Looking Back at "Play Learn Innovate"

Last week, 635 people from everywhere in the English-speaking world logged into the Play Learn Innovate symposium that was co-sponsored by Library Journal and OCLC. The discussion was free online, ably administered by OCLC’s team through the Cisco WebEx online conferencing system. I moderated and spoke as the first presenter, joined by brilliant academics Kurt Squire and Erica Rosenfeld Halverson out of University of Wisconsin-Madison. The program lasted two hours, and was followed by an additional hour of further discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #playlearn.

It was amazing. The Tweetstream gave evidence how much the listeners found our ideas engaging, exciting and how it sparked their curiosity and got them thinking. I was too focused on doing my job to follow Twitter during the event, but reading it over afterward was honestly pretty mind-boggling.

Then again, Kurt and Erica’s presentations were boggling my brain quite thoroughly all by themselves, and I wish Kurt had been able to remain on hand to talk with us longer.

Both Erica and Kurt were anything but stuffy academics. They were thoughtful, offering insightful ideas and discussing their research in a way that made me want to participate in any way possible. The work they were describing was genuinely awe-inspiring to me, and I hope some of the libraries around the world can pick up and run with some of the possibilities they discussed.

Josh Hadro wrote a very complete assessment of the symposium a few days ago, and far be it from me to try to gild that lily. Go read! I’ll wait for you here…

Josh was the fellow who first approached me with the idea of doing this symposium and, I admit, I was a bit slow to embrace the idea. “Innovation” seems like such a buzzword these days, and everybody and their brother is shilling creativity as the next big way business must change. It reminded me, at first, of the Five Minute Manager hype or the moving cheese from some years ago.

But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that what OCLC is trying to do — this was the third in a series about innovation in libraries — is truly important. As librarians, we are struggling with the tsunami of change in publishing and in funding. We are buffeted by shifts in the public’s perception of who and what we are, what we do and what we should do. We are asking ourselves those questions privately as well as well as publicly, in blogs and articles throughout the profession. For their own part, OCLC’s Innovation Lab shows just how seriously they are taking the need to reinvent ourselves for the future without losing track of the very things we value most.

It will require a creative, inventive, innovative campaign, drawing on the most dynamic ideas the profession can deliver. And that’s not easy.

A point I made in my part of the talk is how traditional libraries are, how risk-averse — and yet, at the same time, how very forward-thinking we can be at our best. There is a real dissonance between what we say and what we do, too, in everyday practice. We say we like creative efforts, but do something too different and it gets called disruptive, criticized as contrary to our venerable history of lofty ideals. Stretch the boundaries of what’s expected by the general public, and the Library Director finds herself dealing with angry letters asking what we think we’re doing with the people’s tax dollars.

Inside our workrooms and on our committees, how often do we slide into groupthink or pessimism? We think up something ambitious but then carve it down to the lowest common denominator to get it pushed through. Crazy ideas from an outspoken clerk or page get dismissed because they can’t possibly see the big picture, without even checking to see if that pebble is actually a scintillant diamond in the rough.

Libraries cannot afford to squander our resources, and that includes the creative, innovative, playful minds around us. A playful attitude is both the spark and the tinder, catching fire when fresh ideas are welcomed and nurtured. The entitled leaders must be willing to create an environment where ideas can bubble up, even when it makes half the people there roll their eyes like bored teenagers.

Even more, we must not wait for permission to be creative in every aspect of our lives, fearlessly taking the responsibility to explore and share the clever things we cook up in our heads. Not every idea will take root and thrive, but there is room in the world for a lot of ideas — and a serious need for some new ways to deal with our many new problems. The old problems could use a fresh approach too.

Play and games are not synonymous, but they are intrinsically intertwined. Games teach a playful attitude, and an optimistic conviction that failure is not always the end of the world. After all, you hit Reset, drop back to the last Save, and apply what you learned from the mistakes that crashed your Mario Kart into the wall. You have to come up with a new approach so you don’t make the same mistake again; after all, how else will you get to the next level? And the more you play, the better you get at crafting new ideas, challenging your original assumptions, and ultimately finding the pleasure of peak experiences at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Coming up with a new approach, a better idea is what creative innovation is all about. So get out there and play.

I have uploaded the slides of my portion of the Learn Play Innovate event to Slideshare (which only messed with my formating a little), with OCLC’s blessing. I understand they will be uploading the entire event, including the recording of our dulcet tones, in the immediate future. I will link you to that when I hear it has gone up. Until then, game on!



  1. Alice Sneary says:

    Thanks Liz. You can find the full recording at https://oclc.webex.com/oclc/lsr.php?AT=pb&SP=EC&rID=48619007&rKey=d2d3fbe7700f0afe

    And thanks to you for such fantastic moderating!


  1. […] Google engineers (and others) have something called “20% for Innovation” time. I first heard about this idea last month while preparing to moderate and speak at an online shindig called “Play Learn Innovate.” […]