Disruptive Innovation in an Academic Library: One View

"Disruptive innovation" has become such a buzz-word that it seems to have spawned a minor industry.  Disruptive innovation is "explained" in a video featuring Clayton Christiansen, the guru and (for practical purposes) the inventor of the phrase.  Let it be noted that Christiansen himself sticks to a careful, specific definition.  (The commentary spawned by this phrase, however, has taken it way beyond Christiansen's probable intentions.)  According to that video:

Disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough innovation that makes good products a lot better. . . . It transforms a product that historically was so expensive and complicated that only a few people with a lot of money and a lot of skill had access to it.  Disruptive innovation makes it so much more affordable and accessible that a much larger population have access to it.

Christiansen goes on in his writings (such as The Innovative Universitywhich I reviewed here) to add that such new, affordable products may be (in fact) inferior to the previous, expensive products –but that doesn't matter: the new products are good enough.  Common examples that Christiansen and others cite are transistors (in particular, transistor radios for consumers), automobiles, and computer chips.

One would foolhardy –and probably wrong– to doubt the basic wisdom of Christiansen's insights.  But how has this really played out in academic libraries?  I've read a lot about this, but in the end I use what I have read to understand my own experience.

So what is "the product" that academic libraries produce, much less that universities produce?  This is where Christiansen's concepts get stickier.

So far as disruptive technology goes, my entire career in librarianship has enacted the disruptions.

Digression: In 1981 I began work as a cataloguer's assistant in the Historical Studies Library at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton –the original think tank for Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, Robert J. Oppenheimer, George A. Kennan, Erwin Panofsky, to name only a few of the true luminaries.  A great deal of everyday life the later 20th and 21st centuries is founded on the work of IAS scholars.  While I was there I encounter –and listened to– George Kennan, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Hawking, Irving Lavin, Albert O. Hirschman, and Clifford Geertz.  For a humble cataloguer's assistant, recent M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, it was a very heady experience.  (And this after three years in Princeton, where I remember encountering John Nash, Rudolf Carnap, John Fleming, and Carl Schorske).

Anyway, what about being a cataloguer's assistant?  I actually typed cards for the catalog.  That kind of work disappeared by about 1985 (–but not before I stopped doing it in 1982).  My first professional job as a cataloger 1986-1993 disappeared after I resigned it, as did work as an Cataloging Associate at Princeton University, and Editor of a Union List of Serials for academic libraries in Rhode Island, 1996-1998.  Jobs I have held since –Head of Technical Services in what is now a constitutent library of Columbia University, and Systems and Electronic Resources Librarian at Muhlenberg College, still exist in some fashion, but actual work –what those people do everyday– has changed dramatically.

In short, I used to do a lot of things that computers do now, mediated and supervised by human beings. Information technology in one sense disrupted that work but not completely –professional-level care for database quality and consistency (=avoiding garbage-in) is what makes the very daily world of the Internet go.  It's built on the work of many, many people long before "computers" stopped being people and started being things.  (That obscure reference explained.)

Work in libraries 1980-present has been a story of disruption, but also continuity.  Grant that the technology is disruptive, what about disruptive innovation?  What does an academic library produce?  That is less clear –and for that reason, some people argue, academic libraries shouldn't be funded.  "Show your productivity in numbers, or be gone," in effect.