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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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Putting Our Assumptions To The Test

leanstartup

I’m currently reading Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup. Ries talks a great deal about experimenting and validating learning. Often we provide products or create services because we think it is what has an impact or is what our users want. But in a number of examples that Ries provides, adding new features or services does not create any change at all and a lot of what organizations do is superfluous. This leads him to ask “which of our efforts are value creating and which are wasteful?”

To answer this question he says that we need to identify and test our assumptions through a number of small experiments. He also says that we need metrics that can tell us something as opposed to vanity metrics. An example of a vanity metric in libraries would be something like gate count. It says “we have a bunch of people coming in and out of the building,” but it doesn’t go to much farther than that. Why are these people coming in? Does it have something to do with our efforts?

He also talks about “success theater,” (the work we do to make ourselves look successful). It’s good to have charts and graphs that go up and to the right, but do those actually tell us anything? Is it our efforts that our making a difference or something else? Are we accidentally getting it right? Is it a fluke? What happens if the numbers go down?

So this brings me to my question: what are the assumptions we have in libraries and how to we test them?

Assumptions abound in libraries: students need research help from librarians, we need to be on social media, students need to be taught how to use a database. These assumptions might be different from institution to institution, but each place has their own assumptions.

We also have a variety of metrics and numbers that we can pay attention to in libraries: gate count, database statistics, circulation numbers, reference statistics, number of classes taught, assessment data, student surveys, etc. Which numbers are really valuable for testing assumptions and which are just noise?

What are some of our assumptions in libraries? What assumptions do you test at your library? What assumptions would you like to test? What metrics do or could you use to validate your learning?