Getting started, failing faster, and getting things done

A reaction to SPARC's #OpenPros webcast "Scrappy Strategies: Advancing Open on Campus with Limited Resources"
By Gesina A. Phillips, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Duquesne University

When I was asked to participate in the SPARC Scrappy Strategies webcast, it was pitched at first as a program about one-person scholarly communication departments. First thought: my goodness, there are others out there like me! Next thought: how in the world are we getting so many things done?

The presenters for what turned into “Scrappy Strategies: Advancing Open on Campus with Limited Resources” answered that question in a few different ways—Micah by focusing on different types of approaches, Anita by speaking about understanding your campus context, and Brianna in her discussion about strategies for engagement. All three together represent a framework for a new scholcomm librarian, led by formative questions: how are you going to work? who and what do you have to work with? which things are you going to try first?

I’ve found myself asking similar questions throughout my first two years of librarianship, although I never had them laid out for me quite so clearly. I am the dedicated scholarly communication representative at a doctorate-granting institution with under 10,000 students. Although I have colleagues who have been involved in scholcomm-adjacent work for quite some time, as well as a good deal of support within my library, I struggle with many of the same things as the webcast presenters: limited budget, limited time, many equally exciting priorities and initiatives, difficulty engaging (or even finding!) campus stakeholders, resistance to certain ideas and projects, and more.

Given these challenges, it can be hard to find a direction as a new professional in this particular subfield. When I first started in this role, I was excited by the wide Open world of my profession. Seeing the fantastic work being done at other colleges and universities, I found it difficult to keep in mind that institutional contexts differ wildly. When seeking inspiration for new projects and services or looking into models from other institutions, I quickly learned it is important remember that the mission, needs, wants, strategic priorities, population, budget, etc. of our two institutions are likely quite different, and what worked in one context might not map directly to another. Finding out more about the needs, wants, and priorities of the population of my own institution has helped and will continue forever to help me to adapt existing strategies, provide better service, and do work that is more targeted and relevant—and therefore more interesting, exciting, inspiring, etc.—to the members of my campus community.

This focus on learning your context also leads to an improved iterative approach to projects and priorities. If at first you don’t succeed, fail again and faster. Attempts, even those which are not successful, generate data about things that worked and things that didn’t. If you’ve thoroughly considered your context, the next best step is to put your ideas into action. The next step after that is to fine-tune based on your feedback, and try again. This is so much easier said than done, of course, and is something I struggle with regularly. However, identifying low-risk areas for iterative design and continuous development is a strategy that I have been striving to build into my current projects in order to assess and improve progressively rather than all at once at the end.

The good thing about the Open community in my experience among librarians is that there is a robust network of people in various stages of most every project you can imagine. If you think of something neat and new and want to find advice on how to implement it, someone within that network has been down a similar path and is generally willing to offer advice. In a field that is particularly focused on openness and transparency, this willingness to share successes (and hopefully stories of failure, as well) is a promising example of enacting our values. I am excited to begin sharing my own scrappy strategies and to continue learning from other Open advocates as we all, somehow, get so many things done.

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