You need an R&D culture, not an R&D department

14 March 2012

A couple of weeks ago, a tweet popped up in my feed just begging for a click-through:

What Gilliian was so excited about was this post by Daniel Messer on the Letters to a Young Librarian blog.  The core of Messer’s arguments is this:

Libraries need their own R&D Departments. We have Circulation, Reference, Information Technology, and so on. We are sorely lacking in R&D.

I can see why some librarians were enthused by this proposal. It stands to reason that if something is important it should have its own department and funding.  There’s just a small problem - Messer’s solution is destined to fail.

The problem with an R&D department is that it will perpetuate exactly the problem Messer has identified.  Libraries already have R&D departments, it’s just that they are largely outsourced.  We outsource development of cataloguing classification systems to organisations like OCLC and the Library of Congress.  We outsource our ILS to software vendors.  We outsource our journal databases to other software vendors and publishers.  We outsource the development of hardware like PCs, microfilm readers and printing facilities. Some libraries outsource their physical processing to specialist companies.  Others outsource the selection of new material.  We do all these things because it is perceived to be easier, or more efficient, or higher quality.  Often it is.

As Messer has identified, however, there is a problem with outsourcing like this - the priorities of the organisation doing your research and development often has different priorities to your organisation.  As a Systems Librarian, I spend a lot of my time dealing with this reality.  The problem I have with Messer’s solution, however, is that it simply replicates this problem within the organisation.  If you bring all your R&D in-house by creating an organisation called ‘The R&D Department’, what happens when they realise their small team and small budget can’t solve every problem at the same time?  The have to prioritise. Somebody’s ‘top priority’ will be pushed down the list.  Pretty soon you’ll be writing blog posts bitching about the R&D department and suggesting libraries need to become more efficient by outsourcing their R&D to vendors.

What libraries - and other service organisations - need to do is not create an R&D department but rather create an R&D culture.  Given the whole point of libraries is to facilitate research, one would think we should have a head start! Organisations like Google and Gore don’t rely on R&D departments to do all their research and development - both famously offer/require staff 20% of their paid time for working on whatever R&D project takes their fancy.  Tim Harford writes about adaptive organisations like Google and Gore in Adapt: why success always starts with failure.  One of his main points is that (As Messer himself describes) those at the ‘front line’ are best placed to understand what is needed in terms of developing new strategies, procedures or tools.  R&D is not just about new tools - it’s about new processes, new services, and new concepts for delivering those services.

Messer himself gives us a perfect example - he developed a small program to get his ILS to print patron names on a receipt printer.  Messer didn’t work for ‘the R&D department’ when he did this - he was running Circulation. Messer’s role had a enough ‘slack’ in terms of how he spent his time to allow him to research what he needed to do and develop and test it.

The challenge for libraries then is not to build a new department, but to create the space and encouragement for staff to undertake research and development as simply part of their job.  Last week Rory Litwin wrote in a rather more controversial blog post that

In order to make a claim to professional autonomy, librarians need more than a set of admirable values to justify it. They need a body of professional expertise that is incontrovertible, made up of knowledge and skills that others recognize required extensive education to gain. They need to be able to make the case that what they offer as professionals is something that other people cannot do nearly as well. They need to show that what they do is not only interesting and admirable and important, but that doing it takes expertise, and that they possess that expertise.

Litwin goes on to say that the solution is for librarians to forget all about this newfangled blogging business and only share ideas about librarianship via scholarly journal papers and discussions based upon them.  Presumably by writing letters to each other on parchment using a feather quill.*

Whilst I think Litwin is profoundly wrong about how professional expertise should or should not be shared, he’s quite correct that for Librarianship to be taken seriously as a profession we need undeniable professional expertise, not just values (although we still need the values!).  How we develop, share and prove that knowledge is the matter of several different but equally robust opinions.

Tying these two demands together - better research and development for the tools we need to do our jobs, and a stronger focus on robust research within the profession - I see the need for two different types of research and development.  What Messer is asking for is really more support within libraries for R&D to solve the organisation’s own internal problems - whether it’s a bit of computer code, a better internal process, a new machine or a different way of organising rosters. That is, better production technologies.  What Litwin is asking for is a stronger commitment to R&D focussed on the needs of our patrons. That is, better products and services.

These R&D needs can not be left to an ‘R&D department’, because the willingness and indeed the responsibility to develop and share new ideas, processes and technologies is what makes librarianship a profession rather than just another service role.  What is needed is a new approach to library management.  When librarians and other library staff are removed from the silos of traditional departments; when they are given dedicated time and support to develop new tools, new processes and new services; when librarians are rewarded for experimenting and sharing their findings: that is when R&D in libraries will flourish, and librarianship will secure its place as a vibrant and respected profession.

*As Rory notes in the comments, my paraphrasing may be overly harsh.  You really should read the original post yourself.