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IDEA WATCH: Innobrarians--Librarians as Innovators

By Carolyn Foote - Posted Jan 1, 2013
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Libraries were once considered to be bastions of the “past”—warehouses of knowledge with librarians as the keepers. But now we have opportunities to not only curate information but to be leaders in our schools as innovators and change agents who bring new ideas and tools into the educational mix. We can become “innobrarians,” willing to try new things, to be first adopters, to spread the enthusiasm, and to support innovation in our buildings. In fact, I would argue that librarians in many schools are already innobrarians.

As we work with teachers across the curriculum to integrate resources, we play an important role as what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “mavens and connectors”—leaders who connect others with ideas and tools (Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference ). Librarians naturally play a strong role as curriculum connectors and can leverage that by being cheerleaders for new technologies and methodologies in schools. In fact, School Library Journal ’s “2012 School Technology Survey” reveals that librarians are increasingly taking on that role: “87 percent of school librarians report that they’re in charge of their library’s technology, with 60 percent adding that they’ve also introduced it into the classroom. Furthermore, 44 percent now serve on their school’s tech team. …” (

Of course, innovation means more than just using technology. It means helping our campuses think through a variety of things, from ebook adoption to the most up-to-date classroom practices around information literacy and copyright to best practices for 1:1 device adoptions to project creation to supporting individual learning. Innovation means having a mindset focused on the future and geared to keeping abreast of future trends.

Supporting Innovation

Some people are lucky enough to be born with that mindset, one that’s adventurous and playful, that ignores boundaries, and that feeds off of the new. (See this list of 20 qualities for an innovator: But if you feel that this mindset isn’t your or your school’s strength, how do you cultivate those qualities in yourself or your organization? How can you build into your workplace habits of mind that can help support your role as an innovator?

The lack of support for innovators in schools is, in my mind, one of the biggest crises facing our schools today. Given the climate of high-stakes testing that dominates so many of our schools, the opportunity for play and experimentation grows less and less. Yet without the “idea people” and the leadership in schools willing to support those ideas, our schools become even more like the factory model of the 1800s. This is where librarians can provide a tremendous service. Not only can we be innovators ourselves, but in doing so, we can support the dreamers, the players, and the innovators in the building, both students and teachers. We can help them embrace their creative ideas, harness them for the classroom, bring in supporting materials, and provide that open-minded partner that innovators need. Libraries can become the places to “seed” new ideas that can spread throughout our campuses. Our role provides us with tremendous flexibility to self-define what we want to be for our campuses.

What kind of support do innovators need to make changes?

1. Playtime: Playtime is often judged as unproductive time, and those who engage in “play” are often judged as having too much time on their hands. This sort of martyrish, turn-on-your-colleagues attitude is really tough to deal with. It requires quite a paradigm shift for a campus to embrace Google’s concept of play as part of the workweek. Yet time for play and experimentation is essential to opening up a space for creative thinking and cultivating a spirit of innovation among both teachers and students.

How can libraries help? Create an area in the library for creativity to occur. Create a space where teachers can be more playful—and decorate it that way. Create areas for student play as well. Host playful activities during lunch periods for teachers. One year I hosted “creativity days,” in which we did all sorts of arts during lunch with other teachers. Offer gaming activities for students (and teachers), set up “building lab” areas of LEGOs, K’NEX, PLAY-DOH, etc. Host competitions—to build towers out of spaghetti and marshmallows, for instance—that incorporate science as well. Set a goal of regularly integrating play into the campus by offering activities and spaces for that to occur.

2. Support: Innovators need support from one another. How many cities have writers’ groups to support budding writers? If you feel stymied by a lack of support for your own innovating efforts, seek a support group, even if it is off campus. Recently, I decided that it would make sense for me to seek support from a Skype call with a few fellow librarians twice a month so we could share ideas with one another, which would help me fill my own bucket and inspire me. We have to build those support networks for ourselves, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or in person.

But, of course, the other innovators and creative types on your campus need support as well, because to innovate, you need help from many quarters—administrators, technology support staff, instructional technology, curriculum departments, and on and on. How can librarians help? Have meetings with those entities whose support is needed and start a real conversation about how to support innovators in your district. Sit down with those other creative types in your building and make a list of what is needed for support. And then in your administrative role, bring those needs forward to the powers that be and ask for serious consideration. Lay out the benefits that innovators bring to your campus and help craft a plan for support. Even if those broader efforts don’t pan out, we as facilities managers can at least support such needs through our own programming and provide a model for others. We can design spaces that support that creativity and invite our innovators to be part of the planning.

3. Project-based learning: We all learn by doing. One way we can support innovators in libraries is by providing them with the “stuff” for project-based learning. Does the librarian want to try using Kindles or iPads? Give them a small set and see what they create. A teacher wants to do the same? Purchase a few iPads and see where they go with them. Students want to create a film? Make sure your library policies support loaning them the equipment, and then support sharing their efforts with other students. Celebrate the learning once it happens. Librarians can use their spaces and blogs or websites as platforms for supporting the creativity that has occurred, and we can use our resources (budgets, fundraisers) to support what we, our students, and their teachers need to innovate.

4. Sharing: Sharing is a huge element of supporting and nurturing innovation in schools. Too often, we let ourselves be cowed by barriers, such as filters that block blogs or other websites. But as librarians, we can work through those obstacles rather than succumb to them. We can find websites that work (meanwhile fighting the filtering) and share our own innovative work to help inspire others, while also highlighting and celebrating the work of our students and staff. We can be cheerleaders for the change agents who may not get enough support elsewhere. And there is an added benefit to sharing through networks such as Twitter and blogs. Through them, we find companions, we find new ideas to inspire us, we build off of our own ideas, and we find new resources. Sharing isn’t bragging or self-promoting, it is a means of building and deepening connections for improving our own work.

5. Self-support: We need to remind ourselves, despite detractors, naysayers, or obstacle-creators, that it is OK to try new things. It is OK to purchase a new piece of technology to try out, even if it doesn’t have “sticking power.” It’s OK to experiment with things. In fact, it’s far more than OK—it’s a crucial role we can play in schools burdened by high-stakes testing. And we just need to keep reminding ourselves that it is, indeed, just fine for us to do this work.

In his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World , Tony Wagner found that one quality innovators exhibit is a desire to make a difference in the world ( That is a powerful motivator for all of us in education. The climate of testing, scripted education, and focus on standardization sometimes feels like it runs counter to the idea that we can, individually, make a difference. As librarians, as “innobrarians,” I think we can make that difference. Not only will it affect us in our own work, but by embedding it into the very fabric of our libraries, we can make a difference in our worlds. Let’s do it!


Contact Carolyn at

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