Positive Vision and Questions in Libraries

“All we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” –Buddha

“A vivid imagination compels the whole body to obey it.” –Aristotle

I just began a 6 week online workshop on Appreciative Inquiry conducted by David Cooperrider at Case Western University’s Weatherhead School of Management. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an organizational development model and a way of implementing change that focuses not on the problems or deficits of a group or organization, but instead focuses on the positive and increasing what they do well. I recognized right away that this workshop was going to be exploring a lot of questions that I have recently been dealing with, especially the importance of questions in the change process.

One of the interesting elements of AI is called the Anticipatory Principle. This principle states that our current actions and behaviors are guided and deeply influenced by our images of the future. An example of this is Pygmalion Effect in pedagogy. Research shows that students will perform better if their teacher has higher expectations of them. The same is true with organizations or institutions. And of course examples like the Pygmalion Effect or the Placebo Effect are instances of self-fulfilling prophecies. If we have a positive vision of the future we will create that future. If we have a negative vision of the future, that is what we will get.

Then I come across sentiments like this:

I remember coming across this tweet a couple of months ago at the Library Technology Conference, and it seemed pretty spot on. There’s a lot of hand-wringing that goes on in librarianship. We see a “crisis of identity” and “low self esteem.” There’s a lot of hype that libraries are doomed or that the library “empire” is declining and falling.

It’s easy to focus on problems, a future of obsolescence, budget cuts, or change resistant colleagues. But there is a problem with that. If we focus on obsolescence or resistance to change, that is what we’ll get. Focusing only on fixing what’s wrong with libraries is a waste of energy. There will always be more problems. Instead we should be focusing on the strengths of libraries, capitalizing on them and innovating in those areas.

This is a really exciting time in the history of humanity and there is so much potential, not just for libraries but also for human curiosity. There are tons of examples of libraries and librarians innovating, creating new service models, and meeting the changing needs of their members. When libraries are at their best, they are funinspiring places, that foster community and civic engagement, empower citizens of all ages and cultures, and promote literacy and scholarship.

How can we shift our professional discourse away from all the problems facing libraries and instead think about questions like “what do libraries look like when they are at their best” and “what would an ideal library look like?”


Andy Burkhardt


  1. Sarah, I really enjoyed that post you linked to. I love how they were dreaming up what a great discovery service would look like. We often get caught up in the day to day of having to implement things without understanding why. Like you said it is just constantly solving problems. Instead exercises like the one you shared allow us to articulate a positive vision of the future together. When you have that shared positive vision and keep it alive, you are not just solving problems, your working to make the vision a reality! Thanks for sharing that post.

  2. Hi Andy !
    I too enjoy the Appreciative Inquiry model. I was introduced to it by my boss at American University Library.We used it at AU for strategic planning.Some people think it is wimpy but I think it is great! I also now use it in my consulting practice. One of the reasons that I am no longer a librarian full time is all the hand wringing and worry that you speak of… I just could not stand it anymore. I think if we could tell more compelling positive stories about the library we would be less in a pickle. But before we can tell exciting stories we have to get out of this negativity that some, but not all librarian adhere to…

  3. I always enjoy your posts, Andy, but like this one especially. Hadn’t come across Appreciative Inquiry – at least not by that name. But interesting and I appreciate the relationship to librarianship. I come to this a little peripherally – from the agency part of the information ecosystem. But in the big picture we’re dealing, obviously, with the same issues and I believe we have the same opportunities to see potential vs. obstacle. Thanks!

  4. Once again we are having a similar perspective on a library issue.I shared my thoughts about steering away from the negativity and instead staying focused on what we do well – and how that helps us to succeed (albeit with more of a higher ed flavor).

    I had not thought much about an AI approach, so thanks for sharing some of your workshop experience.

    AI might be one path to creating the necessary focus and I will pay more attention to it. BTW, the Weatherhead School is one of the few B-schools that integrates design thinking into its curriculum (though I don’t think there is a connection between DT and AI). We have a faculty member from Weatherhead who started a design & innovation center at our B-school – and we have developed a relationship with them – so we are learning more about the design approach. I think it offers another path to stay focused on the good work we do and will help us answer confront our wicked problems.

  5. Mary, I can understand your shifting out of librarianship because of the hand-wringing. I think that it can be frustrating, but I also think you raise a great point about telling positive stories. I think that can be a way to combat the negativity. Peter Drucker said “the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.” There are so many positive things libraries do and so many strengths. We just need to work to align them and drown out the (sometimes vocal) weaknesses. 🙂

  6. Didi, I really appreciate it. Appreciative Inquiry can be a really useful tool among others to focus on the strengths as opposed to just the problems. It, along with other schools of thought like positive psychology, are focusing not on deficit-based thinking (what’s wrong with us, what’s missing). Instead these schools of thought are a shift in focusing on human flourishing and what are our strengths and what do we look like at our best. It seems more inspirational to me than a “change or die” mentality. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Steven, great article. I love hearing more of that perspective.

    Interestingly enough, I thought of you when I was digging deeper into AI. AI and more broadly positive organizational development is pretty interdisciplinary and draws on fields of psychology, sociology, medicine, but also design-thinking. Actually IDEO has shifted from not just product design, but to organizational development as well. IF you take a look at this article (page 25) it discussed some of the design influence on the field: Positive Organizational Development.

    I’d love to explore further some of the similarities and differences between the design thinking process and the AI processes and how those could be used in concert for enacting change.

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