Library Issues

The Gospel of Good Enough

Incredible article in Wired this month on the Good Enough Revolution, which explores and explains a set of emergent economic principles that I think are equally applicable to information seeking. There’s a degree to which we really need to start looking hard at economic models in library and information science…I think they can really inform the creation and distribution of the services that we offer. Check out this quote, for example…

…it happens to be a recurring theme in Good Enough products. You can think of it this way: 20 percent of the effort, features, or investment often delivers 80 percent of the value to consumers. That means you can drastically simplify a product or service in order to make it more accessible and still keep 80 percent of what users want—making it Good Enough…

At the OITP panel I was a part of at ALA, I think that Eli and I shocked a few people in the audience when we asserted that quality of information doesn’t matter. That isn’t to say it NEVER matters…I want my doctor and my lawyer to have the best information possible. But for the vast majority of information need, good enough is good enough.

Think about the services in your library, and the amount of effort and resources poured into making your services as good as they can possibly be. What if good enough is really enough, and instead we should be expanding our range of services instead of seeking perfection in any single one? How does that change the way libraries operate?

By griffey

Jason Griffey is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at NISO, where he works to identify new areas of the information ecosystem where standards expertise is useful and needed. Prior to joining NISO in 2019, Jason ran his own technology consulting company for libraries, has been both an Affiliate at metaLAB and a Fellow and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and was an academic librarian in roles ranging from reference and instruction to Head of IT at the University of TN at Chattanooga.

Jason has written extensively on technology and libraries, including multiple books and a series of full-periodical issues on technology topics, most recently AI & Machine Learning in Libraries and Library Spaces and Smart Buildings: Technology, Metrics, and Iterative Design from 2018. His newest book, co-authored with Jeffery Pomerantz, will be published by MIT Press in 2024.

He has spoken internationally on topics such as artificial intelligence & machine learning, the future of technology and libraries, decentralization and the Blockchain, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. A full list of his publications and presentations can be found on his CV.
He is one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries for the Measure the Future project (, an open hardware project designed to provide actionable use metrics for library spaces. He is also the creator and director of The LibraryBox Project (, an open source portable digital file distribution system.

Jason can be stalked obsessively online, and spends his free time with his daughter Eliza, reading, obsessing over gadgets, and preparing for the inevitable zombie uprising.

8 replies on “The Gospel of Good Enough”

I agree there is always a balance to be struck. I wonder though what good enough looks like from a systems perspective (what amount of uptime is good enough) or from a preservation perspective (what percentage of our archival resources do we want to (possibly) be around in ten years)? I’m not sure business models are the best fit for institutions of cultural knowledge.

Kevin: I do think that there’s some interesting things to be said about systems and “good enough”. I disagree that all libraries are “institutions of cultural knowledge”. Collectively, we can consider Libraries such, but each individual library can certainly be “good enough” at certain things. I like the idea of exploring some of the archival issues with “good enough”. I’ll put that in my hat and think about it for awhile.

This is great, mostly because just yesterday I was thinking about just the opposite! My thoughts aren’t fully formed but my basic line of thinking is that good enough services are probably wholly unremarkable and don’t leave any sort of impression on our users. Doing Things Right (even if we have to do fewer things) with pride and quality, on the other hand, could make libraries stand out and make our users admire us.

Aaron: I’m not sure about wholly unremarkable. Good Enough is fast and sufficient to answer need…how many times are both of those things lacking in ones daily interactions with information and technology?

I’m not arguing that libraries shouldn’t do Great Things. I want libraries to do Great Things regularly. But I’m beginning to think that maybe we could do MORE Great Things if we paid more attention to the overall economy of our operations, and I don’t just mean in the a monetary sense.

Let’s do the Great Thing more often, if we can get over the idea that _everything_ we do is a Great Thing.

It sounds to me that Good Enough likely owes its origins to the cybernetics guru, Herbert Simon, and his idea of satisficing. Simon claimed that humans make decisions not based on rational-optimization (we decide on the overall best option, and act accordingly); rather we make decisions based on what satisfices (we decide on something that does the job–can we add, “good enough”?–and act accordingly).

We see satisficing behavior in libraries all the time. Students often decide to shift research topics based on finding resources that satisfice–and why not? Collection management decisions about what databases to keep and what to drop often boil down to what will satisfice our patrons given our particular library’s mission (support faculty and students; support general public). Public libraries that order fiction collections by genre type, or author, or audience age, are making such organizing decisions on principles of satisficing, not optimizing; optimizing access to fiction collections may mean possessing multiple copies of every novel, no matter how obscure/mundane, in order to have fiction collections organized multiple ways (by genre & by audience age & by author & by DDC)–yes? (Funny how optimizing the fiction collection sounds precisely doable in electronic realms). Likewise for many kinds of queries, folksnomies satisfice for focused searching and browsing, whereas controlled vocabularies might optimize (if, soundly constructed and current, of course). And finally, for many ready-reference questions, or fact-checking tasks in reference work, Wikipedia certainly satisfices many queries for librarians and non-librarians alike.

So as we move deeper, or more entrenched, into automated life (libraries and otherwise) it makes sense to me that the cybernetics guru’s principles of satisficing should become every more apparent in numerous aspects of storing and retrieving information, whether connected to libraries proper, or not.

Velcro has replaced the pleasure of tying shoelaces, but perhaps that’s okay.

Gwen Williams

The hitch for me in this common –80 % of the features (etc.) that a customer finds useful (etc.) can be accounted for in 20 % of our effort or the features of our service (etc.) ratio—is actually finding the right 20 % of our service or product (etc.) that the user/customer finds “good enough” or useful. If we fall into a consistent pattern of satisficing in the production, planning, and rollout of our services and resources, then we will tend to offer our customers/users a less thorough and seemingly valuable service or resource. I see librarians and libraries as a safety measure for or pivot against the ubiquity of satisficing. I realize that we all satisfice, but I think we should strive to “optimize” (borrowing Gwen’s term above), since our users/customers will seemingly be harmed (or shortchanged) if we give into satisficing the majority of the time. Skimming on the quality, thoroughness, accuracy, and reliability of our information, services, and resources curtails the library’s value as an institutional and cultural alternative to satisficing.

My experience with students over the years makes me believe we are reaching a satisficing critical mass or tipping point. If we consciously practice more satisficing in the back-end, planning, and delivery of services (etc.), then I believe we are taking away the percentage of quality information and resources our users have an opportunity to receive. Libraries and librarians need to feed optimizing energy, information, and processes back into the world. Our users (at least 50 % of the time, I suspect) need thorough, accurate, and quality information and resources, in order that their satisficing starts at least on solid ground. In my experience the thinly disguised Wikipedia cut and paste paper is surfacing more often, so are we really wise to wryly cave-in to this standard ourselves?

I think we need to be a positive influence for our users/customers on the advantages of optimizing, accuracy, and thoroughness. I am rewarded again and again by a smile of relief or gratitude when I guide a customer or student to accurate, reliable, or optimal resource or solution. Don’t we all treasure that moment when a student or customer realizes that a database (or book) really answers their question/need; and now they can more confidently or easily proceed (or hopefully succeed)?

I realize that there is no absolute polarity between satisficing and optimizing and that satisficing is not inherently negative. But I think that satisficing behaviors are encroaching too far into instances when users need optimal resources, services, and information. Striving for information literacy and library instruction components in our services and resources, would seem to be a spearhead of showing our users/customers optimizing behaviors and optimized results at least a healthy percentage of the time. Again, don’t get me wrong, I realize that we all satisfice and are pushed to satisfice by our multitude of tasks, responsibilities, and projects. My suggestion is that we strive not to satisfice to at least attempt to strike a balance for our users and customers.

I agree there is always a balance to be struck. I wonder though what good enough looks like from a systems perspective (what amount of uptime is good enough) or from a preservation perspective (what percentage of our archival resources do we want to (possibly) be around in ten years)? I'm not sure business models are the best fit for institutions of cultural knowledge.

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