The Tao of Librarianship

Taoism is, among other things, a philosophy that originated in China in the 3rd or 4th century BCE. It began with Lao Tzu’s writing of the Tao Te Ching and is still around today. It is a philosophy which values balance, moderation, compassion and being pliant and adaptable. There is a wealth of wisdom from the Taoist philosophy that could be applied in librarianship.

Laws Create Lawbreakers (58) – “Where government stands aloof, the people open up.” Instead of constantly trying to control the behavior of your users, see what they do and create guidelines around that. Instead of setting furniture up a certain way and then moving it back when it gets out of place, see what configurations users like and allow them the freedom to make spaces their own. Instead of having strict mobile phone or food rules, recognize that as humans we need to communicate and eat. Outlining numerous strict library policies makes for a lot of broken policies, shushing, and saying no constantly.

Bend, Don’t Break (76) – “When a plant becomes hard it snaps.” Libraries, especially in academia, have done things certain ways for many years. We continue purchasing print journals. We still have items on microfilm. We still tell people to turn off their mobile phones in the library. In order to not become outdated or obsolete libraries and librarians should cultivate an attitude of softness. We should examine services, collections, and policies constantly to see if they are still meeting user needs and if they are still in touch with reality.

Realize When Enough is Enough (9) – “Instead of pouring in more, better stop while you can.” A key concept in Taoism is that one opposite follows another. Emptiness follows fullness. As librarians, we keep taking on new roles and offering new services without dropping other services. This is a recipe for disaster. Instead of doing a few things really well, we fall into the trap of doing a lot of things poorly. By holding onto legacy services and trying to do everything, we are in fact defeating ourselves. There is only so much energy and so many resources that we can provide. We need to think strategically about what we can drop and what is most important to our community. One way is through a great presentation that I saw at ACRL about Planned Abandonment.

Be Like Water (8) – “The best are like water, bringing help to all.” Water helps all people, that’s it’s nature. Just so, we should constantly be thinking about how we can best serve others. Water also is quite adaptable. It can fit easily into any sort of container and it naturally goes with the flow. Librarians too should be able to change themselves, their services, and their resources to meet their community’s needs. They should be able to adjust along with the changes that are constantly happening in the world both technologically and socially.

The Tao is typically translated as “The Way.” It’s a very nuanced concept, but at it’s core it refers to the true nature of the universe. And the point of Taoism is to live in accord with The Way. Instead of struggling against everything all the time Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them. This can be a very illuminating idea for libraries.

Librarians need the ability to be in touch with reality and not be blind or naive. The job of a librarian does not have to be a struggle against obsolescence or a constant proving of  their value to stakeholders and administrators. Instead librarians can try to understand what is actually of value to our patrons and be leading the parade instead of fighting against it.

The quotes and numbers above refer to chapters/sections of the Tao Te Ching translated by Red Pine, though there are plenty of free translations available as well. 



A Tale of Two Citation Tools

I recently heard a presentation at ALA Annual about innovation in an age of limits. In the presentation one of the presenters discussed the citation tool EasyBib and how it was created by high school students. This got me interested in how different organizations go about creating solutions for the same problem. Compare the two about statements from notable citation companies RefWorks and EasyBib:


“Founded in 2001 by a team of experts in the field of bibliographic database management, RefWorks is dedicated to providing a high quality web-based research management, writing and collaboration tool for the academic, government and corporate research communities. Used daily by thousands of researchers in over 900 organizations globally, RefWorks supports hundreds of online databases and output styles covering a broad range of subject areas. RefWorks collaborates with some of the world’s most prestigious online information service providers including ProQuest, BioOne, EBSCO, Elsevier, HighWire, H.W. Wilson, ISI, OCLC, Ovid and Serial Solutions, to name a few.”

What comes to mind when you read that description? It sounds very serious and scholarly. They use words like “prestigious” and “experts.” This product seems designed for people who value quality, organization, and serious research. Now read the description of EasyBib:


“When we (Neal and Darshan) were in high school, we each had a huge writing assignment. We found that the most tedious part of our paper wasn’t the writing or the researching, but the bibliography itself. We had to constantly refer to our citation guides to figure out how to cite sources and where to put the periods, commas, and underlines.

Needless to say, we thought this would be a perfect application for the Web. After a few months of figuring out all the bibliography rules (Neal) and coding the site (Darshan), the first version of EasyBib launched in February 2001.

Eight years later, EasyBib is now the largest online bibliography site on the Web, visited by millions of students per month. We’ve expanded our team with some of the smartest people out there, and are going to continue building products that make life easier, faster, and better for our users.”

This description on the other hand sounds a lot less serious. This product was not created by a “team of experts.” It was created by a couple of high school kids who were annoyed with having to create a bibliography. The reason they created it is because the wanted to “make life easier, faster, and better.” That’s a great mission to have.

Looking at both of these companies they are very different, but they are trying to solve the same problem. One company sells subscriptions directly to researchers or institutions. The other company has a freemium model that allows students to create MLA citations for free, but also has paid versions with additional bells and whistles. It’s important to recognize that the way these companies solve the problem of citations appeals to different sorts of people. They both work well, but in very different ways.

My colleague Sarah, raves about RefWorks, but she is a serious researcher. And that it seems, is the market that RefWorks attracts. Faculty, grad students, researchers, anyone who is generating serious research would find RefWorks incredibly useful. Undergrads though are not serious researchers. They need to do some exploration and research, but they’re not going to be saving citations for another scholarly paper that they want to get published. They want to easily finish their bibliography with the least amount of hassle. Hence, whenever I ask what students use to do their citations in information literacy sessions, I always hear several students mention EasyBib.

In order to innovate as librarians, we must first look around and ask “what are the problems that our users need to have solved?” In this case it was the problem of citations. These problems that we identify are the opportunities for innovation. Then, we have to be careful while designing the solution and take into account our audience. Are we designing it for librarians and faculty (RefWorks)? Or are we designing it for undergraduate students (EasyBib)? EasyBib was designed by high school students. Perhaps our users should be intimately involved in the design and creation of new library services. Who knows, maybe they could even get academic credit for it…



Get Students To Commit

I have been attending and presenting at some local conferences like NELIG and the VLA College and Special Libraries Section conference. One idea that kept popping up was the idea of getting students to commit whether in the classroom or in their research.

Let me explain by way of several examples. A couple librarians from St. Michael’s College talked about a scheduling software called Acuity. They use this software to schedule research consultations with a librarian. On their library website a student clicks on a link that says “schedule a research appointment.” They are then taken to a form where they can choose a time and librarian that fits into their schedule. By filling out this form the student commits to a block of time with a reference librarian.

The opposite of this is a student who comes to the desk in between class or last minute and say they need some sources to finish their project. By not committing to taking time to research the result is haphazard and is perhaps not as successful. On the other hand, the St. Mike’s librarians said that they found the scheduled appointments to be some of the best sessions for both themselves and students. Students who commit to a block of time are able to explore their topic in depth as well as areas that they can pursue further.

The same is true for commitment in the classroom. In our information literacy sessions with first-semester first-years at Champlain College, we have them respond to poll questions using Poll Everywhere. Instead of asking them a question and wanting one or two of them to respond vocally to us, we have every one of them respond using their mobile phones. This makes them think about the choice and pick an option. After that, we ask them why they chose what they did. Because every one of them has picked something it is easier for them to explain a choice rather than make a choice in front of other people. This commitment makes them more willing to be engaged in the discussion.

It’s not always possible, but I’ve found that if you can find a way to make students commit, either at the desk or in the classroom, the results are often much better. Have you seen other examples of this?