While Brian Matthews’ Think Like a Startup is directed toward academic libraries and their librarians, the scope of the author’s advice goes well beyond academic libraries. Public libraries, private libraries, and non-library businesses and organizations can benefit from various points in the paper. From dealing with functional fixedness to complete overhauls, Think Like a Startup covers the steps to keeping a library relevant in a fast-changing world.
Again and again, Matthews emphasizes the “vulnerability” of libraries (2012). This is true, of course. As technology changes and evolves and information becomes accessible in different ways, libraries are at risk. Matthews’ emphasis verges on scare tactics, however, inadvertently suggesting that even a complete overhaul of the concept of a library may be futile. This may also be a strategy to encourage readers to think in much bigger ways than they have been in terms of altering library services. But this particular set of reiterations does more to scare the reader out of doing anything — in a sense, paralyzing the reader — than it does to shove the reader into action.
As Matthews impresses upon readers the importance of “redefining and realigning the role and identity of the academic library.” If this is the path a library chooses to take, is it, then, still a library? Perhaps it is necessary to change the name entirely for the sake of a continued existence. Even San José State University’s online MLIS program recently changed its name from the School of Information and Library Science to the School of Information. Maybe it’s time we start calling libraries “Information Centers” or some other relative synonym. There are a lot of important questions to discuss when considering a name change: H-ow does nostalgia factor in? Should the new name try to incorporate some of the old name? These are questions Matthews does not address — while he gives the reader a general guide of things to consider, he does not provide a thorough how-to.
And it’s impossible to do so. To provide a how-to would result in too many similar results. It is not only necessity that promotes innovation, but competition and variety. When all libraries look the same, there is no competition among libraries.
One potentially fatal thing Matthews fails to consider in his paper is that libraries are not startups. Yes, libraries can and should learn a lot from startups. However, libraries do not have the luxury of being new. Matthews forgets that, while startups have nothing to lose (no customers, no reputation, little to no public funding), libraries have quite a bit to lose. Changing the furniture in the library to facilitate collaboration may not be a risky move, but larger changes have the potential to alienate and anger patrons, alter the community’s opinion of the library, and limit future funding. Furthermore, many of these Big Changes for which Matthews advocates requires far more funding than most libraries have at their disposal. While not all big ideas are big drains on the bank account, many are — and those that fail are far more costly than those that succeed.
Finally, Matthews suggests, “Most startups fail; learn from the ones that didn’t.” This is good advice to an extent. Absolutely, libraries should look at what successful startups have in common that made them thrive. But it is just as important to study the failures of unsuccessful startups in order to avoid falling into the same traps. There is an adage that says we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. But libraries don’t have to just count on their own failures for education — they can draw from the failures of others.
Matthews, B. (2012, April). Think like a startup. Retrieved from http://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/18649/Think%20like%20a%20STARTUP.pdf?sequence=1