Thursday, April 23, 2009

Libraries Need to Think More Like Trent Reznor

I seem to be reading a lot about Trent Reznor as of late. I have been forwarded the "Nine Inch Nails iPhone App Extends Reznor's Innovative Run" article in Wired and a Twitter update from a librarian colleague/former student referenced Digg Dizlog: Trent Reznor.

For those saying "Trent Who?," Reznor is a musician/noisemaker for the group Nine Inch Nails (NIN). He has been gaining accolades for his efforts to make music affordable for the consumer while helping artists earn a living. He has done this by rejecting the major-label system and instead distributing music directly to the public via the Web. Many feel that Trent Renzor represents the future of the music industry.

The Reznor piece that caught my attention was a (15 min) YouTube video of a presentation given by Michael Masnick, the founder of Techdirt. Masnick has distilled Reznor's business model down into a simple equation: CwF + RtB = $$$$.

The "CwF" in the equation stands for Connect with Fans. Using various approaches, like dropping USB keys containing new music in the bathrooms at NIN concerts, Reznor has been able to engage, energize, and get fans excited. He continuously experiments and does new stuff to connect with his fans. Masnick commented that he had to change his presentation as he was building it since Reznor kept coming up with new stuff.

The "RtB" in the equation stands for Reason to Buy. This is where Reznor uses his connection with fans to give them reasons to purchase concert tickets, t-shirts, etc. For example, he also creates special 'box' packages of his products which are considered by NIN's fans to be special and unique. Reznor is giving his followers an opportunity to have something that they feel has a significant value added.

The "$$$$" is self explanatory.

Amid all the discussions about the future of academic libraries, I began musing what academic librarians could possibly learn from Reznor. What I came up with was the following (and half-baked) modified Masnick equation:

CwC + RtU = a dynamic library

The "CwC" in the equation refers to Connect with Community. Academic libraries should constantly thinking and prototyping new ways to connect with our communities. This is not to say that libraries are failing to connect. The challenge is that libraries tend to make a connection and hang onto it well beyond its useful life. We shouldn't be satisfied with how we are connecting today.  

What are the next connections out there that will allow academic libraries to integrate the services and resources we offer into the lives of our communities? How many prototypes and pilots can we create and get out there as fast as possible?  

Academic libraries must implement ideas that are half-baked and equally willing to let them go when they are not working out. We need to continuously experiments and do new stuff to connect with our communities. We need to be so dynamic that others need to change presentations about libraries since we keep coming up with new stuff. We need to learn how to plan less, prototype more!

I doubt Reznor performed a formal needs assessment, a literature search to see what other were doing, and charged a planning committee for each of his ideas. 

While academic libraries are playing around with ways to connect with our communities, the important question that each needs to ask and answer for itself is what are the Reasons to Use (RtU)? An interesting analogy was drawn between libraries and the post office in the report No Brief Candle.
Unless libraries take action, participants cautioned, they risk being left with responsibility for low-margin services that no one else (including the commercial world) wants to provide. An analogy is the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Its innovative, high-margin services, such as international and overnight delivery, have been taken over by private firms, leaving the USPS largely with its lowest-margin-of-return function: domestic mail delivery
Libraries and the post office do share many similar qualities. The physical access to information was our first class mail service for a very long time. We still have (largely) organizational structures, services, and resources allocated around the organization and delivery of physical information. As technology has improved, our communities have begun to use other pathways to deliver and receive their information (first class mail), be it in physical or digital formats.

As with the postal service, at some point libraries could be left offering services that no other service provider finds of value. We could be 'stuck' offering our equivalent of second and third class mail services. Sure, these services are reasons to use the library, but should we be satisfied in offering lowest-margin-of-return services? 

The challenge is that some librarians may actually feel that it is the role of academic libraries to provide lowest-margin-of-return services since those are the ones our communities say they need. Instead, I feel that librarians need to begin identifying our added value services. What are the premium packages and the limited addition services which we can provide to support our communities? How can we create a new organizational models to support these services and the Reasons to Use?

CwC + RtU = a dynamic library

So, do academic libraries need to stop thinking less like a post office and start thinking more like Trent Reznor? I think so. 

Should academic libraries be scattering USB drives containing attention grabbing content on the floors of our student Unions during orientation week? Absolutely! 

However, we shouldn't do it again next year, let alone the year after that.  

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 09, 2009

OSU Library Labs: Concept to Production in 90 Days

The number of libraries discussing the concepts of agile development, perpetual beta, and rapid prototyping is encouraging. The one thing that all of these approaches have in common is the idea of including customers as active participants in the development and/or testing of new products and services. To that end, many libraries have created library labs sites to distribute various experimental and half-baked tools and gadgets.

A library lab allows an academic library to introduce new services at any time, not just during the three week window between semesters or when the services are ‘perfected.’ It creates an environment for users to experiment with new services. It is a showcase for projects under development or consideration. There is really no limit to what can be put on a labs site, nor is it limited to just technology solutions. A labs site allows a library to invest just enough resources to see if the idea is worth investing in, or let go of prototypes in a dignified manner.

The idea of an OSU labs site has been kicked around internally for at least a year. The challenge was other projects and job responsibilities kept the project in concept mode. Well, today we soft-launched OSU Library Labs.

In late January, as I prepared to transition to my new emerging technologies role, I assembled a small team of five people to (finally) move the project forward. The team members were selected based on both their interest in emerging technologies and in doing a project, well, differently. Since the project was outside the responsibilities of the team members, and that we have a traditionally organizational structure, I worked on an elevator talk (um, err, email) to present to the appropriate managers to gain 'permission' for staff involvement. Fortunately, everyone was excited by the project concept.

Once the initial team was assembled, the first thing we discussed was the need to work against natural tendencies of wanting to get buy-in at all levels and creating the perfect service. This was actually harder than one would think and surprising since we had no outside pressures. In fact, we had support for doing things differently. Goes to show how old behaviors are hard to change.

Once we granted ourselves permission to behave differently, the team decided to work on two-week deadlines. We met in person four times for an hour each. We kept things as simple as possible and kept catching ourselves when we began to over think or over plan. As the title states, it took us 90-days from the first time we began discussions to the posting of our "Hello World" entry.

The team has already gotten props for how fast we got the project up and online. Congrats team! Sphere: Related Content