The Start-Up Library

“Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, “Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you “could”? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens.” – David Foster Wallace*

What if a library operated more like an Internet start-up and less like a library?

To be a library in the digital era is to steward legacy systems and practices of an era long past. Contemporary librarianship is at its worst when it accepts the poorly crafted vended services and offers poorly thought through service models, simply because this is the way we have always operated.

Internet start-ups, in the decade of 2010, heavily feature software as a service. The online presence to the Internet start-up is of foundational concern since it isn’t simply a “presence” to the start-up — the online environment is the only environment for the Internet start-up.

Search services would act and look contemporary

If we were an Internet start-up, we wouldn’t use instructional services as a crutch that would somehow correct poor design in our catalogs or other discovery layers. We wouldn’t accept the poorly designed vendor databases we currently accept. We would ask for interfaces that act and look contemporary, and if vendors did not deliver, we would make our own. And we would do this in 30-day time-lines, not six months and not years to roll out, as is the current lamentable state of library software services.

Students in the current era will look at a traditional library catalog search box and say: “that looks very 90s” – we shouldn’t be amused by that comment, unless of course we are trying to look 20 years out of date.

We would embrace perpetual beta.

If the library thought of its software services more like Internet start-ups, we would not be so cautious — we would perpetually improve and innovate in our software offerings. Think of the technology giants Google and Apple, they are never content to rest on laurels, everyday they get up and they invent like their lives depended on it. Do we?

We wouldn’t settle.

For years we’ve accepted legacy ILS systems – we need to move away from accepting the status quo, the way things have always been done, and the way we always work is not the way we should always work — if the information environments have changed, shouldn’t this be reflected in the library’s software services?

We would be bold.

We need to look at massive re-wiring in the way we think about software as a service in libraries; we are smarter and better than mediocrity.

The notion of software services in libraries may be dramatically improved if we thought of our gateways and virtual experiences more like Internet start-ups conceptualize their do or die services; which are seemingly made more effective and efficient every thirty to sixty days.

If Internet start-ups ran their web services the way libraries contently run legacy systems, the company would surely fold, or more likely, never have attracted seed funding to start operating as a start-up. Let’s do our profession a favor and turn the lights out on the library way of running libraries. Let’s run our library as if it were an Internet start-up.


* also: “… this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this “as if.” But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.” – David Foster Wallace

2 thoughts on “The Start-Up Library”

  1. As a librarian who is working for a startup…

    I love it. It’s crazy. It’s not for everyone. I thought I knew what the startup thing meant just because my husband has worked for a few, and I didn’t because I was in it; not really.

    Being a startup means every threat is existential — how often is that true in libraries? And it means embracing that as a good thing — how often is that true?

    It means radical responsibility invested in every single employee. No seniority, no dues-paying. Every decision is a bet-the-company decision, and you won’t even know for a year which ones were desperately wrong or unexpectedly right, and every single employee gets to make them.

    It means, as you say, radical and rapid innovation — but it also means absolutely relying on broken services. Because you can’t fix everything all at once, because the service in your head is far better than anything you can implement with the time and people and runway you’ve got, so you make those bet-the-company decisions on which corners you can cut, which things you can fail to implement, which things you can hold together with duct tape and prayers, and where you build something new and overnight.

    I think more libraries should be like startups. Yes. I’d love to work for one. But I think the cultural gap between libraries and startups is vast, and I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about what service models would emerge from libraries were startup culture widespread in them; that world is on the other side of an event horizon.

  2. The Wallace bookends are actually my way of articulating both how and why this actually *is pretty close to being possible*

    +see for example a rapid prototyping project we ran in the library:

    +three months to design, build, and study a new library service. completely grant funded.

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