Librarianship, and Farming vs Mining

The opening sentence for Will Shipley’s post “Success, and Farming vs Mining” couldn’t be any better:

Let’s come up with an analogy and then torture it like we’re the Cheney administration: imagine you’ve just purchased a plot of land. What are you going to do, mine or farm?

The point of Shipley’s post is to use the metaphor of Farming (slow, steady, cared-for growth managed over time) against Mining (fast, sudden economic change without concern for long term outcomes) to explain businesses. There’s are software/web startups that fall into both camps, and interesting discussions to be had about which is “best”, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to do is torture the metaphor a bit more for yet another purpose. I like the model as a way to understand web startups, but I love it for understanding change management in libraries, and I really love it as a metaphor for understanding myself.

Libraries seem to me to clearly be Farms. Carefully managed, curated, fertilized and watered over years…and this extends, somewhat, to the general management methodology in libraries, and it absolutely extends to our larger organizations like the ALA.

What I’ve realized in thinking about this for a bit is that I’m not a farmer. I’m a miner. You can look at what I’ve done in my short career as a librarian inside of LITA and ALA with BIGWIG, LITABlog, my presentations, my writing…just about everything I’ve done, frankly, was a form of mining. My strength, if I have one, is having an insight, prototyping it, briefly explaining why it’s a better methodology than prior methods, and then moving to the next thing. That’s mining. I’ve never been interested in the long-term management of things, doing process evaluation, etc. I just see it, do it, show it to people. If it’s good enough, I hope that people will recognize it and someone else will use it, apply processes to it, etc. But not me.

This extends to a lot of things in my professional life…and over the last 6 months or so I’ve had lots and lots of conversations with people about this very topic, but not in these terms. I’m lucky to have some Farmers (I’m looking at you, @shifted and @kgs) that helped give me insights into that style, and have worked with me to temper my “let’s just cut the top off this mountain and see what’s in there” reflexes.

If you didn’t read the entire Shipley article, two of the last paragraphs in his post really speak to me:

The people who really change the world are farmers. Steve Jobs works constantly on his products, every waking minute of every day. He lives and sleeps and breathes them. He’s obsessive and crazy and kind of scary — but he’s trying to build something. He didn’t just say, “Here’s my idea: smart phone! BAM! Go make it happen. Ima jump in the sauna.” That simply doesn’t work. God is in the details. In the implementation.

The most amazing thing about getting to go to TED was discovering that all the people I admire are farmers. The doctors and DNA-researchers and dancers and chocolate-makers and oceanographers and cosmologists and investors all have one thing in common: they are total nerds. They work on the thing they love literally all the time. You can’t talk to them without talking about their passion.

Someday I hope to be a Farmer. Playing the long-game, and working steadily over time to ensure things get done. But I’ve come to realize that it’s against my nature, and that to do so takes a lot of effort, and a lot of thinking, and frankly a lot of repressing my instincts. So while I am aspirationally into agriculture, what I need and want is to find ways that Mining is useful in my professional life. But like Shipley, the people that I admire are Farmers. And I want to find ways that I can stop strip-mining my ideas, and start planting them a bit more carefully.

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.

4 replies on “Librarianship, and Farming vs Mining”

I’d never thought of librarianship like farming, even though I’m from a farming family. Farming is very much into nurturing, planting, but also weeding, prunning, and trying new things. The nature of modern farming isn’t the old, small tractor and wagon deal it used to be. The plow certainly has changed, from duck foot (what you think of as a plow), to chisel, and frankly, I’m not certain what the curent one is called. That’s what librarianship has to be like, change. But change with the people in mind, not just new and shiney, but how it helps the library, and if the people have the technogy–now. Right now I don’t know how many people have smart phones yet–but the public library is using QR codes. Someone was writing about ending use of QR codes already–before their use had even become comon!? Give the patrons time to catch up.And of course, as in farming, some of them never do. Just give programs time to mature.

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