1

Our Questions Create The Future

magic eight ball

image via greeblie on Flickr

I read Brian Mathews’ new white paper Think Like a Startup on Friday, and it was an inspiring end to the week. If you haven’t read it yet, go do it (and I’d love to hear your thoughts and chat about it on Twitter). In the paper he also puts forward good questions — big questions. These are questions like:

  • “How can libraries support 21st century learners?”
  • “How can we help the individuals at our institutions become more successful?”

Questions have immense power. “A good question is something that leads people on a quest.” They have the ability to focus, but they also have the ability to distract. If you or your organization is not asking the right questions, you could be following a path that is taking you somewhere you didn’t want to go. But if you are asking a question like how can we support 21st century learners, all the answers, whether right or wrong, will still be focused on that mission.

We’ve all heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. That’s true. Questions mean we’re curious and want to understand. A lack of questions means that we are fine with not learning and stagnation. But there are certainly better or worse questions. There are questions that can move us forward a little or questions that can completely change our thinking. I’ve heard, and I know I’ve been guilty of asking questions like: “how can we increase our reference numbers,” or “what if we have too much success?” While these questions are important for planning and can be illuminating, we can’t forget to go back to the really big, important questions. We have to ask these smaller questions in concert with the big ones.

Hildy Gottlieb in her TEDx talk about Creating the Future asks questions that can bring focus to a library or other institution:

  • “What kind of world do we really want?”
  • “What is the path that will get us there?”

She talks about envisioning what success would look like and reverse engineering the future that we want. What kind of library community do we want? What will it look like? These are questions that change the way you look at the work you’re doing and perhaps lead to deep insights.

The type of questions we ask as organizations and as a profession determine our focus and direction. What questions should we be asking? What questions are you asking?

5

Human-Centered Librarianship

More than books...

I found a library marketing button in my drawer the other day that said “More than Books… Our Library has it All!” It depicts a VHS tape, a floppy disk, an audio cassette, and a CD. I’m guessing that button was never a good marketing tool. We keep hearing that libraries are more than just books. It’s true we have books, but we also have ebooks. We have databases, video libraries, and video games. We have collections of scholarly research, reports, and statistics that you just can’t get on Google. We have a physical building and places for people to quietly study and places for groups to meet and hang out. We have computers and technology for people to experiment with and use. We host workshops and events. We have a website and are on various social media sites.

But so what…who cares?

Simon Sinek in an excellent TED Talk says that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The collections, the physical library, our events and websites are all just stuff. But what is the why behind all these things that we have and do? Why do we create collaborative workspaces for our members? Why do host story times or literacy events? Why do we offer access to computers and the web?

In a word: people.

We create workspaces because we believe people should be able connect with one another. We host literacy events because we believe people should be able to improve themselves through learning and knowledge. We offer access to computers because we believe people deserve equal chances and opportunities. We believe that our community members deserve a place to belong, feel safe, explore their curiosity, and have access to knowledge. This is why all that stuff matters.

It’s easy though to get focused on the stuff and not the people. There have been times when I have focused so much on a lesson plan that I forgot about the students and learning in the moment. It’s easy to go through the motions on reference, finding someone a book or article without really understanding the real problem they had. It’s easy to make collection decisions in a vacuum, forgetting about what people actually want and use.

In order to solve the big challenges that face us we need to shift our focus in a different direction than just our stuff, our collections, and our building. I like the idea of adopting a philosophy of Human-Centered Librarianship. This isn’t just doing “customer service,” it’s a mindset shift. People matter first, then stuff. Focusing on people has profound implications. What would a Human-Centered Librarianship look like?

  • We would use user experience and human centered design processes to improve and solve problems
  • We would genuinely and regularly seek out and listen to the opinions or our members because they truly matter to us
  • We would work hard to empower everyone on staff and collaborate as a team since we’re all humans too (to empower our members we need empowered staff)
  • We would be less worried about people messing up our stuff and spilling drinks and more worried when people have complaints or suggestions (and would work hard to address them)

And marketing in Human-Centered librarianship won’t be a button saying “hey we got floppy disks” (or ebooks, or whatever new whizbang technology). Marketing in Human-Centered Librarianship would talk about what they can do with the service or technology and how it improves their life. Our product isn’t books or ebooks or quiet space or databases. Our product is knowledge, connection, acceptance, creativity, and curiosity.

6

Make Your Own Learning

Several weeks ago I wrote a post about courses that I wished that they had offered in library school. There were a lot of great comments from folks about knowledge that they wish they had. These were things like event planning, research methodologies, programming, and others. The reason I wrote it was not so much to complain about the lack of opportunities in library school, but for it to be a signpost for current MLIS students about what they may want to investigate. It was also a recognition of skills that I would like to learn and skills that are useful for librarians today.

After the post, Fiona Bradley wrote a related one saying rather wisely that there is no way that we can learn everything in library school, and that it doesn’t matter because “librarianship is the ultimate extensible profession.” We have the skills for lifelong learning. She says in her post to go out and “make your own learning.” I love this sentiment, and it is getting easier all the time.

Education is noticeably changing. It is becoming less centralized. People with initiative can gain new skills or get a very good (though perhaps not credentialed) education for free or cheap. People who want to improve their skills can brush up or take a class any number of ways online or in person. There are a wide variety of tools available to get those skills in things like event planning or graphic design.

You can learn about entrepreneurship and innovation by watching lectures (like the one above about change and fear) from Stanford’s eCorner. You can learn how to code the fun and easy way with CodeAcademy or learn Python at the Kahn Academy. You can learn how to host a conference or basic graphic design from SkillShare.

With the vast amount of content available, instead of finding a teacher you could create a learning community on a service like Google+ and design lessons that center around shared readings and videos and host discussions via text or video chat.

Anne Murphy Paul at a Time Magazine blog says that projects like these are “ushering in a new golden age of the autodidact: the self-taught man or woman.” I tend to agree with her. Learning is not merely going to be students passively receiving knowledge from teachers. It will be a proactive pursuit for people who are curious and want knowledge that will benefit them either for personal growth or additional job skills. As librarians we are the “ultimate extensible profession.” We can learn graphic design if we want to. But are there also ways for us to help our students and users learn outside of the classroom? Can we somehow connect them with resources like those mentioned above? Can we facilitate peer to peer learning among students and community members who want to share their expertise? How can we create more opportunities for our community members to make their own learning?