Are We Creating an Innovation Divide?

Tis the season for grant and award applications or at least it feels that way from the sheer number of notices rolling into my email inbox and pervading the professional literature. As I scan these various grants and awards seeking ever increasingly innovative projects, I started to ponder an idea. As we’ve discussed previously in this blog: I believe Innovation is a matter of perspective. If you’re driving a car an airplane would be an innovation but if you’re riding a bicycle then a car would be an innovation. Simply put- what is innovative at one Library might be last years news at another. Innovation is about your own unique environment and starting point.

So if each Library’s level of innovation is in a different place based on their starting point and environment…but the awards and grants continually seek to raise the bar and set higher and higher levels for innovation…Doesn’t it stand to reason that at some point some libraries will simply be left behind? Example: Anytown Library has come to a place where they have the staff know-how and community support to add a Makers Space, they begin to apply for various awards or grants to assist in funding the project. However, to their dismay, they are repeatedly turned down with the explanation that the idea is simply no longer ‘innovative enough’ to receive grant/award funding. When you find yourself applying for an award to pursue an innovative project or idea for your library (such as a maker space) only to find that the award goes to someone who already had a maker space and is now taking the next step, where does this leave you looking for funding? Do you regularly notice the list of libraries receiving innovation funding through grants or awards seems to have the same names popping up year after year?

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague about innovation grants and awards. She mentioned her participation as a judge on a panel for a state-wide innovation grant. She served on this panel for several years and she detailed their pursuit of ever increasing levels of innovation. I asked how they balanced those libraries just beginning to innovative with libraries further along the path. She seemed puzzled at my question. I explained by saying “If an applicant starts from a place of less innovation-how were they able to compete for the funding?” She relied “They really couldn’t compete effectively. We were looking for the MOST innovative ideas. ” I queried “But without the funding of their project to raise them to that next level, how were they ever expected to reach a common ground with other libraries in the state so that they could compete for those funds?” Her response “Well, I guess they couldn’t.” I simply stated “Interesting. It sounds like a cycle that inevitably leaves some libraries behind with no chance to catch up…”

So what happens if you’re a library that is trying to continue to grow but find yourself outpaced by those libraries who seem further along on their journey of innovation? As they win funding grants and awards to implement Innovation one year, they then build on that program the next year to have an even better and grander program that they put forward for innovative funding. As funders look for the most innovative projects available to them to fund, are we creating an entire classification of libraries that are simply…left behind?

Hopefully, as Foundations, awarding organizations and other funding sources look at distributing monies to innovative projects in public libraries, they will continue to balance the importance of funding innovation that moves the entire profession and bar for innovation forward as well as those projects that may only move one library forward in their innovation journey. As a profession committed to providing equal services across communities, net neutrality, open access, we must apply that same approach to innovation. Every community and library deserves to have an opportunity to compete for support, awards, and funding for innovation as they perceive it. At the end of the day, we must ensure that we do not leave an entire subset of libraries behind in our relentless pursuit for that next great innovation idea.

Let us not leave behind those who have started from a bicycle while those who ride in the car get an airplane and fly away.


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5 responses to “Are We Creating an Innovation Divide?

  1. You make a very good point. In Maine, there are many rural libraries that work very hard to bring innovation. That innovation could be better internet speed or new computers. They can not compete with those libraries or larger budgets and communities. Grants for small libraries who are trying to provide innovative services within the context of their needs is also important.

  2. Anonymous

    Sounds to me like we need another small and rural library technology grant program like the Bill & Melinda Gates Library Foundation initiated in 1995 to help bring American libraries up to that “new” basic technology level you mentioned. I know there are plenty of wealthy philanthropists in America who would be interested in donating, but just don’t know where their money would create the most impact. LOCAL LIBRARIES!

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  4. Katharine Phenix

    Another way to look at is that being on the bleeding edge of innovation can be very expensive and the grant money is helpful with that. Libraries that come afterwords can be happy to learn from the mistakes of the innovators and spend much less time and money on a new service. Their might be a timeline gap for the trailing edge libraries, but avoiding the pitfalls while still moving forward is a real service to their communities.

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