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What’s Right With Libraries?

changing life bulbs

image via DyanaVphotos on Flickr

There are no shortage of problems in librarianship. Publisher’s and libraries are wrangling over ebooks. Higher education and the academy is under siege. There are regularly stories of funding cuts. And apparently libraries are in crisis. It’s easy to see only what’s wrong and what problems are facing us, especially if that is what we are looking for. But what if we flipped that around?

What if instead of only focusing on solving problems, we focused on creative initiatives happening right now? What if instead of putting out fires we looked at proactive ideas to the issues facing us? What if in the place of managing crises, we looked at the distinct strengths of and the vast human potential of libraries and started building there?

There are clearly challenges facing libraries, and they can’t be ignored, but we default to looking at the problems and become overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on deficits and what is wrong with libraries, we need to look at the myriad opportunities for innovation and build on what is going right in libraries. This is a shift in perspective that could make a significant change, but it also takes a shift in action.

What could we do to shift our organizations, workplaces, and selves from problem and deficit-based thinking to potential and strength-based thinking?

Ask Better Questions

The questions we repeatedly ask determine where we direct our energy. If we ask in meetings or in strategic planning, questions like “how can we better market our services” or “how can we improve our service” then we’ll likely get incremental improvement with more problems following closely on the heels of those questions. But if instead we are constantly asking “how can we inspire human curiosity,” or “how can we be radically relevant to our users lives,” or “how can we amaze people everyday,” we are more likely to get transformational change. In questioning, we need to start with what we genuinely want, not what we want less of. “Don’t think about better vacuum cleaners, think about cleaner floors.” Asking better questions, like in Brian Mathews’ recent whitepaper Think Like a Startup, is the first step to coming up with better, revolutionary answers.

Build on Strengths

The management guru Peter Drucker said “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.” Too often we spend time trying to improve our weaknesses, and correct what’s wrong. There are so many things that libraries don’t do well, and that’s fine. But if we spend our energy focusing on what we do poorly it will be wasted. Libraries and librarians have distinct strengths like nurturing curiosity and creating unrecognized connections. If we can identify and amplify those current strengths our work will be much more focused, and the resources and services we provide will be much more effective.

Create Potential Rich Work Environments

Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about two different ways of looking at work and motivation. In the first type (Type X) motivation stems from external desires and rewards. In the second type (Type I) motivation arises intrinsically out of challenge and a sense of meaning. Librarianship is a career path obviously focused more on the intrinsic rewards and the moments that make it all worth it, but work is not always structured that way. Instead of focusing on purpose or challenge we get caught in the day to day of maintaining the systems, answering emails, and teaching classes. What if we could find strategies that regularly got us out of our routines and got us focused on why and challenging us to grow? What if we instituted a FedEx day for our next work retreat where the point was to create a new service or offering in the course of a day? Library leaders need to find ways to focus on not only maintaining and getting our daily tasks done but connecting our work to the powerful reasons we got into this profession in the first place.

There are plenty of voices asking what’s wrong, what’s broken in libraries. A much more generative question is what’s right with libraries, and how can we start building there?

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Ask The Right Questions

“Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about.”  - David Cooperrider

I have been thinking a lot recently about the power of questions in creating meaningful change in organizations. I posted earlier about taking a 6 week online class about Appreciative Inquiry. One of the principles of AI states that questions and change are not separate things. They happen simultaneously. One of the most important things that we can do in bringing about change is to develop and ask good questions.

So, if human systems grow in the direction of their persistent questions, what sorts of questions should we be asking?

  • Our budget has been cut again. How can we do more with less?
  • How can we show that we still have value?
  • How can libraries avoid obsolescence?

If these are the types of questions that we regularly ask at our institutions and our professional organizations and conferences then we are in trouble. If these are the questions that focus us, then we will constantly be thinking about proving our worth, avoiding budget cuts, and our eventual demise. We’ll be focused on fear as opposed to actually providing value and doing good. We need better questions.

  • How can we create amazing experiences everyday for our users?
  • How can we develop our students into expert questions-askers?
  • How can we make our libraries invaluable and irreplaceable in our communities?
  • How can we nurture abundant curiosity?
If questions like these are the ones that guide our thinking we’ll do extraordinary things. These questions aren’t trying to solve problems or even merely discover what we are already doing. These questions paint an optimum vision of the future and propel us towards it. Instead of trying to solve problems, put out fires, or simply stay afloat we are asking how can we create the kind of future we want.
What questions are you asking at your institution? What questions do you want to be asking?

 

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Positive Vision and Questions in Libraries

“All we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” -Buddha

“A vivid imagination compels the whole body to obey it.” -Aristotle

I just began a 6 week online workshop on Appreciative Inquiry conducted by David Cooperrider at Case Western University’s Weatherhead School of Management. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an organizational development model and a way of implementing change that focuses not on the problems or deficits of a group or organization, but instead focuses on the positive and increasing what they do well. I recognized right away that this workshop was going to be exploring a lot of questions that I have recently been dealing with, especially the importance of questions in the change process.

One of the interesting elements of AI is called the Anticipatory Principle. This principle states that our current actions and behaviors are guided and deeply influenced by our images of the future. An example of this is Pygmalion Effect in pedagogy. Research shows that students will perform better if their teacher has higher expectations of them. The same is true with organizations or institutions. And of course examples like the Pygmalion Effect or the Placebo Effect are instances of self-fulfilling prophecies. If we have a positive vision of the future we will create that future. If we have a negative vision of the future, that is what we will get.

Then I come across sentiments like this:

I remember coming across this tweet a couple of months ago at the Library Technology Conference, and it seemed pretty spot on. There’s a lot of hand-wringing that goes on in librarianship. We see a “crisis of identity” and “low self esteem.” There’s a lot of hype that libraries are doomed or that the library “empire” is declining and falling.

It’s easy to focus on problems, a future of obsolescence, budget cuts, or change resistant colleagues. But there is a problem with that. If we focus on obsolescence or resistance to change, that is what we’ll get. Focusing only on fixing what’s wrong with libraries is a waste of energy. There will always be more problems. Instead we should be focusing on the strengths of libraries, capitalizing on them and innovating in those areas.

This is a really exciting time in the history of humanity and there is so much potential, not just for libraries but also for human curiosity. There are tons of examples of libraries and librarians innovating, creating new service models, and meeting the changing needs of their members. When libraries are at their best, they are funinspiring places, that foster community and civic engagement, empower citizens of all ages and cultures, and promote literacy and scholarship.

How can we shift our professional discourse away from all the problems facing libraries and instead think about questions like “what do libraries look like when they are at their best” and “what would an ideal library look like?”