Unique is a Strong Word

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I promised a follow-up on the RMG session at ALA, but rather than give a blow-by-blow account (done nicely by Leonard Kniffel already), I thought I would single out one part of the conversation.

I am a lover of language, though I am often careless myself.  I bite my tongue at grammatical errors or poor language usage.  But I am bothered more by the use of words that violates the spirit but not the law of vocabulary and grammar.  Repeated superlatives annoy me.  More than one exclamation point per page should never survive editing.  Given the word's roots in crucifixion, I cringe at the loose usage of "excruciating" to describe the most trivial personal trial.

So that is why I was dismayed to hear one of the library automation CEOs on Rob McGee's RMG panel describe each of his customers as "unique."  It is this kind of thinking, I believe, that could be detrimental to true innovation in libraries. 

I'm not suggesting that libraries are not unique--a mixture of staff, skills, collections, geography, and patrons makes for a distinctive offering.  But remember, the panel was talking about re-inventing the integrated library system.  Is a circulation transaction unique?  Is the act of buying a book unique?  Is each catalog record unique (or more likely, does it need to be)?

This is, of course, a shared problem.  Locally installed systems with infinite configurability tempt libraries to strive for uniqueness where they shouldn't and cause vendors to create more and more incremental (and expensive) changes to commodity systems that support the least distinctive workflows in library management. 

eBay or Amazon do what they can to create unique experiences for customers, but once we click that "purchase" button, we are all a credit card number and address.  Imagine the custom offerings libraries could be making if the focus shifted from configuring and explaining what should be industrialized processes to the things that make them truly unique.

Comments3 Comments

Merrilee said:

I heartily agree with you. Can you enumerate activities that individual library engage in that ARE unique? Or, that are unique and likely to remain unique? I may lack imagination, but I struggle with this.

I am thinking about making some buttons that say "relatively unique," one of my favorite phrases. You may have one.

Roy Tennant said:

Totally with you man, and not because we work at the same organization. I wrote about this some time ago in one of my personal crusades that I've titled in an annoying way, "You're Not Special". Of course we are all unique, and special, but we must get in touch with our sameness if we are going to stop wasting time on stuff that doesn't matter and start focusing on creating compelling user experiences.

I'm a little late on this post, but I thought it was interesting. At my library, we have recently had very similar discussions. I've often struggled with the same question Merrilee asked - What are the daily activities that make us different? Not to trivialize libraries or our core function, but our "business" is not overly complex. What is overly complex is the way we have organized our systems...I like the idea of coming together around "sameness" and focusing our attention on user experience. In my humble opinion, we will be left behind if we don't shift our attention to creating unique user experiences, both in our physical and online environments...

About the Author

Andrew K. Pace

I am Executive Director for Networked Library Services at OCLC. I am also a past President of LITA. On occasion, I am known for pontificating "on stage, in writing, and via the web" on a variety of issues important to libraries.

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