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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?

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Constant Critic or Creative Colleague?

woman with thumbs down

image via gordontarpley on Flickr

Whether in meetings or on committees or a colleague, I’m sure most people know a person who almost always criticizes every idea put forward. They ask questions like “why do we need this?” or “what if…?” This person can often be frustrating or looked at as someone who is opposed to change. They can also be your biggest ally in making meaningful change.

Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth says that “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” In a study, he divided people into groups who did brainstorming and groups who debated each other. The debaters came up with significantly more solutions. Through conflict and repeated examination their brains were activated in different ways, and they had to work harder. People who simply agree all the time aren’t going to come up with the best solutions.

Another example that David Weinberger gives in his book Too Big To Know (pg. 70), is that of JFK’s extremely bright and educated White House advisors. They all were Ivy League educated, but they were also all white, male, early middle aged and from the East Coast. This fairly homogeneous group were a big factor leading to the US getting into the Vietnam War. Weinberger goes on to say that diversity of opinions  is important or else we can easily move into a groupthink mentality.

For our own libraries are there ways that we can foster constructive criticism? Are there ways that we can bring a greater diversity of opinions into our discussion and our decision making? Maybe at some staff meetings we could invite student workers to participate or bring in faculty members to share their thoughts. One important  lesson though is that a colleague who regularly criticizes may not be a bad thing. They could be that creative spark that stimulates deeper examination.

How do you try to get more diversity and dissenting opinions into your discussions?

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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.