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efficient inefficiency

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I’m all for the holiday, for a little mid-winter joy for the turning of our rather arbitrary calendar system. But another revolution around the sun doesn’t provide enough impetus for me to declare a personal revolution. Most resolutions are hour-by-hour affairs, not watch-the-ball-drop-and-it’s-a-new-me overnight sensations. This may be the year I stop biting my nails, loose twenty pounds and send holiday cards, but it won’t be because this is the year I *really* wanted to- it will be because this is the year the incremental work built up to a new habit. We mostly become better people, learn more, improve our skills, break bad habits, build good practices in a creeping, inefficient way. Tempting though it is, the quick fix raises our eyebrows and suspicion. We change ourselves by creating new connections, internally and externally.

Libraries, built by their communities, in turn create communities by building connections. Earlier this month, danah boyd mused about technology and efficiency:

Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money….Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.

and today, Seth Godin posted about nickel and diming customers:

Wifi is a great example. The marginal cost of hosting one more person on a wifi network is as close to zero as something can be. Charge people more than $10 a day and suddenly you’re making hundreds or thousands of dollars of extra profit. Or promise free scuba, but charge people $70 for a checkout course before you let them dive… low marginal cost, high incremental profit.

I have no doubt that this works in the short run. It might even work out to be a viable marketing strategy in some markets. However, the alternative is worth considering. Not only do everything you say you’re going to do, but do more.

Offering low marginal cost items for free is a shortcut to generating word of mouth, which is a lot cheaper than buying ads.

Libraries charge for very little, but as we’ve discussed here before, “it’s free” is often code for “it will cost you in minutes and hours.” Libraries have the opportunity to be the perfect intersection between technologically-enabled rapidity and community-generating inefficiency.

One of my constant projects (which could be expressed as an annual New Year’s resolution, except it lacks an end point) is to keep increasing the efficiency of the paper-shuffling aspects of my life. Anything that doesn’t require thought or depth of interaction shouldn’t be eating up too much time- on and off the job. We’re in the business of connecting people with information which sometimes means connecting them with each other. It almost never means connecting them with long, pointless forms (insert tax season joke here). How are we nickel and diming our patrons’ time? Are we efficiently inefficient?

The last thing we want to do is build social solidarity by creating a library where people bond by complaining about the library. Our institutional inefficiency shouldn’t stand in the way of the personal, probably inefficient, connection-building that our users came to the library to do. The effort we expend on our patrons should be for them and their needs, not in pushing them down our paper-strewn hallways of information bureaucracy.

This isn’t something a New Year’s resolution can address. It’s a constant process of tiny reinventions, automating the silly, small details of our organizations and workflows (insert Sirsi joke here) and looking every day for ways to facilitate connections between our patrons, each other, and information without getting in their way. 2008 will surely be a year of continued, breakneck speed changes in technology. Instead of feeling defeated and overwhelmed by everything that’s whipping towards us, let’s meet it head on and use constant change as an excuse for constant improvement.

Happy New Year.


4 comments for “efficient inefficiency”

  1. Fantastic discussion, Kate. I have felt this way for a long time, too. The only resolution I make (and keep) each year is to eat more chocolate. That is always easy. ๐Ÿ˜€

    I have found with goals I am working towards is that I work a little bit, little bit gradually on each one. My projects tend to have a web of connections between them so it is slow progress. But then, suddenly, within a short frame they all suddenly come to fruition and I feel like a superhero. *POW!* Take that you evil old ways! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Happy New Year!


    Posted by Connie Crosby | December 31, 2007, 5:59 pm
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