you can simply assume that you already have consensus and get on with the work. You don’t have to insist people discuss and/or approve your plan, and you certainly don’t need to call a vote to get approval. You just assume you have the community’s support unless someone says otherwise.
(quote from http://incubator.apache.org/odftoolkit/docs/governance/lazyConsensus.html)

Nowviskie suggests lazy consensus as a way to cope with an institutional culture where “no” is too often the default answer, since in lazy consensus the default answer is “yes.” If someone doesn’t agree with a proposal, he or she must present and defend an alternative within a reasonable amount of time (usually 72 hours). This ensures that the people who really care about a project have a chance to speak up and make sure the project is going in the right direction. By changing the default answer to YES, we make it easier to move forward on the things we really care about.

When you care about delivering the best possible experience and set of services for your library patrons, you should advocate for ways to make that happen and spend your time thinking about how to make that happen. Nowviskie points out the kinds of environments in which this is likely to thrive. Developers and technologists need time for research and development, “20% time” projects, and freedom to explore new possibilities. Even at small libraries without any development staff, librarians need time to research and understand issues of technology in libraries to make better decisions about the adoption of emerging technologies.

Implementing lazy consensus

Implementing lazy consensus in your library must be done with care. First and foremost, you must be aware of the culture you are in and be respectful of it even as you see room for change and improvement. Coming in the first day at a new job is not the moment to implement this process across the board, but in your own work or your department’s work you can set an example and a precedent. Nowviskie provides a few guidelines for healthy lazy consensus. Emphasize working hard and with integrity while being open and friendly. Keep everyone informed about what you are working on, and keep your mission in mind as the centerpiece of your work. In libraries, this means you must keep public services involved in any project from the earliest possible stages, and always maintain a commitment to maintaining the best possible user experience. When you or your team reliably deliver good results you will show the value in the process.

While default negativity can certainly stifle creativity, default positivity for all ideas can be equally stifling. Jonah Lehrer wrote in a recent New Yorker article article that the evidence shows that traditional brainstorming, where all ideas are presented to a group without criticism, doesn’t work. Creating better ideas requires critiquing wrong assumptions, which in turn helps us examine our own assumptions. In adopting lazy consensus, make sure there is authentic room for debate. Responding to a disagreement about a course of action with reasoned critique and alternate paths is more likely to result in creative ideas, and brings the discussion forward rather than ending it with a “no.”

Librarians know a lot about information and people. The open source software community knows a lot about how to run flexible and transparent organizations. Combining the two can create wonderful experiences for our users.


2 Comments on “Lazy Consensus and Libraries”

  1. […] excited to be blogging for ACRL Tech Connect. I just had my first post published– “Lazy Consensus and Libraries“, which was inspired by Bethany Nowviskie’s closing keynote at […]

  2. […] of innovation and creativity? In a post at ACRL Tech Connect, there is a very good post on “Libraries and Lazy Consensus,” which looks to be an excellent way to facilitate innovation and creativity in libraries, […]