Why Libraries Should Poke the Box

Libraries are headed somewhere. Where exactly somewhere is can vary depending on who you are talking to and when you talk to them. The old model of a static repository of physical information is archaic, outmoded. New, unfamiliar is what they are moving towards. Booth (2013) writes that, “We need to embrace the inevitability of constant change, new ideas and new ways for us to do our business.” (p. 7) Dynamism, transformation and reorganization are our new reality. This point is reiterated by Matthews, Metko and Tomlin (2018) who emphasize the importance of fluidity, participation and innovation to the modern library. We cannot escape it. This is the world we now live in.
Ideas are everywhere in today’s library world. People are unafraid to express themselves and share the ideas they have, but taking an idea and turning it into something concrete is much rarer. It can be scary to take a risk and risk can be viewed, by some, as a bad thing. Seth Godin in his book, Poke the Box, addresses risk and whether, in his estimation, it should be regarded in a negative or positive manner. On risk Godin (2015) writes, “Risk, to some, is a bad thing, because risk brings with it the possibility of failure…So, for some, risk comes to equal failure…Risk is avoided because we’ve been trained to avoid failure.” (p.14) It can seem daunting to take a risk, especially on an idea that is new, different and goes against decades of precedent. No one wants to fail, but we have to be willing to fail to ensure libraries remain relevant and essential to a functioning society.

Mattern (2014) intricately details the various forms libraries have taken and voids they have filled due to various influences, varying needs and forward thinking pioneers. The various areas public libraries have permeated and occupied due to necessity and gaps in services often is due to shrinking public budgets. This unfortunate situation has allowed librarians to innovate and step in to fill community needs that would otherwise remain unfulfilled. Mattern describes how the Seattle Public Library, Salt Lake City Public Library and the New York Public Library have all successfully sought out community partnerships to maximize the scope of their influence and effectiveness. (2014) This relates to Godin’s idea that to succeed people must be uncomfortable, seek out new ideas and partnerships and be willing to be curious and follow that spirit of inquiry. (2015) This leads to innovation and progress.
What can a librarian glean from a book like Godin’s Poke the Box? While it is full of truisms and phrases that might be considered, at the very least, borderline platitudes, it can teach librarians a couple of things. First, it is short and to the point. Presently, people love concise summations of a broader philosophy or idea. As a whole, our attention span is somewhere between 280 characters and 60 second video stories. Godin keeps his thoughts short and to the point. No “chapter” is longer than a couple pages and some are even less than ten words long. Librarians could benefit from remembering that people want something that is splashy yet succinct. Secondly, he repeatedly makes the point that people need to just go, to just try or to just go and try. Librarians could improve their community by going or trying. Change begins with that first step. Lastly, the title of the book, Poke the Box, means that people should not worry about fitting in or doing what is right. Conformity should be the last thing librarians are concerned with. There is no longer a formal blueprint for what a library is and this should scare, excite and inspire librarians. So, instead of saying that is how it is done, librarians should take Godin’s advice and go, wherever that might lead them.

Booth, M. (2013). People and UTS Library.

Godin, S. (2015). Poke the box: when was the last time you did something for the first time? NY, NY: Portfolio / Penguin.

Mattern, S. (2014, June 1). Library as Infrastructure. Places Journal. Accessed 10 Sep 2019. https://doi.org/10.22269/140609

Matthews, B., Metko, S., & Tomlin, P. (2018, March 7). Empowerment, experimentation, engagement: Embracing partnership models in libraries. E-CONTENT [All Things Digital]. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/5/empowerment-experimentation-engagement-embracing-partnership-models-in-libraries

n/a. (n.d.). Adelie penguin jumping between two ice floes. photograph. Retrieved from https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/adelie-penguin-jumping-between-two-ice-403341514

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