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Our Questions Create The Future

magic eight ball

image via greeblie on Flickr

I read Brian Mathews’ new white paper Think Like a Startup on Friday, and it was an inspiring end to the week. If you haven’t read it yet, go do it (and I’d love to hear your thoughts and chat about it on Twitter). In the paper he also puts forward good questions — big questions. These are questions like:

  • “How can libraries support 21st century learners?”
  • “How can we help the individuals at our institutions become more successful?”

Questions have immense power. “A good question is something that leads people on a quest.” They have the ability to focus, but they also have the ability to distract. If you or your organization is not asking the right questions, you could be following a path that is taking you somewhere you didn’t want to go. But if you are asking a question like how can we support 21st century learners, all the answers, whether right or wrong, will still be focused on that mission.

We’ve all heard the old adage that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. That’s true. Questions mean we’re curious and want to understand. A lack of questions means that we are fine with not learning and stagnation. But there are certainly better or worse questions. There are questions that can move us forward a little or questions that can completely change our thinking. I’ve heard, and I know I’ve been guilty of asking questions like: “how can we increase our reference numbers,” or “what if we have too much success?” While these questions are important for planning and can be illuminating, we can’t forget to go back to the really big, important questions. We have to ask these smaller questions in concert with the big ones.

Hildy Gottlieb in her TEDx talk about Creating the Future asks questions that can bring focus to a library or other institution:

  • “What kind of world do we really want?”
  • “What is the path that will get us there?”

She talks about envisioning what success would look like and reverse engineering the future that we want. What kind of library community do we want? What will it look like? These are questions that change the way you look at the work you’re doing and perhaps lead to deep insights.

The type of questions we ask as organizations and as a profession determine our focus and direction. What questions should we be asking? What questions are you asking?

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Beer Fests and Planning for Success

Wooden keg of Paulaner beer from Munich

Image cc on Flickr via StrudelMonkey

Last Spring I went to the Montbeerlier festival at the Three Penny Taproom with my girlfriend Heidi, my colleague Sarah and some other friends. The festival consisted of a medium sized tent thrown up in a parking lot behind the bar. There was music, free cheese samples, house made sausages, and 12 different “extra special” cask conditioned kegs of beer. By all accounts it was awesome. And apparently a lot of other people thought so too.

After a while it began to get fairly crowded (for Montpelier) and about halfway through the festival they remarked that they were running out of beer. Some people had already purchased tickets to get a beer and were getting upset that they would be out of luck. Fortunately the organizers announced that they would bring out a couple kegs from the bar. Moreover, people would be able to continue the party inside the bar and their tickets would be accepted there as well. A beer crisis was averted and overall it seemed to be an extremely successful event.

What does this have to do with libraries? More than once I have heard the concern at different institutions about too much success. “What if too many people come?” “What if we are overloaded with questions?” At our institution we recently added an IM widget to every course in Angel, our LMS. One of the concerns raised when deciding whether or not to put it in was, “what if we get too many questions?”

This type of question is a legitimate concern, but not one that we should spend much time on, especially at the start of a planning process. This question boils down to “what if we have too much success?” And I would answer “great!” If we spend too much time on this question while planning events or services, then we handicap ourselves. We’ll begin planning ways to limit our success. It’s an easy way to kill good ideas before they even have a chance to incubate.

If the Montbeerlier festival said, “hey, what if too many people come” they may have promoted the festival less, or limited the number of people that could take part. As it was, the festival was a huge success. There were a few problems along the way, but they were quickly adjusted for and everyone was happy.

In your initiatives, plan big. If there are some problems you can adjust along the way, and through some failure learn from your mistakes. But don’t worry about too much success. There’s no such thing.

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The Practical Side of IM

Technology needs are an important factor when implementing any new program, but they are rarely the most important. Planning is key to success when undertaking a new project.

This is what took up a great deal of my time when I started to implement IM reference at Edgewood. If one thinks only about the new technology and how cool it is, the project will fall flat. Something will be overlooked and you’ll be scrambling to fix it, or you’ll quickly turn patrons or staff off of the new technology.

The first thing I did was a Google search for literature about IM in libraries. I found a number of good resources that got me thinking including: IM Me, How do you IM?, Library Success, and the RUSA Virtual Reference Guide. I always find it helpful reviewing literature or blogs on a topic, because a lot of other people have done this already and have had some of the same problems you will have. You might as well benefit from other people’s knowledge and experience on the subject to make your own life easier.

Next, Jonathan and I started playing with the technology. I find it is always helpful to simply jump into the technology and start playing with it. Once you get in and mess around it is a lot easier to understand.

After we had a better understanding of what we were dealing with we gave our proposal to the head of reference. It gave some reasons about why we should do it, backed up with statistics. Then it addressed how the service would work including: technolgy, staffing, policies, training, promotion, and evaluation.

I also wrote up a draft that had some preliminary policies and best practices when IMing. We will be having a reference meeting on December 5th, and Jonathan and I will demonstrate it to the staff. We’ll do some training over winter break and roll out the pilot project starting in the spring semester.