New Ideas: Separating The Chaff From The Grain

a scythe on grass

I enjoyed both Karen Schneider’s post and Meredith Farkas’ follow-up post about devil’s advocates. They talk about new ideas and how they require a lot of experimentation and iterations as well as people to challenge them to make them stronger. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and I think it’s a very important one for people in the library profession to think about, especially those in leadership positions.

Like I mentioned in my last post I am reading the book What Technology Wants. In this book Kevin Kelly relates a story about a missionary in China introducing a new technology which serves as an excellent parable about the resistance to new ideas:

“The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible — but wholly improbable — way it could significantly harm their society.”

Devil’s advocates are useful people to have around, but they can also stop new ideas in their tracks. If we try to imagine every negative thing that can happen with a new idea it will surely die. Often devil’s advocates imagine unrealistic or unlikely situations that have little chance of happening. Looking at something new as a threat leads to no new ideas.

A new idea is a very fragile thing. It needs a healthy environment to germinate and time to grow. We as librarians and people in leadership positions should try to cultivate this environment among our teams and in our workplaces. There is a place for devil’s advocates and looking at possible challenges that a new idea could face, but it seems that should come later in the process. Libraries are desperately in need of new ideas. Just as in the case of the scythe in the story above, if we only see the negative aspects of an idea or technology we will become really good at maintaining the status quo.

So when people are proposing new ideas, listen first instead of criticizing. Bobbi Newman shared an excellent sentiment recently about contributing more than criticizing and it very much applies here. I know at times when someone is proposing a new idea I think to myself, “that’s stupid, it’ll never work.” But instead of dismissing it or nitpicking it, the more productive course of action would be to contribute to the idea to refine it or make it better. Not every new idea is a polished gem, but there may be the beginnings of something great in it. We just have to give it the proper environment to let it flourish.


Librarians Have Skills That Pay The Bills

Sarah Houghton-Jan recently conducted a survey over Twitter about why people continue to work in libraries. The results were interesting, but also thought provoking. It made me think about my own career as a librarian and the skills I’ve developed. One of the reasons that people gave for continuing to work in libraries was “Fear that I’m not qualified for anything else.” I tried to be honest with myself and question if that was a reason I’m a librarian. The answer was a resounding no.

Not just me, but librarians in general have a lot of skills that can transfer well to other fields. Houghton-Jan in her post mentioned project management, information architechture, and writing. After some thinking about myself and a lot of other librarians I know, I recognized there are a lot of trasferrable skills that we librarians have.

Project Management

Much of what we do involves large scale projects. Whether it is redesigning a website, weeding the reference collection, or digitizing a collection of rare materials, librarians have experience in planning and managing projects.

Information Architecture

Librarians understand information and how to organize it like few others. This skill is needed a lot of places due to the terabytes or exabytes or yottabytes (it’s a thing, look it up) of data than is constantly being created. Librarians understand ways to get to information quickly and how to select which information is important. Librarians understand indexing, search, or semantic data. The future needs minds like ours to make sense of this wealth of information.


Our profession is filled with constant writing. Writing grants, proposals, scholarly articles, blog posts, web copy, emails, marketing materials, newsletters, etc.


It’s necessary for librarians to promote themselves and their services in order to get used and stay relevant. Librarians create paper and electronic newsletters. They use services like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to engage and interact with users.  They create marketing materials, whether they’re signs, ads, or banners. They network in the community spreading their messages via word of mouth.

Customer Service

This is (or should be) our bread and butter. Librarians have superior customer service skills. They want to make sure that their patrons are pleased, have a good experience, and get a sufficient answer to their questions. I can recall many instances of librarians chasing after people with one last resource that they found, or librarians who rush catalog a book to get it into someone’s hands. Librarians aim to please, and this translates to the for-profit world well.

Event Planning

There is no shortage of events that librarians plan and organize whether it’s a summer reading program, conferences, crafternoon, or gaming events at the library. Librarians know what it takes to make events successful.

Technology Chops

It might not always seem like it, but librarians are probably one of the most tech savvy groups of people outside of Silicon Valley. Librarians, for the most part, understand the web and how it works. They’re curious about new tools and like to experiment. Being able to adapt to the changing technological landscape is a necessary skill to have these days. Librarians possess this skill in spades.


Out of necessity librarians have learned to be very creative. Budgets are constantly getting cut, and funds are almost always tight, but librarians find a way to do a lot with a little. We implement creative solutions on a shoestring budget, whether it’s running Linux on public workstations or finding more efficient ways of managing our collections. This could be very useful in places like the non-profit sector or start-ups.

I work in libraries because I really love learning. I love the idea of learning and I like helping other people learn. But I could see why someone might want to try something other than libraries. I don’t think that we should fear about not being able to do other things. We have skills that can be transferred to a lot of other fields. The ones I listed above are just a few. What other transferable skills do you think you have?


Convocation and Life Messages

Yesterday, a lot of life was breathed back into the campus.  All the faculty were back preparing for classes and getting last minute preparations ready.  A fair amount of students were also back.  The new freshman class was getting oriented to the place and orientation leaders were running around as well, doing an excellent job I might add.

Towards the end of the day all the faculty put on their academic regalia and processed over to convocation.  I have to say that I really think academia is both great and humorous in all the tradition and pageantry that goes along with it.  The St. Andrew’s Pipe Band of Vermont performed the processional and recessional on the bagpipes, and it was truly something to behold.

The best speaker of the entire ceremony was clear and away Pat Robins Chairman of Symquest who was receiving the Distinguished Citizen award.  He talked mainly about service to the community which is something I have been thinking about lately.  I know that I would really like to get more involved making the place where I live better.  He also talked about how fear is one of the only things that can stop us.  It stops us from undertaking risks and new challenges.  His speech was an uplifting one and I can see why he received this award.

The only unfortunate part of the whole thing was that at some points the students started talking while people were giving speeches.  I can understand their excitement seeing as how they are entering a completely new phase of their life and everything they are used to has changed.  I also heard that last year only a handful of the new students showed up, so I suppose this is quite the improvement.  I am probably just becoming an old fuddy duddy anyway.

There was one final thing that I thought was very cool.  President Dave Finney made the students a promise that if they had a 3.0 GPA by sophmore year, he would pay for their passport to study abroad.  Bravo sir.