Where Good Ideas Come From

As a summer project we read Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. It’s a book that while not at all focused on libraries, gave both us a lot of really good ideas about how librarians working with teens can be innovative and work towards innovative practices in their libraries. Below you can read about some of our favorite ideas and how we see connections between them and teen library services.

Error = Insight
Error as key in innovation comes across loud and clear in Johnson’s book. He asks readers to consider that it’s possible to “transform error into insight” and that “innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes.” From a teen librarian perspective the concept that through making mistakes it’s possible to actually gain new ideas and better understand how to innovate can be particularly freeing. Think about all of the times you, or someone you work with, might not try out some new program or service because of a fear that it won’t go perfectly. But, what if instead of not doing something because it might not be perfect, we all went into service with teens with the idea that something might not go as planned, but through the mistakes of the initiative it’s possible to learn how to proceed more successfully? This doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to jump into new ideas without planning and thinking about the barriers to success. But, it does mean that even if it’s clear there are questions about whether an initiative will be a success, it could be worth moving forward in order to find out what does and doesn’t work, and then revising and re-working and learning from the errors, in order to be more successful the next time. Mistakes don’t mean don’t do it again. Errors mean lets try it again, but lets try it differently the next time around, using the insight we gained when we first tried and didn’t have things turn out perfectly.

Working Social
Johnson’s ideas make a good case for networking, collaborating, and interacting with librarians, especially those whose interests mesh with yours. One of the chapters that resonated most with us was titled “The Liquid Network.” The idea behind this chapter is that scientific breakthroughs don’t often happen in the laboratory, but rather around the water cooler, in the employee cafeteria, and maybe at the local pub where employees gather for an after-work cocktail.

This illustrates why networking with other librarians is so important in our profession. Resources and organizations such as YALSA connect us with professionals who share our interests and passions, and join us to a network of potential ideas that exist outside our day-to-day network. Anyone who has attended a professional conference can attest to feeling like creativity and capacity for problem-solving expands–which is what Johnson claims results from spending time outside the more structured work setting. By exchanging professional ideas in a more social and relaxed setting, connections are formed that would never have formed otherwise. Perhaps you have a good idea brewing in the back of your mind for an awesome new teen service, your chances of turning that beginning of a good idea into an amazing idea greatly increases when you interact and communicate with other YA librarians. Someone else may have the missing piece to complete your brainstorm. This is a good reason to join professional organizations and to take opportunities to socialize with like-minded professionals. This is especially important for YA librarians who often work alone in a school or public library. So join YALSA, connect with people on Twitter, and attend social gatherings; share your ideas and absorb what others are saying.

Space Matters
The way space is used in the workplace is also important within the concept of liquid networks. Johnson describes spaces as needing to be created to enable employees to work individually and in groups, easily move from formal to informal environments, and be flexible in design. Work spaces need to allow for people’s ideas to bounce up against each other so that one idea might take on some of the components of another idea and through that become something new, unexpected, and innovative. Johnson writes, “…the physical architecture of our work environments can have a transformative effect on the quality of our ideas. The quickest way to freeze a liquid network is to stuff people into private offices behind closed doors, which is one reason why many Web-era companies have designed their work environments around common spaces where casual mingling and interdepartmental chatter happens without any formal planning.”

Staff of libraries may not have much trouble moving away from the private office closed door framework that Johnson talks about. But, what about the use of common spaces for librarians to mingle and chatter? Or, what about the ability to move work spaces around in order to make them more conducive to liquid networks? Can that happen in your library in order to open up more opportunities to innovate?

The ideas related to space and liquid networks fit for the design of teen spaces as well. A library that has lots of different types of spaces for teens and spaces that promote mingling and chatter are essential. Young adults need to innovate too. They need to innovate while working on class assignments, they need to innovate when helping out at the library, and they need to innovate when deciding what they want to read and when. That means they too need spaces that help produce innovative ideas.

Write Everything Down
One thing Johnson’s book inspires readers to do is, “write everything down.” In the chapter titled “The Slow Hunch,” Johnson stresses that ideas brew over time and that it’s important to collect, read, and re-read notes. This seems so simple, you might write down notes about almost every other aspect of your life, but often are remiss about finding time to write about and reflect on what you are doing at work. It might not really feel like you are “doing” something by taking time to write about work, but it is a valuable practice. Johnson detailed the history of the commonplace book, used by many of our country’s founding fathers. The commonplace book was a system for classifying ideas, quotations, and thoughts, so that they could be easily looked up later. This practice allowed ideas to be visited and revisited over time, giving thoughts time to incubate and develop. The idea of the commonplace book could be easily updated into keeping up a tagged blog for reflecting on library services. Then, why not connect it to the liquid network of library professionals with whom you exchange ideas?

Ultimately
Johnson does a great job at tying everything together in the following sentence (which is a favorite of ours): “Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, re-invent.” This is such good advice. Whether you are feeling burnt out, lacking inspiration, or just want to expand your capacity for creative thinking, Where Great Ideas Come From is worth a read to spark your innovative side.

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