Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Could Kill an Elegant, High-Value Participatory Project?

For the past year, I've been ending many of my talks with this image. It's my "artistic rendering" of one of the most inspirational participatory projects I know of--the Bibliotheek Haarlem Oost book drops.

Haarlem Oost is a branch library in the Netherlands that wanted to encourage visitors to add tags (descriptive keywords) to the books they read. These tags would be added to the books in the catalog to build a kind of recommendation system. To do this, the library didn't create a complicated computer system or send people online. Instead, they installed more book drops and return shelves, labeled with different descriptors like "boring," "great for kids," "funny," etc. This brilliant design allowed patrons to create new knowledge about the books in the library while only slightly adjusting their book-returning behavior. Read the original post on this project for more info.

This design inspires me because it creates new value out of what visitors already do. Too often, cultural institutions design participatory projects that require visitors to learn new tools or make sacrifices to contribute. The Haarlem Oost tagging return system wasn't one of these.

Or, so I thought. Two weeks ago, I decided I wanted a photo of the book drops and shelves in action for my forthcoming book. A Dutch friend volunteered to go snap the library. And then I received this email (bold mine):
I am afraid I have got bad news for you... This afternoon I went to the library in Haarlem Oost to take your pictures. When I arrived there, I noticed that they used 'normal' returning shelves instead of the tagging system. I asked one of the employees and it turned out that they quit using the system some time ago. Of course I asked her why. She explained that it more or less was a victim of its own success. First of all, particular shelves were overloaded in a short period of time (to be frank, I don't see the problem here, but to her it was a big problem, so I guess it influenced their working processes and confused them a lot)

Next to that, people were using the system so seriously that it took them a lot of time per book to decide where to place it. That caused some logistic problems in the (small) building, especially as they have some peak times. That meant that people often had to wait for other people to return their books - and then themselves again needed time to think where to place their books. There was an alternative system next to the tagging system to improve the flow, but people did not want to be rude and waited patiently on their turn- so the alternative did not work.

The woman I spoke to regrets that they do not use the tagging system anymore. She said that it gave them a good understanding on what the people in the neighbourhood like to read. She said that they are determined to introduce the system again when they have a good solution on the logistic problem, but unfortunately she could not give me a concrete term for that.
After I got over my shock (and the urge to delete the email), I realized that this depressing coda is a great illustration of the challenges of sustaining participatory projects.

As it turned out, the Haarlem Oost tagging system DID change visitors' behavior--but arguably, it changed their behavior for the better. Visitors liked the activity, and it helped staff learn more about the usage of the collection.

The problem was not that the system was buggy or hard to use, but that it disrupted staff expectations and behavior. It introduced new challenges for staff--to manage return shelves differently, and to deal with queues. Rather than adapt to these challenges, they removed the system.

This is both incredibly shocking and unsurprising. Librarians--and all cultural professionals--address challenges creatively every day. But the challenges they solve are known ones, emerging from the services they traditionally provide. No librarian would get rid of all the Harry Potter books because they are "too popular." No museum would stop offering an educational program that was "too successful." These are familiar challenges that come with the job and are seen to have benefit. But if tagging creates a line or people spend too much time giving you feedback? Staff at Haarlem Oost likely felt comfortable removing the tagging shelves because they didn't see the tagging as a patron requirement, nor the maintenance of the shelves as part of their job.

These front-line staff also probably weren't involved when the outside architect designed the tagging system. If you want participatory projects to thrive at your institution, you must bring staff along with you in their development and listen to their concerns in the design phase. You have to make it clear that sustaining and stewarding these initiatives is as much "part of the job" as traditional functions. Just as you try to design for minimum guest sacrifice, you have to be conscious of potential staff sacrifice. You can't innovate by capital projects and brilliant ideas alone.

Do you have a story to share of a project that got derailed post-launch in this way? Share your thoughts in the comments on what makes these projects fail (and hopefully, rise again).

24 comments, add yours!:

Ron Mader said...

Thank you! I always look forward to your twitter messages to find jewels like this brilliant post. As I reflect on participatory projects, I find one of the keys to success is buy-in from the staff. When great ideas are designed from the outside, it doesn't matter that much if those on the front lines don't feel engaged themselves.

The fact that you wrote about this experiment should encourage other libraries to consider such a return policy and I hope to read about such efforts in the future.

On a sidenote, I want to organize a book swap early this year. If this initiative gets off the ground, I'll take some photos and share the news with you. It could certainly borrow some ideas from this example.

Sabra Smith said...

Intriguing, since there seemed to be an easy workaround to the issue of lines (multiple choice check off cards instead of shelves?) but as you note, all plans of all sizes require buy-in from all stakeholders, including staff.
Thanks for another insightful post.

Christine Borne said...

I would love to work for an institution that could even think up a project like this!

But seriously, in my experience as a public librarian (and I imagine you can generalize this into the broader cultural organization/nonprofit world), when a directive comes from the administration without any input from the frontline staff, it means that the administration is expecting a fight ... and that they want to circumvent that fight rather than engage in it. Not engaging in this kind of conflict (IMO) is the biggest mistake administrators make. It signals that the powers-that-be are afraid of the frontline staff, who (if they were just involved in decision-making!) probably would embrace interesting new projects.

Jack Kirby said...

As somebody who recently had to search through a whole host of 'special choice' displays to find the book I needed to read for my book group (the staff knew it was in there, just not where), I can attest that there is a downside to departing from normal library behaviour!

I think the other question is, no matter how good the concept, were people actually borrowing from the returned shelves?

Paul Reynolds said...

Great post - I'm curious - couldn't they ask people to write a tag on a slip of paper which is in the book when they take it out - then when it is handed back into the slot - someone tags the record on the catalog?

The tags could also be used as a cloud or an RSS .

But as lots of libraries use user tagging, I guess I am missing something?

Nina Simon said...

Hi Paul and Jack,
If you look at the original post, you'll see that the shelves and drops were brilliantly designed to automatically interface with the online catalog via RFID. No data entry required!

So yes, people did use the shelves, but not only to circulate while onsite. They also used them when they looked at books in the web catalog.

Ruth Cuadra said...

I too feel deflated that Haarlem Oost discontinued their innovative book return system. But, I have a hard time believing that this program was something that the library's administration forced onto an unsuspecting (albeit overworked) staff. The impact of its success on workflow may have been unanticipated and the resulting closure of the program unfortunate, but could an administration alone have come up with such an idea? I felt the hand of librarians who know their community in the design of this project.

Nina Simon said...

Ruth,
The architect was Jan David Hanrath, who has a unique background as a librarian/technologist as well as a 3D designer. I don't know the specifics of the admin/staff/contractor relationship, but I do know that this library (with tagging system) was designed by Hanrath. You can find out more from him here: http://www.hanratharchitect.nl/projecten/haarlem-oost/

Mita said...

Thanks for this post. It got me thinking about what are some of the reasons for this sort of behaviour that I think happens frequently in libraryland. Here's my theory:

In the for-profit sector, more use can usually be translated into more sales, which then can be fed into hiring more staff. The connection between use and funding exists as well in the non-profit world but the link is so weak that I suspect that many frontline staff don't believe that it exists at all. So to these people, curbing "too popular" services (that will take away resources from other areas of the library) is a rational response. So, even if our library service numbers are dangerously dropping, we can't afford success to those folks who feel that the library is "understaffed".

What might be even worse than the 'victim of success' scenario, are all the projects to improve the user experience that never get launched at all, or -if they do- they are launched already hobbled to ensure that there will not be a flood of use.

Nina Simon said...

Mita,
Beautifully written. Thank you.

The other frequent "victims of its own success" in museums are the most-loved interactive exhibits in children's museums and science centers. The more kids bang on something, the more frequently it has to be fixed. The more popular exhibits "cost more" than the boring ones.

Ian Simmons called this "The Survival of the Dullest" -
"Good exhibits are popular, get used and therefore break down.
Dull exhibits don't get used, and so don't break down.
Therefore all interactive exhibitions, without maintenance, eventually tend towards the dull."

John Buchinger said...

I can attest to having people be a part of the process being a good idea. Recently I had an opportunity to provide professional development for a new on site initiative to my museum teaching staff. I was very worried that the proposed changes in the ways we were going to approach a new offering would be met with skepticism and resistance. Instead, the speaker informed, asked for their opinions, and they were won over before I ever opened my mouth.
My plan is now to gather a small group of stakeholders and fully plan and implement the initiative. I am prepared for it to be different than I am currently envisioning, but by getting input, playing to individual strengths, and listening to those who have to do the real work, I think we will have a sustainable program.

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Claire Antrobus said...

I'm interested by MIta's comment about the problem that arises when success isn't linked directly to a positive financial impact. I work in visual art galleries in the UK which are publicly-funded and (almost all) free to enter. As there is no financial incentive to increase audience (and often as Nina pointed out with reference to science centres a negative impact) marketing tends to be under-developed. In fact recent research published by the Arts Council England showed that 60% of don't even monitor how many people come into their buildings - never mind who they are or what they thought of the exhibition.

However, I've recently been doing some work shadowing in a public space which does charge for exhibitions and generates a significant proportion of income from related trading (cafe, shop etc) and its approach to audiences is fundamentally different - it's a commercial issue as well as a 'mission' one and the difference was startling. The business need to attract visitors really focussed the whole organisation on the quality of visit.

Nina Simon said...

Claire,
When I worked at the International Spy Museum (a for-profit museum) we were completely dependent on ticket sales to operate. It created a real symbiosis between visitors' needs and what we offered. It also led to higher focus on marketing and guest service. Particularly in a city (Washington DC) full of free museums, the Spy Museum distinguishes itself as a different kind of experience, and that's definitely tied to the ticket.

wakemp said...

In the early 70s a Presidential commission looked into the failure of a number of Technology initiatives in Education. The compelling finding for me was any change that doesn't consider the existing culture of the organization is doomed to failure. This seems to be another example of the same thing.

Nancy White said...

Nina, beyond the terrific post, I fell in love with the image. Is it creative commons / would you allow others to use it? It tells a beautiful story.

Emma Coonan said...

May I echo Nancy's comment? Beautiful image and one I would love to re-use within my own library. Would you consider allowing this?

Thank you too for a great article!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant Idea! Have some outsider come in and tell workers they need to add more time and effort to their work load. Obviously, the library staff work for free, and asking them to add to their workload is a blessing, allowing them to sacrifice more time and energy in the nun-like service to critical outsiders who have no concept of what the staff does.

You can notice the adolescent-like thinking that nothing is impossible as long as someone else is responsible. No one from outside the library volunteered to do this extra work. The person with the bright idea is not volunteering to make it work.

There is no one from the library saying, "Well, we will stop doing this so we can do this new thing instead." No, they are saying to simply add a new responsibility and new workload on people who are probably already overworked.

And then outsiders tand around and sneer. Hey Bud, instead of sneering, why not volunteer _you_ and _your_ friend's time to make this work? Or do you prefer just to stand around and whine about other people who actually work for a living?

Lukas Koster said...

From a staff member of the public library in Haarlem (my hometown) i heard that this story is only very partly true.
Yes, they experimented with differentiated returns, but most patrons just put everything on the shelf (!) closest by. It just did not work! That is the reason for killing the project.

Nina Simon said...

First of all, yes, anyone can use the image.

@Lukas, I'd love to hear more about this - obviously my source is just one employee and I'm sure the story may be more complex. Can you email me?

@Anon, this is not about forcing library staff to "work for free" or overloading them. I think institutions need to practice planned abandonment to continually assess which services are most valuable to offer and which should be diminished or cut. I did not intend to speak negatively of these staff members, only to point out that sometimes participatory projects are not thought through all the way, and that they are most likely to be sustainable if the people who will be running them (i.e. frontline staff) are involved in their development.

Nancy White said...

Thanks, Nina!

Jan David Hanrath said...

Hi Nina,

Let me join the discussion as the architect and inventor of the concept. I think both your story and Lucas Koster's reaction are true.

Some people take a long time to decide where to put a book, some people just want to get rid of their borrowed materials and put it on a random empty shelf, thereby disturbing the 'tastes' of others.

In this observation I see a solution: make each shelf 50% taste and 50% without taste.

Unfortunately Haarlem chose to remove the tastes completely.

Regards,

Jan David Hanrath

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for your comment, Jan (David). I think you are probably correct about the 50/50, which may be why the two stories are so different.

I have been sharing the story of your project far and wide, and it has inspired many librarians and museum staff. One museum (the Minnesota Historical Society) even took the idea and applied it to the buttons that people wear while in the museum. Now, instead of throwing them away when they leave, they can drop them in a bin to "vote" for their favorite exhibit.

Jan Klerk said...

Hi Nina,
I was project leader for the new branche library in Haarlem Oost back in 2006. I've posted some background information about the 'tast tagging'-project here on my blog.
Best regards,
Jan Klerk
City Library Haarlem Netherlands