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Remove Your Librarian Glasses

Image via Graham Blackall on Flickr

Image via Graham Blackall on Flickr

I recently spoke briefly at an all day retreat at our college about why I am involved with diversity work on campus (I’m a member of the faculty Multicultural Affairs Committee and completed a 25 hour intensive called Intercultural U). There are a lot of reasons for doing diversity work, despite it’s difficulty and the discomfort it can cause, including social justice reasons, and the opportunity for critical thinking and grappling with complexity. But the main reason I’m drawn to this work is because it’s personally enriching. It’s deep, meaningful, and authentic work. You get to grow and get outside your own lenses and biases and ultimately see reality more clearly.

This ability to challenge your own perspectives, examine your implicit assumptions, and inquire into the the viewpoints of others is crucial to diversity work, but also to the work we do in our organizations and the work we do as librarians. Most of the time see what we want to see or are conditioned to see. This can be the cause of a lot of the problems we face or lead to patterns where we get more and more frustrated. This can happen when serving students and faculty or working with colleagues.

Have you ever thought, “if only students came to ask us for help, they’d be so much more successful on their assignments,” or “if only faculty consulted librarians when designing their assignments students wouldn’t struggle so much?”  We often see the issues we face through librarian lenses or our own personal biases and not as they really are.

There are ways to take off our librarian glasses though, and when we do we are able to work more effectively with our colleagues and serve our students in the ways they want, not the ways we want.

Cultivate empathy

Too often we make assumptions about our users and design services around those assumptions. This can lead to poor utilization of those services and frustration by both the users and librarians. The problem’s that we’re trying to solve are not our problems, therefore we need to put ourselves in our users’ shoes and uncover their struggles, needs, and motivations. There is already great work being done by some libraries in this area, such as the ERIAL project. If you want to dig deeper into empathy, Stanford’s d School has some great resources.

Uncover implicit assumptions

There are implicit assumptions and mental models that we carry as librarians and educators that constantly color our experience of the world and of which we are not even aware. These could be unsaid things like “face to face education is the most effective kind” or “students these days give up easily.” In the book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says that mental models often are helpful at one point but “as the world changes, the gap widens between our mental models and reality, leading to increasingly counterproductive actions.” Trying to make these assumptions explicit so than can be examined is an important element of getting outside our own lenses.

Don’t just interpret, observe

One way to uncover your assumptions is to recognize the difference between observation and interpretation. In a Design Thinking in Education workshop I recently attended, the speaker showed us an image and asked us to tell her what we could observe. It was surprising how fast we moved into interpretations, saying that the person in the image was a woman, assigning motivations and speculating on what the person was doing. We do this with students, faculty, and colleagues all the time. “The students are just not interested.” “My colleague just dislikes change.” The idea here is to cultivate a beginner’s mind and make observations. From there you can ask about those observations and test out different theories or assumptions based on those theories.

Advocate AND Inquire

We so often simply try to push for our own positions and advocate on behalf of the library, but if you only do advocacy you are not seeing the whole picture. When you’re advocating you’re not open to other viewpoints and you miss out on opportunities to learn. I’m sure most people have had the experience of pushing for an idea in a meeting and both sides simply got more polarized in their positions. Senge says that “When inquiry and advocacy are combined, the goal is no longer to ‘win the argument’ but to find the best argument.” Just talking louder is not going to be effective.

The ability to uncover what is hidden can be really powerful. What are ways that you use to get outside your own experience and put on different lenses into the world?

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NERDing out

This past semester I took on a new role as Assistant Director of the Library. My focus in this role is digital strategy and user experience, but since my excellent colleague Sarah Cohen left last spring I have also been filling in as the organizer of the Teaching Librarians. This week though, I am very excited to hand the position off to Alan Carbery our new Assistant Director for Information Literacy. It’s a great team of teachers, and I know Alan will be an asset in providing us leadership.

With Alan’s arrival I’m eager to be directing more energy towards the digital strategy and user experience side of my position. One of the things I’m really excited about is a new team that I helped to form at the start of last semester that’s focusing on these areas. At the initial meeting our group recognized that as a library we often have great ideas, but many of them don’t come to fruition because every semester we get busy and some are inevitably forgotten. We wanted to form a team that could not only come up with ideas, but also create a space where these ideas could be incubated and given legs. As part of our first meeting we came up with a team name and some shared principles. I love the name we came up with even though it’s a bit geeky. We called ourselves NERD (New Entrepreneurial Research & Development). As for the shared principles, among other things we wanted a team that:

  • has focus, is directed towards goals, and sets timelines and deadlines for ourselves so we can actually get things done.
  • is not exclusive or exclusionary. Other people can join on and off, and we’ll sometimes intentionally want people there.
  • makes decisions not just on gut feelings, conjecture, or what other people are doing but on data and evidence.
  • purposefully tests out ideas using user research, interviews and data.
  • meets students where they are not where we assume they are or want them to be.
  • works in an environment of perpetual beta where we brainstorm, choose ideas, pilot/prototype them, and then ship them knowing that they are not finished and with an eye to improving them.

In the past semester we’ve been tackling things like improving the reference experience for students and improving how study rooms are utilized. We’re already off to a great start this semester and I know we’re going to do some amazing things.

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Librarian Entrepreneurs

“Doing more with less” is a phrase that regularly comes up in libraries. It is also a regularly maligned phrase since you can’t really do more with less, you can only do less. Andy Woodworth gives an example of cutting a pizza into different parts. In doing more with less you really are just spreading your resources more thinly and giving everyone less quality service. I don’t believe that library budgets should continue to be on the chopping block. This country needs less ignorance and more enlightenment, more curiosity and creativity, not less. But the reality is that we’re in a period of less resources, even while usage and programming are up.

This is not something new for libraries though. They are used to not being flush with resources. And I think this can be a huge strength. Last Friday I attended the ACRL NY Symposium on Cultivating Entrepreneurship and there were some great examples of people finding creative ways to secure resources whether through working with other departments, developing their own technology tools and selling them, working with companies as sponsors, or leveraging free online tools. The best, stickiest, most succinct, definition I have come across for entrepreneurship is from the Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson. He says,

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”

We may be in a time of less resources, at least from traditional funding sources, but we are also in a time in which there is an abundance of opportunity. More students are going to college but less are graduating on time. People need to retrain, unlearn, and relearn to be a part of the now ever changing job market. Higher education is in a period of significant disruption. These are not problems but distinct opportunities that libraries can capitalize on, but in order to do that we need to be entrepreneurial.

Libraries are already scrappy. They find extremely creative ways of avoiding budget cuts and advocating for library voter support. What is needed in addition to being scrappy and creative, is an entrepreneurial outlook: seeing opportunities and pursuing them without regards to current resources. There may be less traditional funding, but that doesn’t mean the resources aren’t out there. Instead of a zero sum game where there are only so many slices of pizza to go around, maybe we start recognizing that there are also tacos, and chicken wings, and chili and lots of other resources we may have overlooked. Maybe we continue to leverage and expand our use of the abundance of free software, platforms, social media and web tools available. Maybe we strategically partner more with departments or offices around campus. Maybe we secure more funding and work with from those in the business community to whom we send graduates. Many of these are becoming increasingly socially responsible and want to do good in addition to making a profit. Maybe we crowdfund more really good and needed library ideas.

Resources are out there. They may not look the same as they always did, but funding should not hold a good idea down. Opportunities are also out there. We often see them as problems, as things that annoy us, or as things that scare us. When you start looking at things that make you uncomfortable though, you begin to see that it is often an area that needs attention and where good work can be done.

Let’s not do more with less. Let’s do more with more.