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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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Lazy Students and Change Resistant Colleagues

student taking a quick nap

image via rofltosh on Flickr

It’s easy to dismiss a co-worker as someone who resists change, or dismiss a student who doesn’t want to put in time and effort on research as lazy. It’s much harder to stop and really try to understand with their position, their motivations, and empathize with them. It’s much harder, but it’s also much more valuable.

Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches-Johnson did an awesome presentation this fall at the Future of the Academic Library Symposium sponsored by Library Journal and Temple University. One of the main points they made was that the reason we have user gaps and a disconnect between patrons and librarians is because of a lack of empathy. We design resources and services that make sense to us, but do not fully take into account our users. This is at the core of user experience design. To be able to best serve our users, we need to really understand them.

This involves talking to them, having conversations with them, and asking for their feedback. In these conversations it’s easy to jump to conclusions and say things in your mind like, “that would never work,” or “they just don’t understand how things work here.” This is exactly why there are gaps in service in the first place. Really understanding someone’s position means not judging it or jumping to conclusions. It means seeing it for what it is. Often problems are much different that what we prematurely judge them to be. Perhaps a student appears lazy because they have no interest in the topic they chose and therefore no motivation. This is a very different problem than laziness.

We also need to bring this level of understanding and empathy into our relationships with colleagues. Whether it’s another librarian who you see as change resistant or a professor who is very particular, instead of writing them off as being set in their ways or being difficult, we should try to really put ourselves in their shoes and understand their position. Perhaps this professor or colleague doesn’t actually get listened to that often. Their ideas, responses, and concerns might be enlightening.

We have our own lenses through which we see the world, and these are very different from other people’s lenses. The next time you find your self getting frustrated at a colleague or a student, try to sincerely understand where their coming from and see things through their lens. That shared understanding will make you less likely to be frustrated and will bring you closer to solving the problem that you’re working on.

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Expect Amazing Things

In a recent OCLC podcast with Roy Tennant and R. David Lankes, Lankes says that lower expectations are going to doom libraries as we know them. He goes on to say that librarians have trained our communities to expect too little of us, and this leads to complacency in librarians. This also leads to a slow fade where people say they love libraries but fewer and fewer people use our services.

I have come across this idea of low expectations in other places as well. Steven Bell, at the ACRL in Philadelphia, presented a paper entitled “Delivering a WOW User Experience: Do Academic Librarians Measure Up.” One of his findings was that students’ expectations for libraries are fairly low. In fact, students sometimes even think it will be a painful experience (library anxiety comes to mind).

This status quo and these low expectations are certainly a challenge, but they’re also a tremendous opportunity. Low expectations mean that when you deliver something above and beyond, people are astonished. We have the potential to surprise, amaze, excite, and delight people on a regular basis.

I know that all librarians have experienced this before. For example, at the reference desk when you’re able to help a student really focus their topic and find some great resources for their project, the student is surprised and continually comes back for help. Another example are the resources that we have. Students here are regularly amazed that we have a language learning software like Mango Languages, or can access thousands of tech/programming books through Safari.

Lankes suggests that in order to overcome these expectations we need to both create a culture where failure is OK and actively engage in conversations with our community. We need to be willing to take risks and we need to be talking to our community, trying to understand them better, and asking them about their problems and projects. This will give us more opportunities to change their expectations of us and our expectations of ourselves.

I would also suggest that we recognize these low expectations and take them into account when creating services, marketing resources, or helping users. At Champlain, we purposely built student expectations into our first year, first semester information literacy session. We recognized that a lot of students would expect a session with a librarian to be boring and not relevant to their life, and we wanted to change that.

Taking that expectation into account, we designed a session in which we told students to take their mobile phones OUT (rather than turn them off) and used them in our lesson for mobile polling. We designed a session in which we focused on things like Google and Facebook as opposed to the library through a TED Talk and exercise on filter bubbles. We designed a session that valued their opinions and was inquiry based rather than us telling them the answers. And in a lot of cases, it changed their expectations of what a library session can be.

 

Amazing our users should be the new normal, but this involves not accepting the status quo, being willing to fail, regularly questioning and talking to your community, and building in expectations into your designs. We need to start changing our users expectations of us and this begins by expecting a lot of ourselves and the work that we do.