Erin Dorney

Blogging life & librarianship

On Brainstorming

with 3 comments


My colleague Greg and I recently facilitated a fun and successful brainstorming session at my library. We had everyone watch this video, asking them not to focus on the specific technology being used, but on the possibilities— how the technology impacted the experience of the family depicted. Then we talked about how the new library (including our new building, new website, changing staff and services) is shifting to focus on the overarching experience students have when they encounter “the library” on or off campus. We also talked about how the Millersville library has been soliciting user feedback for years about the renovation— what chairs would students prefer, what kinds of spaces do they need, what technologies should we support? We are moving in that direction with our new website as well, and at the moment are privileging input from our target audience over internal input in order to ensure that our “digital branch” exists primarily for the user, not the library. It’s a shift that has been happening for years (ever since I arrived in 2008), but I don’t know that anyone has ever presented it quite so holistically before.

Then everyone split into groups and did a brainstorming exercise. We had people count off by fours to ensure diverse representation in the groups— we wanted to get the broadest intermixing of the minds: front-line staff with administrators, student employees with librarians, etc. You can adapt/re-purpose our Brainstorming Handout if you’d like. The handout asks participants to consider a few everyday situations: buying and drinking a cup of coffee at Starbucks vs. a local coffee shop; listening to music on Spotify vs. iTunes; shopping for produce at the market vs. a grocery store. Greg and I asked the groups to use markers and big pieces of paper to brainstorm about an experience listed on the handout or another transaction/interaction, considering the following questions:

  1. What did you prefer and why?
  2. What made your experience better at one or the other?
  3. What would make the experience even better?
  4. What do you imagine this experience looking like 5 or 10 years from now?

Everyone started working and Greg & I circulated the room to observe and chime in. Interestingly, all of the groups decided to discuss the experience of grocery shopping. Here are notes from some of the groups (I lost one of the big pieces of paper before getting it typed up):


  • Convenience
  • Social interaction
  • Central Market – Better customer service – local is better
  • Drive-up grocery
  • Co-ops (but land is disappearing)
  • Ordering online
  • Customization
  • Continuing to meet expectations
  • Convenience – Depends on location, more process/services coming to you vs going to it
  • Grocery stores – convenient, open space, variety, cheaper, self checkout/single checkout
  • Market – specialty items, freshness, fun, expect to spend more time
  • 5-10 years from now – Electronic – order from fridge – personal grocery shopper – Multifunction cooking device – Ordering of items based on prior purchase

My purpose with this post isn’t to compare libraries to grocery shopping. But honestly, who can ignore the similarities when you look at the brainstorming results? Many of the things that came up as memorable parts of the experience of shopping have been talked about when discussing the future of libraries. Making services/resources/spaces convenient for the user. Providing an element of social interaction. Good customer service. Locally-focused collections. Electronic access. Customization and personalization. Multifunction devices. Recommendation services. Open spaces. Self-service points. Interesting…

Coming back together in a large group, we did a debriefing where each team talked about their brainstorming for a few minutes. Observations included that what is convenient for one group or person might be inconvenient for another (echoing the differences between target audiences at an academic library – freshmen vs seniors vs commuters). Another interesting point was that much of the discussion revolved around the customer experience (service, convenience) rather than the content (quality of food). Although one team did mention freshness and specialty items, it wasn’t the focus. It’s almost as if content is a given, a certain standard upheld so that consumers can focus on other factors when making their decision of where to shop. I wonder how much transferability this has when considering the library. Should we be staking our name and our futures on content alone? Should we downplay our content to focus more closely on other reasons users would want to choose the library as an integral part of their lives?

I deemed the brainstorming session a success. People didn’t feel threatened. They weren’t being asked to brainstorm about the library specifically, which could unintentionally underscore fears of job/organizational re-visioning. Instead, we deconstructed the everyday experience of grocery shopping. I think it was the first step towards opening a productive line of dialogue for the future of our library. Have you had success with brainstorming at your library? I’d love to learn how to do this better and more frequently!

Image CC BY-NC 2.0 courtesy of ericmay


Written by Erin Dorney

February 28, 2012 at 8:04 AM

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I love this post and your brainstorming idea. In my mind, it is in those moments when you can get library people to stop thinking about everything in terms of the library that a real change in vision can occur. Thanks for sharing!


    February 28, 2012 at 8:46 AM

  2. Holy wow. I am beyond impressed and inspired by this post. What a great example of a new way to think about improving library services. This goes beyond the “thinking outside the library” we tend to talk about as a profession. I feel like the activity you set up with your colleague really got at the core underlying outcomes that you want to achieve with changes you’re making in your new building. Bravo. This has given me lots of food-for-thought.

    Linz Rae

    February 28, 2012 at 10:11 AM

  3. Erin–you always bring a smile to my face. You continuously rock the library world with your ideas and your leadership. This is an excellent idea and a very creative way to have people think differently about the library is and how we present it. Awesome as always!


    February 28, 2012 at 11:02 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s