An Evening of Innovation from the Margins

Posted: May 19, 2012 in Librarians Without Borders
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Article contributed by Amanda Halfpenny and originally appeared at Librarians Without Borders blog

Please visit her blog at BiblioBlond’s Blog

On May11th LWB supporters gathered at the University of Toronto’s iSchool for a social evening of dialogue and learning. Four diverse speakers reflected on the theme of “Innovation from the Margins”, with John Shewfelt , our LWB master of ceremonies for the evening, setting the tone with opening remarks about the importance of two-way information flow to LWB.

The always captivating Stephen Abram, who is VP Strategic Partnerships and Markets for Gale Cengage, spoke from the heart about what it takes to be an innovator. His slides are now available on his blog, Stephen’s Lighthouse.

Stephen’s talk was especially inspiring as it focused on how innovators work past and through obstacles to take the awesome ideas and practices that exist in the margins and make them mainstream. He discussed the importance of innovators being future oriented and having a clear strategy on how to attain their vision. On the road to implementing change, organizations often go through ambiguous periods; however, Stephen argued that when you have a clear strategy on how to attain your vision, it makes it easier to deal with ambiguity.

Stephen also discussed how innovators love to play; he gave the example of a child whose sandcastle on the beach gets knocked down by waves. Instead of giving up, the child will keep building sandcastles and each time, the sandcastles will improve and incorporate new elements. Innovators are adults who take the same approach to their work.  What a great analogy!

One of our favourite quotes from Stephen’s talk was that Google is great at answering the “who,” “what” and” when,” but librarians are better at answering “how” and “why.” Libraries need to create a third path and understand systemic obstacles because money doesn’t solve the problems when the obstacles are systemic.

Our next speaker, Katherine Palmer, Director of Planning, Policy, and E-Services at the Toronto Public Library, delivered an equally inspiring talk; she spoke about her experiences on a project of service trips organized through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) to a public library in Indonesia following the devastating 2004 tsunami. Her story was full of moments of self-realization about her own assumptions and lessons from how she worked with the library staff so that they could implement and sustain successful library services to the community of the Pidie District. The FMC structure for the service trips had Katherine returning five times over a period of 18 months. These return trips allowed her to scaffold the learning of the staff and allowed staff to work on assignments between projects. All of the attendees of the event were in awe when Katherine explained that the library went from serving 275 people over the course of a year (the statistic prior to the development project) to serving 100 people a day. The library even has umbrellas and chairs set up outside. This is truly a happy library success story!

When Mike McCaffrey, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s iSchool took the podium, he conveyed his passion for government documentation and explained the lack of legal recognition by the international community for many civil societies with no formal government status. Mike spoke fervently about the need to create a repository for the documents of these groups that might otherwise be lost because they do not meet the legal requirements of a sovereign state. In keeping with the theme of “innovation from the margins,” Mike argued the need to collect without judgement the documents of those who he referred to as “unrecognized peoples.” He believes that the benefits will be tangible for society as a whole, for research purposes, and for people wanting to learn about their heritage. Although this project could appear to be controversial, Mike reminded the LWB attendees that today’s freedom fighter is tomorrow’s father of confederation, citing George Washington as an example. At this point, Stephen Abram brought up the point that during the Taliban rule, the official documentation of Afghanistan’s laws had been destroyed and once the Taliban fell, it was thanks to the copies of the Afghan law preserved at the Library of Congress that the librarians were able to “give back” to the Afghan people their pre-Taliban laws.  Anyone interested in this helping to develop this project should contact Mike McCaffrey .

Our final speaker was award-winning children and young adult author Helaine Becker. As a non-librarian, she had a slightly different perspective on the issues being discussed but she is equally as passionate about mobilizing those around her to make a difference in Canada and internationally. She spoke about her visit to an inner-city school in Los Angeles where she found the school’s library shelves empty. This visit acted as a catalyst to mobilize Helaine into organizing Airlift to LA in partnership with Access Books (an organization that LWB knows and has supported)an initiative to fill the shelves of school libraries with books donated by Canadian authors and publishers. The goal of this project was to provide much needed books to the under-funded inner-city school but also to raise awareness of the current situation of neglect in school libraries in the United States and in Canada.

Following the last talk, the informal nature of the event allowed for much discussion on the topics presented over the course of the evening.  Everyone was able to share their opinions on themes that were common to all of the speakers such as the need to develop meaningful partnerships and as well the need for librarians to promote their successes outside of the library world.

The “Innovation from the Margins” evening was a first-time event of this format for LWB. The exchange that took place provided everyone with inspiration about the differences that libraries make here and abroad. Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed.


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