Just a few thoughts on sustainability …

In order for libraries to be sustainable, we need to abandon the notion of sustainability.

As I’m sitting here at DCA (& waiting on my flight home) this is the one prevailing thought that I seem to be leaving from the CIL conference with. It’s not that I heard this theme echoed throughout the conference – to the contrary, the theme of change & engagement was much more prevalent -- but rather this was the theme that seemed to be an under tone of many of the conservations I had with participants and colleagues.

The idea that libraries need to abandon this notion of sustainability was made clear to me by one astute and very inquisitive dutch librarian who attended the pre-conference (and follow-up talk) that Michael Porter and I gave. “I think I understand what you’re saying, but how can it be sustained?” she asked in many different ways to me through out the conference, and she wasn’t the only one.

There were others who attended our talk on the use of 2.0 tools in marketing who asked ‘sustainability questions’ too, but just in different ways. “How do you convince management that 2.0 is the right direction that we need to going in the long run?” “Is it wise to promote the use of Flickr in libraries for long term image storage? What happens if Flickr disappears?” “How do get staff to keep up library blogs when no one is commenting?” The answer is simply “You don’t.” Stop focusing on the long-term issues and solutions. Change your thinking and shift the emphasis to trying things out as short-term ideas that have no longevity.

The notion that every idea we plan to test out must be designed for long-term commitment, so that we can sustain it for-eveeeeeeeer, easily paralyzes and keeps us from moving forward. How about replacing our thinking with piloting ideas as simply short campaigns?

Campaigns are ideal because they typically have start and stop dates, measurable outcomes and most importantly the effort is do them is concentrated into a short time frames. With this approach it’s not only easier to test out the use of web 2.0 technologies, it’s also easier to keep test out relevance because campaigns are naturally timely to address the here-and-the-now. So what do campaigns look like? And how do they test the use of social technologies in libraries. Well, here’s a short list of a few that demonstrate this in action:

With each of these small campaigns a new community engagement idea was successfully tested. Whether it attracted and only a handful of customers or engaged an entire community, the short duration of the campaign allowed each library to just test out the viability and functionality of the idea. And in that alone, it was a success!

Yes, in my mind sustainability is really a notion that we just need to abandon. For it keeps us from piloting and building upon smaller campaigns and successes that ensure that libraries remain current, fresh and culturally relevant to our communities.

PS: Thanks M for asking the question so well and so directly. You've really got me thinking. :)


Anonymous said...

Sustainability starts with "you" not the tech.

Anonymous said...

The library is a launching pad for lots of things that aren't sustainable. If I want to "try out" a book before recommending it to a reading group, or "try out" a magazine before subscribing, the library is where I go.

T Scott said...

Exactly right. A couple of decades ago I learned from my mentors to treat everything we do as a pilot project. Try it out, see how it goes for a couple of months, evaluate, modify, extend, abandon as seems appropriate.

Anonymous said...

And yet...
The inherent flexibility demanded by treating things as tests or pilot programs seems to run counter to the nature of some staff and a lot of customers. Does it make us look flighty and unfocused and uncertain of our mission? Can we give ourselves permission to treat non-sustainability as healthy and not failure?

We recently re-designed our homepage to allow comment on the dynamic content (typically announcements of programs and services and a monthly survey.) We have little to no commenting taking place. Is this an experiment that "failed"? How do we know that we've given the pilot program enough time to earn a following? Are we running too far ahead of our community?

Personally, I think the seven deadliest words in any language are: "But we've always done it this way." So please view my questions as ruminations and not Ludditism!

Cat Herself said...

When I use the word "sustainability" I'm talking, usually, about bricks and mortar. I don't see why we EVER need to "sustain" a program or community-building idea. Life is changing too fast for things like blogs or online picture accounts or even knitting programs to last forever. Heck, even Summer Reading club is different every year, right? There's just no point in trying to do the same program over and over and over again.

Michael said...

I would lean toward making conscious decisions on which efforts we want to be sustainable and which we do not. As a person that is relatively new to the library world, I have looked from the outside at the library as one of THE main places of sustainability. The examples in the post seem to be examples of where a choice was made to create something that would be relatively short-lived. This was appropriate for these efforts, but that is not always the case. The project can dictate the choice.
My caveat would be that once you choose to not retain a record, or data, or some kind of permanence, you can't go back and re-create it. It is gone forever. That's good for snowmen, it's not good for everything.
Finally, something inside me associates sustainability and permanence with quality and value. Although it is probably not fair, I associate the temporary with less importance and lesser value. Perhaps this is part of the reason I/we resist creating things we know will not last.