Building a Better Library Tech Future with Slow Librarianship

Is innovation the best direction for library tech?

I began my journey in the profession in the aughts, a time that was chock-full of rhetoric about innovation and the fear of libraries’ growing irrelevance. We were told we needed to be more entrepreneurial and to emulate startups, that libraries were at risk of becoming irrelevant if they didn’t adopt Web 2.0 technologies and values, that we needed to innovate at all costs. Whatever trend or tool came, libraries needed to be in on it—whether it was 3D printing, Google Glass, Second Life, or MOOCs. Libraries even integrated Web 2.0-like features into existing library technologies, like social tagging and commenting in the catalog. 

Here’s what I don’t remember hearing much about in the rhetoric back then: spending time really getting to know patrons, targeting library services to patron needs, centering our most vulnerable patrons, or ensuring that the technologies we use and the services we build are actually consistent with library values. When I look back now, it’s pretty clear that the people whom the library workers sharing this rhetoric wanted to become more relevant to were primarily young, affluent, tech-savvy, and white. Rather than basing their services on the unique needs of their communities, so many libraries were just copying whatever the cool, innovative, and well-resourced libraries highlighted in articles and conference talks were doing.  

I believe that chasing innovation is toxic and keeps us from really getting to know our patrons and meeting their most pressing needs. We need a major culture change since so many of our organizational structures and values prioritize an innovation agenda. Slow librarianship can provide a route toward more meaningful and impactful technology work in libraries. 

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What is slow librarianship? 

Slow librarianship is based loosely on Slow Food, a movement that started in Italy in response to the negative impacts of globalization on food systems and culture. It became an international movement centered around the enjoyment of food, an appreciation of the local food culture, and the ethical sourcing of food. They promoted values of social justice, sustainability, quality, and pleasure in a food system focused on efficiency and profit. Ideas from Slow Food have now been adopted in such diverse fields as medicine, urban design, ministry, teaching, and more.  

While the idea of slow librarianship has been discussed since 2006, it gained traction with the publication of Julia Glassman’s brilliant 2017 article “The Innovation Fetish and Slow Librarianship.” In my own speaking and writing on the subject, I took a stab at describing slow librarianship

Slow librarianship is an antiracist, responsive, and values-driven practice that stands in opposition to neoliberal values. Workers in slow libraries are focused on relationship-building, deeply understanding and meeting patron needs, and providing equitable services to their communities. Internally, slow library culture is focused on learning and reflection, collaboration and solidarity, valuing all kinds of contributions, and supporting staff as whole people. 

What is a slow librarianship approach to tech?

Here are a few things libraries can do to embrace slow librarianship in library technology: 

Be laser-focused on patron needs.

While this seems like a no-brainer, I’m sure we can all point to projects in libraries where an identifiable patron need was not the impetus for its creation. Projects are motivated by all sorts of things: doing work that’s fun and exciting, doing work that will be valued by administrators, wanting to replicate a project that was successful at another library, seeking recognition for innovative work, etc. Anything new we do in libraries should be motivated by patron needs, plain and simple, and it takes effort (assessment, relationship-building, etc.) to get to know those needs. 

Devote time toward creating a learning culture.

A learning culture is one where workers want to know more about their patrons’ needs and how they use the library, where workers are given time to learn, and where the organization comes together to learn and reflect together. At the heart of a learning culture is relationship-building. How can we really know the needs of the communities we serve if we are not out there getting to know them? Otherwise, we will only really know the needs of our loudest library users. It takes time to attend community meetings and events, and if it isn’t seen as a core part of our duties, it will fall by the wayside when we get busy. Library technologists who are not public-facing need to see how patrons actually interact with library technologies so they can better understand the pain points and gaps. At the heart of building a learning culture is time. Library workers need time to reflect, to talk to one another, and to build relationships within their communities.  

Create cultures of abundance, rather than scarcity, in recognition and reward systems.

In her article, Glassman writes about how a sense of scarcity created competition and a focus on innovation over authentically meeting patron needs: “Since the members of each year’s peer review cohort are judged against each other, and it has been made clear that only a select few can ever earn the coveted marker of ‘exceptional performance,’ the process has become an arms race of the biggest, most impressive accomplishments librarians can showcase.” Recognition is one of the few resources in libraries that is endlessly abundant, yet so many libraries and professional organizations manufacture scarcity with reward systems that engender precarity and competition. When workers feel secure in their jobs and feel their work is valued, they aren’t pushed to one-up their colleagues and can instead focus on doing what is best for their patrons. Collaboration, not competition, is what makes libraries successful.

Value all kinds of work.

So many libraries and organizations only reward individual genius, work deemed innovative, and public-facing library work. It creates a perverse incentive to do things that are “cool” and visible rather than things that could have the greatest positive impact on patrons. When libraries devalue maintenance work, they are incentivizing staff to abandon existing projects. Why put effort into maintaining an existing service when no one cares about or recognizes that labor and only values original creations? Why not instead create some hot, new thing that will get noticed by administrators? We need to value maintenance—small, incremental improvementsand work behind the scenes as that labor is just as critical to the functioning of the library as highly visible work. 

Keep our values at the forefront.

Too often we have seen libraries adopt technologies without considering how consistent those technologies are with their values. Are the technologies accessible to all? Are they collecting patrons’ personal data and selling it to data brokers? In using social media tools that have caused psychological harm to young people, are we endorsing their use? If our values are not at the forefront of our decisions in whether and how we use technologies, perhaps they are not actually our values at all. 

Beyond innovation

I remember earlier in my career being very oriented toward innovation and the external rewards that came with it, because it felt like the only way to advance in my career. Now, my work is far less visible and gets less recognition. The technology project I’m most excited and proud of having contributed to recently was the very mundane, but deeply impactful, redesign of our databases page. I can devote my time towards contributing to meaningful yet unsexy work because I have job security. If every library worker felt that same sense of security in their work, we could be much more focused on supporting our patrons.  

Slow librarianship isn’t a specific prescription or destination, but a way of thinking about our work that can help orient it more toward our values and our patrons’ needs. And while some of the changes I outlined need to start at the top of the organization, any of us can try to do more to center patron needs and library values in our work, to build relationships, and to advocate for better workplaces.  

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