New Ideas: Separating The Chaff From The Grain

a scythe on grass

I enjoyed both Karen Schneider’s post and Meredith Farkas’ follow-up post about devil’s advocates. They talk about new ideas and how they require a lot of experimentation and iterations as well as people to challenge them to make them stronger. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and I think it’s a very important one for people in the library profession to think about, especially those in leadership positions.

Like I mentioned in my last post I am reading the book What Technology Wants. In this book Kevin Kelly relates a story about a missionary in China introducing a new technology which serves as an excellent parable about the resistance to new ideas:

“The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible — but wholly improbable — way it could significantly harm their society.”

Devil’s advocates are useful people to have around, but they can also stop new ideas in their tracks. If we try to imagine every negative thing that can happen with a new idea it will surely die. Often devil’s advocates imagine unrealistic or unlikely situations that have little chance of happening. Looking at something new as a threat leads to no new ideas.

A new idea is a very fragile thing. It needs a healthy environment to germinate and time to grow. We as librarians and people in leadership positions should try to cultivate this environment among our teams and in our workplaces. There is a place for devil’s advocates and looking at possible challenges that a new idea could face, but it seems that should come later in the process. Libraries are desperately in need of new ideas. Just as in the case of the scythe in the story above, if we only see the negative aspects of an idea or technology we will become really good at maintaining the status quo.

So when people are proposing new ideas, listen first instead of criticizing. Bobbi Newman shared an excellent sentiment recently about contributing more than criticizing and it very much applies here. I know at times when someone is proposing a new idea I think to myself, “that’s stupid, it’ll never work.” But instead of dismissing it or nitpicking it, the more productive course of action would be to contribute to the idea to refine it or make it better. Not every new idea is a polished gem, but there may be the beginnings of something great in it. We just have to give it the proper environment to let it flourish.


E-books Are Not Horseless Carriages

Model T

Photo by thehenryford on Flickr

I’m reading the book (on my iPad) What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly the co-founder of Wired Magazine. It’s an optimistic look at the nature of technology and our relationship to it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in philosophical, historical, evolutionary look at technology. I can’t say that I agree with all his arguments, but I’m finding thought provoking passages on almost every page. This one from chapter 12 stood out in light of the current issues in the library world:

“We make prediction more difficult because our immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first cars were called “horseless carriages.” The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs. We are stuck in the same blindness. We imagine e-books today as being regular books that appear on electronic paper instead of radically powerful threads of text woven into one shared universal library.”

We gravitate to what we know and what we’re used to. An e-book is not a book on electronic paper. It is a completely new medium that will have myriad unanticipated effects, both positive and negative. I’m guessing “electronic paper” and “e-ink” are both going to sound a lot like “horseless carriage” in 20 years. Also the way we consume, share, and interact with e-books is going to be different than paper books. We are inventing the future right now through our action and inaction. We should be mindful of the past, but not so wrapped up in it that we aren’t able to see the future.


Information Sophistication

moet & chandon champagne

CC image from naotakem on Flickr

Our institution was recently in the New York Times for the focus we are placing on financial literacy. We require students to attend multiple sessions about how to manage their money and make sound financial decisions. I think this is a forward thinking initiative, and wish that I had something like this when I was an undergraduate. What really struck me about the article, though, is the language that is used to describe what we’re teaching:

“Champlain… doesn’t actually use the term financial literacy. The opposite of literacy, after all, smacks of ignorance. Nobody wants to be ordered into a classroom for being illiterate. So the college speaks of its “financial sophistication” offerings…”

This is something I am going to begin adopting in the way I approach information literacy and teaching. As terms, I think ‘financial literacy’ or ‘information literacy’ are fine. People know what you are talking about. But they carry a lot of baggage, especially when used around students.

I almost never use the term ‘information literacy’ in the classroom, because I don’t want students thinking that I believe that they are information illiterate. If they think that, I’ve lost them. And in truth, I don’t think they’re information illiterate. I think they’re bright as hell and often they teach me things. They are really comfortable and adept at searching the web. I just think they’re not as sophisticated in their use and evaluation of information as they should be.

As part of our information literacy assessment, librarians got to look at annotated bibliographies handed in by first year students. In some of them there were rather questionable sources being used. Some included websites from high schools, some included only websites. People with a high level of information sophistication would include sources from a variety of formats. They would try to find sources that argued against their thesis, anticipating arguments. They would recognize bias and approach their problem with balance and objectivity.

I don’t believe that students are information illiterate, they simply need a higher level of information sophistication. At first students are only drinking the Pabst Blue Ribbons of the information world. These are things like Wikipedia and biased blog websites, and sites in the top five hits of a Google search. This is fine is many instances, but I want to help them develop more refined information palettes. I also want them to enjoy the Moët et Chandons of research articles, reports, and information presented in a scholarly, balanced way.