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6 Ways to Feed Innovation in Your Library

Once the initial dazzle of your new (or remade) library has worn off, just how do you keep up the pace and flavor of innovation? An expert from North Carolina State University offers her take.

When the James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University opened in 2013, it seemed nary an innovation was left out. The 225,000‐square‐foot building includes multiple display walls running at a resolution six times better than high-def; a whacked out game lab; a wide visualization space; creativity studios; nearly a hundred group study rooms and learning spaces; glass walls and writable surfaces anywhere you might lay an erasable marker; bookBot, a robotic book storage center with capacity for 2 million volumes; reconfigurable seating and tables everywhere (including a reported 60 different types of designer furniture); plus high-performance computing (HPC) and high-speed storage.

It took 98 pages for the university to describe the entirety of the wonders of the Hunt Library in its application for the 2014 Stanford Prize for Innovation in Research Libraries (which it handily won).

And yet that was four years ago. Just how long does the shelf life on innovation last?

Already, said Emily Lynema, the associate head of IT and director of academic technology for the libraries, the organization has begun pondering the "refresh" of Hunt. The innovations probably won't be so "blue sky," she suggested. This time around the focus will be on what the faculty and students "are actually doing" and what Hunt can do "to support those needs."

Lynema is no slouch herself. Last year, she won the "Rising Star Award" at Educause, an honor she called "very big and unexpected."

In a recent interview with Campus Technology, Lynema offered several strategies for continually feeding innovation.

1) Play "Hopscotch" on Campus

While Hunt is the library for the university's newer Centennial Campus, located about two miles away is D.H. Hill Library, serving the main campus. Ever since Hunt opened, the two resources have been playing innovation hopscotch, feeding off the best and most popular ideas surfacing in each.

While Hunt patrons enjoy a 270-degree visualization space, for example, Hill now has a 360-degree projection space. Hill is just getting ready to open a virtual reality studio with "room-scale" VR sporting Oculus Rift and Vive gear; Hunt will eventually get a "smaller setup." Hunt introduced the idea of the "graduate students' commons," with access limited to those students as well as faculty; Hill recently adopted the same idea. Hill is equipping its group study rooms with technology that's "similar" to what Hunt already has.

"We've been pulling a lot of things back and forth between the buildings," said Lynema. "We want them both to be positive destinations for students, and they really are." A lot of the staff — particularly at the managerial level — work across both buildings, which helps them to "see the big picture of supporting the university," she noted. Likewise, both sites are "utilized very heavily by students," though Hill sees more daytime foot traffic because there are more classrooms on its campus; Hunt sees a lot of evening traffic "because there's good parking."

2) Sometimes Innovation Just Comes Knocking

Amazingly, the original plans for Hunt didn't include that current mainstay of innovative libraries — the makerspace, a trend that isn't "exactly new," Lynema observed. A makerspace was only added to Hunt near the end of the renovation project, because a member of the staff suggested it might be a good feature. The problem by then was that there was no space for it. "So we took a storage closet that was maybe 10 feet by five feet and made this little space with 3D printers," Lynema noted. The printing work is handled by staff because the space isn't "big enough" to accommodate students too.

Still, that last-minute addition turned out to show big results. "It was just a surprise. We were just amazed at the student reaction," Lynema said.

Feeding off that enthusiasm, staff took advantage of subsequent renovations at Hill to convert a space formerly used by staff into a "big makerspace," which offers 3D printing along with other prototyping equipment and gear for experimenting with the Internet of Things.

The whole effort has also converted the library staff into maker believers. "I think that's been an unexpected big win for the library," said Lynema.

3) Hire People With New Ideas

The libraries have worked hard to create a culture of people "who are engaged and excited about change and about the prospect of doing new and innovative and different things all the time," said Lynema. Rather than innovation being directed from the top down, it bubbles from the bottom up.

Developing that culture takes more than sending people to an innovation workshop and expecting them to "suddenly start acting a certain way," she explained. "You have to hire the people who are going to take your organization to the place that you want."

Every year the libraries bring in a series of "fellows." These are new graduates from the university's library and information studies program who are hired for a two-year contract. In addition to supporting their home departments, they work on special initiatives — interesting projects consisting of the "coolest ideas we think our organization should do but we don't have the resources or staff time to do them," Lynema explained. After the two-year stint, about six in 10 fellows end up staying as permanent employees.

As is the nature of new things, not everything works out, of course. Therefore, the culture must be forgiving of failure, she added. "That's the other side of innovation. Sometimes you're going to try things that fail, and if your staff get in a lot of trouble for having ideas that fail, that's not really going to get you where you want to go."

When the ideas work, however, the libraries also try to find ways to reward people. That's hardly ever with pay raises: "We're a state organization; that's not so easy to do," she observed. But innovative people are also turned on by "letting them do what they want, giving them more responsibility, giving them student workers — things like that."

4) Plan on "Making" Your Own Resources

While money and people with time are necessary for continued innovation, public universities aren't exactly overflowing with either resource. Administration emphasizes that message frequently, said Lynema: "We don't have the money. We don't have the money to hire new people. We don't have the money to pay for some piece of new technology. Nobody has the money. You have to make the money."

Lynema interprets that to mean a lot of things. First, when there's something new you want to do, you have to decide on something else you're "not going to do." At Hunt, for example, the 270-degree projection space probably won't be changed up. But Lynema might try to introduce virtual reality controls into that space so that people can have a 3D social VR experience. Even there, she may try to get away with "less expensive projectors" or "take another space where we've gone to a much more immersive visualization and put something less expensive in there" to leave more money for another project.

Second, you have to assume innovation will require private fundraising. Lynema points to the example of Hunt's "expensive" furniture: The campus couldn't buy that, she said. Private donations made those acquisitions possible.

Third, the technology providers became major partners in innovation. They were excited to be part of something so remarkable, Lynema recounted. "We found that going big was better than going small when we wanted to get external support from the vendor community. That's one of the many reasons that we went big with our technology vision with Hunt Library."

The challenge is that it's tougher to engage vendors the second time around, she added. "We're not going to have as much of an influx of new money this time." The companies "are all very interested in keeping their equipment in the building, because it's a big name for them. But nobody has come forward and offered us anything yet. We're trying to find the right way to spin 'refresh.' Refresh is not really a very exciting word for the vendors."

5) Make Tech as Accessible as Possible

Once the "wow" factor has quieted down, it's time to take stock of innovation, suggested Lynema, and figure out just what faculty and students are "actually doing" so that the "refresh work" will support their needs.

One intention is to figure out how to "open up the spaces more and make them easier to use." Simplifying the technology stack may seem "like a weird direction when you're talking about innovation," Lynema acknowledged. But doing so will enable her team to expand usage in new ways.

Another intention is to bring different disciplines together in the hopes of sparking new ideas. To expand visibility, the library has begun hosting "a lot of programming," such as a "Coffee and Viz event series," open to the campus community as well as the public. At each event, NC State researchers and outside experts share their visualization work on a particular topic in one of the libraries' high-tech spaces. That brings together people who have an interest in visualization as well as those who have an interest in the theme. Topics have included data journalism, human experience in virtual environments, social networking structures, geospatial modeling and what St. Paul's Cathedral looked like before the Great Fire of London.

Recently, recalled Lynema, a presentation on high-performance computation lured a member of the university's marine, earth and atmospheric sciences faculty specializing in oceanography to learn about in situ HPC processing from a speaker. "These two people connected," she said, over the possibilities for modernizing how weather prediction was done. "They were like, 'I think we can work together. I think we have the pieces. What kind of grant can we get that would let us do this work?'"

6) Learn How to Tell the Story

Lynema knows those kinds of collaborations are already taking place using technology available in the libraries. Now she and her group need to figure out how to publicize those and other "flagship projects" of interest — "telling the story," as she put it.

Doing that better could have two positive outcomes, she predicted. First, those narratives could inspire the broader community and "help re-inspire our vendor community to be excited about the new kinds of things that people are trying to do." Second, good stories will address the libraries' desire to make the technology more accessible. "You can't just have technology or spaces. You have to tell the story to people of what they can do with them and why they would be useful."

How to Maximize Your Makerspace

Rich Sykes has advised campus libraries all along the Atlantic coast as a consultant for Amtek, which calls itself a "21st century educational training technology and equipment company." The products he helps sell do 3D printing and design, CNC milling, laser cutting, vacuum forming, injection molding, wire bending, 3D design and PC board manufacturing, among other jobs. In his time on the road, Sykes has learned a few lessons that can help libraries stay relevant and well equipped in their campus communities.

Show off your makerspace. Don't hide it in the basement. "When somebody walks into the library and they see 50 students in there doing really neat things, it feeds off itself," Sykes advised. "The more visible you make these spaces, the more likely it is that they will be abuzz with activity. Ultimately that's what you want."

Choose equipment with simple interfaces. People should be able to get "a few minutes of instruction" and use the tool, said Sykes. Vendors in the maker industry have recognized this trend by releasing plenty of "entry-level" design programs, such as Autodesk's Tinkercad and 123D.

Stay on top of open access standards. An aspect of simplicity is choosing products that have adopted open standards. Printers that work with 3DPrinterOS, for example, give users access to a web-based interface for managing their print jobs. GrabCAD Print, from Stratasys, does the same, reading native CAD files from a multitude of design programs and allowing them to be managed online and printed on Stratasys printers. The latter program, said Sykes, would enable members of a team to collaborate on 3D print projects even when one person uses AutoCAD, for instance, and another uses Solidworks.

Stay tuned to funding opportunities. Vendors have a vested interest in following the money. They may be able to help you identify sources of grants and state money that you wouldn't have heard of before. In Sykes' region of the country, that could involve Virginia's Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund, an Appalachian Regional Commission grant or funding from the National Science Foundation. All have helped his library customers purchase equipment.

Set up short try-it-out sessions. The best way to persuade people to support makerspaces, Sykes is convinced, is to give them a little bit of training and let them try it out. The message to use: "Come to a session, sit down and let's innovate. Let's put our hands on things. Let's go through and do these projects, to demystify the technology and show you what can be done with it." People get enthusiastic as a result. Experience "breaks down barriers," he said.

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