I’m currently reading Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup. Ries talks a great deal about experimenting and validating learning. Often we provide products or create services because we think it is what has an impact or is what our users want. But in a number of examples that Ries provides, adding new features or services does not create any change at all and a lot of what organizations do is superfluous. This leads him to ask “which of our efforts are value creating and which are wasteful?”
To answer this question he says that we need to identify and test our assumptions through a number of small experiments. He also says that we need metrics that can tell us something as opposed to vanity metrics. An example of a vanity metric in libraries would be something like gate count. It says “we have a bunch of people coming in and out of the building,” but it doesn’t go to much farther than that. Why are these people coming in? Does it have something to do with our efforts?
He also talks about “success theater,” (the work we do to make ourselves look successful). It’s good to have charts and graphs that go up and to the right, but do those actually tell us anything? Is it our efforts that our making a difference or something else? Are we accidentally getting it right? Is it a fluke? What happens if the numbers go down?
So this brings me to my question: what are the assumptions we have in libraries and how to we test them?
Assumptions abound in libraries: students need research help from librarians, we need to be on social media, students need to be taught how to use a database. These assumptions might be different from institution to institution, but each place has their own assumptions.
We also have a variety of metrics and numbers that we can pay attention to in libraries: gate count, database statistics, circulation numbers, reference statistics, number of classes taught, assessment data, student surveys, etc. Which numbers are really valuable for testing assumptions and which are just noise?
What are some of our assumptions in libraries? What assumptions do you test at your library? What assumptions would you like to test? What metrics do or could you use to validate your learning?
“Librarianship is not a set of skills to be learned, or a set of degrees to be mastered. Librarianship is a conversation that has taken place over millennia.”
David Lankes recently had a great post about engaging in the big questions in the profession. He said that “bad conferences are filled with ‘how we do it good’ pieces.” His point is that what is really important is to invite others into a bigger conversation as opposed to talking about just what you do or how to do something.
There is a great deal of value in talking about how to do something. It’s practical and people can see the tangible effects right away. My posts on this blog about iPad apps or Twitter are by far my most popular. But our profession isn’t solely about keeping up on the newest tech or trends. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day of your job or focus on new technologies that you can bring back from a conference, but if we don’t regularly ask bigger questions we’re compromising our future.
I see this other places as well. In library instruction its easy to concentrate on tools or how to do things, such as how to successfully navigate the databases. We’re experts in these things and students need to know how to use them to succeed on assignments. But they are just tools. If we only spend time on them we’re giving students skills for the present, but compromising their future. Tools change. We have databases and catalogs and discovery and Google today. There’ll be things we can’t imagine yet. That won’t be true in the future. In addition to teaching students how to succeed now, we also need to give them the skills to succeed in the future. We don’t want them to succeed just in their upcoming assignment. We want them to succeed in life. And knowing how to use a database is not the answer, or at least not the whole answer.
We need to be helping students develop the habits of mind that are crucial in research and lifelong learning. These are things like critically evaluating different pieces of information, perseverance in the search for information (not just giving up after a failed Google search), and a spirit of inquiry and constant questioning. These skills will last much longer than learning a database whose interface will change in the next few months.
We need to be playing both the short game and the long game in teaching and in the profession. There are tangible, practical skills that students need and that we need as professionals to succeed in our short term pursuits. But we can’t get so caught up in what we are doing right now that we forget to teach habits of mind or have the bigger conversations that will shape our future.
My friend Sarah Cohen and I were just published in the latest issue of Communications in Information Literacy. Our article is titled “Turn Your Cell Phones On: Mobile Phone Polling as a Tool For Teaching Information Literacy.” From the abstract:
“While mobile technologies are ubiquitous among students and increasingly used in many aspects of libraries, they have yet to gain traction in information literacy instruction. Librarians at Champlain College piloted mobile phone polling in a first-year classroom as a less expensive and more versatile alternative to clickers. By utilizing a technology that virtually all students have in their pockets librarians found that it increased engagement from previous iterations of the session. In addition, by asking poll questions about students’ experiences, librarians were able to facilitate in-depth inquiry into information literacy topics. Ultimately, from direct experience in over 30 different classes, we found that mobile phone polling is a useful tool for any librarian to have in their pedagogical toolbox.”
The journal is open access you can go download the PDF right now. And apparently they are going to experiment with making our article available in EPUB format as well!