Connecting Communities. Creating Knowledge.

This blog post comes from Kathryn Harnish, Innovative SVP of Product Strategy.

Throughout my decades-long career as a librarian and software product manager, I’ve thought a lot about the evolution of the library industry – its rich tradition of service and, frankly, the ways in which we’re currently struggling to continue that legacy. Much of our history, from the Library of Alexandria on, focuses on collecting: the work of gathering often-scarce resources and providing access to and services around the knowledge contained therein. In this regard, librarians have long been the tour guides of knowledge, the information experts that accompany scholars on their intellectual journeys.

In the 1960s, the advent of machine-readable cataloging ushered in a new era – one marked by the introduction of library management systems. While these systems inarguably provided new efficiencies for library staff and improved service for our users, I would assert that the “rise” of automation ultimately disintermediated librarians from their traditional role in the knowledge economy. We shifted from the work of knowledge enablement to inventory, record, and system management, and we continue, to this day, to try to wring more efficiency from these processes.

Don’t get me wrong: responsible stewardship of our collections is essential. But the investment we’re making, particularly in so-called next generation systems and the personnel required to maintain them, far outweighs any potential return from our ILSes. Even more importantly, it keeps us from delivering on the unique value proposition of the library and librarian as knowledge enablers. In short, we need to imagine a world in which technology truly transforms the way we serve our communities and drive engagement and impact, rather than retreading ILS systems in a Sisyphean effort to deliver meaningful incremental value from internally-focused inventory management processes.

I believe that, as a library technology company, Innovative can — and must — do more for libraries and, by extension, for the communities you serve. And it’s the vision and commitment of this organization to doing more, to thinking beyond inventories and bringing technology to bear on the changing needs of libraries that brought me here last October. In Innovative, I saw a company as passionate as I am about collaborating with the library community and working with you as a partner to re-envision the business of libraries. Together, I know that we can ensure that this profession remains not just relevant, but a vital contributor to the knowledge economy.

But exactly what is that “more”? It’s about not just putting books on the shelf, but putting knowledge in context. Libraries today need solutions that position resources in their intellectual settings and establish the terms in which they can be fully understood. By associating concepts, places, events, people, and more with a resource, we broaden its context, linking it into a network that refines, extends, and enhances our understanding of it. It’s an approach we at Innovative call “context management.”

Traditionally, we’ve helped our patrons understand context through engagements at the reference desk, but in an Internet world, we can no longer rely on that interpersonal interaction. Instead, we need to put the knowledge of the librarian, the special context-building and sense-making skills that we alone can offer, directly into a true next-generation discovery experience. With context-based systems, we can create the equivalent of a virtual librarian sitting at a patron’s side, helping to guide the intellectual journeys of our learners and researchers.

Sound like a pipedream? Actually, the library profession has been laying the groundwork for these kinds of solutions for a long time. We just need to leverage the rich “knowledge connections” that exist in the metadata we’ve spent decades curating and to extend the relationships that require human knowledge to assert. We need to bring the sense-making and knowledge-enabling skills of the librarian to our systems; we need to embed the librarian in the machine, in the discovery experience, in the Web…wherever our users begin their exploration.

Right now, the Innovative product strategy team is working diligently to evolve that new reality with applications that will converge with your existing Innovative solutions. Our forthcoming context-based discovery solution will deliver a compelling patron experience that truly supports information-seeking and knowledge-acquisition processes – it won’t just find resources “on the shelf”, but will actually help users learn and grow as they explore the knowledge in their area of inquiry.

I understand that it’s hard stepping away from what we know, what we’re comfortable with. It’s hard taking a risk on a new strategy. But the existential pressures on our profession are simply too significant to continue the way we are —working on inventory rather than knowledge-oriented activities; internally-focused processing tasks rather than externally-focused service provision; investment of limited resources in cost centers rather than value centers. Quite simply, we need technology solutions to enable libraries in new and different ways.

I’m excited for solutions that will provide the opportunity to return to the essentials of librarianship, those ideals that stoked our passion in the first place. If we embrace our role as knowledge experts; and harness the imagination and talent of this profession to explore new strategies that truly enable libraries, we can redefine how we serve our communities as a result. Curious how to get there? Just ask me – I’m a librarian, I can help.