The Tao of Librarianship

Taoism is, among other things, a philosophy that originated in China in the 3rd or 4th century BCE. It began with Lao Tzu’s writing of the Tao Te Ching and is still around today. It is a philosophy which values balance, moderation, compassion and being pliant and adaptable. There is a wealth of wisdom from the Taoist philosophy that could be applied in librarianship.

Laws Create Lawbreakers (58) – “Where government stands aloof, the people open up.” Instead of constantly trying to control the behavior of your users, see what they do and create guidelines around that. Instead of setting furniture up a certain way and then moving it back when it gets out of place, see what configurations users like and allow them the freedom to make spaces their own. Instead of having strict mobile phone or food rules, recognize that as humans we need to communicate and eat. Outlining numerous strict library policies makes for a lot of broken policies, shushing, and saying no constantly.

Bend, Don’t Break (76) – “When a plant becomes hard it snaps.” Libraries, especially in academia, have done things certain ways for many years. We continue purchasing print journals. We still have items on microfilm. We still tell people to turn off their mobile phones in the library. In order to not become outdated or obsolete libraries and librarians should cultivate an attitude of softness. We should examine services, collections, and policies constantly to see if they are still meeting user needs and if they are still in touch with reality.

Realize When Enough is Enough (9) – “Instead of pouring in more, better stop while you can.” A key concept in Taoism is that one opposite follows another. Emptiness follows fullness. As librarians, we keep taking on new roles and offering new services without dropping other services. This is a recipe for disaster. Instead of doing a few things really well, we fall into the trap of doing a lot of things poorly. By holding onto legacy services and trying to do everything, we are in fact defeating ourselves. There is only so much energy and so many resources that we can provide. We need to think strategically about what we can drop and what is most important to our community. One way is through a great presentation that I saw at ACRL about Planned Abandonment.

Be Like Water (8) – “The best are like water, bringing help to all.” Water helps all people, that’s it’s nature. Just so, we should constantly be thinking about how we can best serve others. Water also is quite adaptable. It can fit easily into any sort of container and it naturally goes with the flow. Librarians too should be able to change themselves, their services, and their resources to meet their community’s needs. They should be able to adjust along with the changes that are constantly happening in the world both technologically and socially.

The Tao is typically translated as “The Way.” It’s a very nuanced concept, but at it’s core it refers to the true nature of the universe. And the point of Taoism is to live in accord with The Way. Instead of struggling against everything all the time Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them. This can be a very illuminating idea for libraries.

Librarians need the ability to be in touch with reality and not be blind or naive. The job of a librarian does not have to be a struggle against obsolescence or a constant proving of  their value to stakeholders and administrators. Instead librarians can try to understand what is actually of value to our patrons and be leading the parade instead of fighting against it.

The quotes and numbers above refer to chapters/sections of the Tao Te Ching translated by Red Pine, though there are plenty of free translations available as well. 



All Fun, All The Time

The unofficial motto at our library is “all fun, all the time.” It’s even on our Facebook page. We do a pretty good job infusing it into everything we do and it’s become ingrained in our culture. One of the Teaching Librarians says that if she isn’t having fun in the classroom she doesn’t want to teach. We try to bring a sense of fun to all of the work we do whether it’s our social media presence, our Harry Potter exhibit/events, our chili cookoff, our teaching or our reference. If we’re not having fun we’re probably doing something wrong.

This doesn’t mean that we’re not doing really important work though. It also doesn’t mean we’re not serving our patrons. In fact our patrons take notice. This past semester I had a student ask me “why do you librarians smile so much?” The reason we smile is because we’re having fun. Having fun allows us to better serve our students and makes for a more welcoming, encouraging environment.

But having fun isn’t just about improving the service that we deliver to our users. It also has to do with learning. In the book Homo Ludens, a book dealing with the element of play in culture, the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga has a great quote. “Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing.” Learning and play are very closely tied. Learning doesn’t just have to be all-nighters and 10 page papers. Most of the time learning is fun.

By creating an atmosphere of fun and play and not taking ourselves too seriously we are creating a place where it is safe for students to experiment, test out ideas, and even fail. That is not always true in the classroom. Students need to succeed in the classroom to get a grade. They need to do the reading and pay attention to the professor. In the library they can be curious and explore their interests in more depth. They don’t have to be bounded by the right answer.

At the NELIG conference last week, the keynote speaker Randy Hensley, said that by calling something play we can pretend that it doesn’t matter. Normally we think about things very practically. But by calling something play we give ourselves permission to be creative and explore different possibilities without having to say “that’ll never work,” or “that’s a stupid idea.” In play all ideas are equally as stupid, thus making them all equally as good. Having a place to play and have fun is important for creativity and learning.

It’s not always easy to create an environment like this though, so how do you go about doing it? Here are a few ideas:

  • Get a motto, mantra, or philosophy -” All fun, all the time” seems to work for us. Huizinga’s “let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing” could be another good one. Find one that works for your staff and then infuse it into everything you do.
  • Don’t make everything about academics or tie fun things to academic things – We hosted a Harry Potter exhibit that was tied to several of our general education courses about the scientific revolution and religious and secular traditions. We also have a chili cook-off every year that has nothing to do with academics. Not everything has to be scholarly.
  • Play with each other as a staff –  Recently our awesome new Scholarly Resource and Academic Outreach Librarian Hanna organized a staff button making afternoon where we created buttons from book images to hand out to students. I was really busy and felt like I had no time for button making. But once I started I couldn’t stop. We were all joking with each other, having fun and being creative. It was really energizing. I highly recommend getting a button machine to anyone. Instant team-building excercise.
  • Build fun into your teaching – Be willing to try new things in the classroom. We tried integrating mobile phone polling as a pedagogical tool this fall and it made the classroom dynamic so much more fun. Not only because students enjoyed it but also because it we got to try a new technology. Another example is Amy Springer’s Jersey Shore themed library instruction. Trying out new things keeps your teaching fresh and keeps it fun.
  • Integrate games into the library – Fairfield Library, for example, has created a fun, interactive, online game that orients new students to the library and all it has to offer. There are other games out there and they don’t have to all be electronic. But games are great for injecting fun and play into learning.

These are just a few ideas, but I’m sure you’ve got some others. How do you keep things fun at your library?

If you still need more convincing about the power of fun and play, check out this thought provoking TED talk about Serious Play.


Some Great Thoughts On Librarianship

There have been several really great posts recently about the philosophies and thinking behind librarianship. I wanted to briefly highlight them here and make sure that folks didn’t miss them. They’re all pretty short. I know they all made me stop and think.

A Stealth Librarian Manifesto:

This first Manifesto is from John Dupuis at York University in Toronto. He argues that in order to

“thrive and survive in a challenging environment, we must subtly and not-so-subtly insinuate ourselves into the lives of our patrons. We must concentrate on becoming part of their world, part of their landscape.”

He focuses on academic librarians insinuating themselves in the world of professors. He suggests instead of always going to library conferences, go to academic or teaching conferences. Give presentations with other faculty members, not other librarians. Some of the things he says may be more controversial like “we must stop writing the formal library literature.” He says instead that we should get our ideas out there in the literature of our users. It seems like his ideas would not just insinuate us with our users but also help us get out of the echo chamber and gain a fresh perspective.

Common Sense Librarianship: An Ordered List Manifesto:

This second manifesto is by the ever thoughtful David Rothman. His very short post doesn’t propose anything radically new, but he outlines what librarianship should be about in a very succinct and powerful way. My favorite one is probably #4:

“Whenever possible, obstacles between users and the information they seek should be removed.  Among these obstacles are academic jargon and expecting users to care about cataloging minutia (it is minutia to them, get over it).  Information professionals should be champions of clarity and concision who find accessible ways to describe complex topics.”

In Praise of Ideas:

This last one isn’t a manifesto, but it is a great guest post on ACRLog by Emily Drabinski a librarian at Long Island University. She talks about the ideas we bring to librarianship. She discusses how our personal philosophies and understanding of the world influence how we teach or conduct a reference interview or interact with patrons.

“What it’s possible to know, or even conceive as a question, depends on the context–what has come to count as knowledge over the course of time. It may not be a set of how-tos, but the notion of kairos does provide me a frame through which I work, every day, in my office, at the reference desk, and in the classroom.

Here’s an example: If knowledge is contingent, then I’m never looking for right answers. Instead, I’m looking for ways to engage students in their own active knowledge pursuits, pursuits that happen in time and are never final.”

Go check out these thought provoking posts.