Thursday, March 31, 2011

Post-ICOLC musings: bats and serendipity

Last week I visited Austin for the first time. The International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) meeting was held there at the AT&T Conference Center. It was a great facility for the 100 or so attendees of this rite of spring for consortium professionals from around the globe. While I didn't see enough of Austin to form any real opinion, I did learn about the Congress Avenue Bridge bats.

These Mexican Free-Tailed Bats apparently comprise the largest urban colony of bats in the U.S. Our wonderful hosts for ICOLC, Amigos, TexShare and the University of Texas System Digital Library, were able to arrange a boat tour for us to go and witness the nightly graceful exodus. Tom Sanville of Lyrasis shot this video.

As I understand the story, the engineers of the bridge were unaware that they were creating a perfect bat habitat when they designed the bridge with hundreds of crevices running beneath the roadbed that spans Lady Bird Lake. But once the bats stumbled across this hospitable space they continued to return each spring and summer to have their pups. Today the colony can swell to well over 1 million bats, roosting under the bridge by day and emerging at dusk like clockwork to spend the night on the prowl.  It was truly awe-inspiring to watch them, and of course it made me think about . . . collaboration.

Specifically, I was back to thinking about the role of intent. Here this structure was built to link two land masses. Serendipitously, it created a wholly unexpected result. The bat colony seems to serve Austin quite well. It's a tourist attraction, generating its share of revenue (boat tours, t-shirts, bat-related kitsch, etc.). The bats serve to keep insect populations manageable. And the bat spectacle even supports Austin's motto, "Keep Austin Weird." In another city, the bats may not have fared so well. Guano oppositionists may have rallied city hall, pushing for the eviction of the beady-eyed squatters. But Austin seems to have embraced the opportunity, turning the proverbial sow's ear into a silk purse. As organizations committed to collaboration we would be wise to take a lesson. Sometimes (dare I say often?) disruption is a springboard to potential.

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