Thursday, March 20, 2014

Start-Up Thinking Is Inappropriate for Libraries

tl;dr — if you believe your institution is a social necessity, start-up thinking is a terrible approach.

A recent conversation with a friend who has worked in the start-up space brought up Brian Mathew's "Think Like a Start-Up" white paper and some unresolved issues I have with it, never publicly articulated. See also: The Marketing Unproblem of Libraries.


Most start-ups fail. Start-ups are praised for their agility, their ability to solve problems, but not for their longevity. If you believe in the worth of libraries as institutions, I'm guessing you don't want 75% of them to go under. It's unfathomably, eye-rollingly ironic that Mathews starts his white paper with doomsaying about the sustainability of academic libraries and then offers transient organizations as a model for survival. I can't even.

Trying to flip this fact later in the white paper does little to assuage my concerns. Noting the failure-prone nature of start-ups is not simply some snarky observation; it speaks to irreconcilable differences between how start-ups are run & how are libraries should be run. If you want your library to be around next year, next decade, next century, you probably don't want to emphasize risk-taking. Long-term thinking might be more suitable. You probably don't want to be a technological solutionist. Heck, you probably don't want to rely on the assumption that you only need to serve a population with access to certain technologies. Making an iPhone app is not enough. Making any app is not enough. Being a community-driven organization just might be enough.

It's also worth mentioning start-up culture has its own atrocities. It's hostile to women.* It's hostile to people of color. They're just generally not the type of organization socially conscious people probably want to work for, not that there aren't exceptions to this generality. I find it intolerable to valorize start-up culture while its downsides go unmentioned.

On Choosing Appropriate Proxies

I envision a rejoinder that libraries should praise & emulate the agility & innovativeness of start-ups, focusing on those attributes rather than their ephemerality. Leaving aside the fact that this straw-person argument is basically "but if you only look at the good things start-ups are good," it hints that start-ups are a poor proxy for what we actually want to talk about. I despise poor proxies. They muddle the debate & obscure the underlying issues. To use my favorite example: when we use age as a proxy for technical savvy, we not only discriminate against older folks but overestimate the abilities of the young. So let's discuss "libraries should be agile & innovative," not "libraries should think like start-ups."

But that's a lame tag-line right? And tag-lines are important. It's catchy, "Think like a Start-Up." But if it's so misleading as to be positively counterproductive, it should be ditched.


Finally, there's perhaps a tension in that start-ups are capitalist institutions par excellence & modern libraries** typically follow a more socialist, resource-sharing approach. But that's too much to go into here & I haven't thought about it enough.

In general, there are virtually no similarities between what libraries should be(come) & what start-ups are. Mic drop.


* There are numerous examples or articles I could have linked to here but Ashe Dryden's is particularly apt. If you think this statement is contestable, leave a comment & I can cite additional instances of hostility.

** Obviously "social libraries" like Benjamin Franklin's Library Company of Philadelphia (unnecessary emphasis mine), where only subscribed members could access the collection, aren't following a very socialist model. These are less common in America today than tax-funded public libraries, for instance.

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