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?



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?


Library Thinker Series: What is a Library?

There have been a lot of good posts and resources that I’ve been looking at recently about libraries and librarians that have got me thinking much more deeply about librarianship.

Aaron Schmidt talked about libraries without content.

Andy Woodworth explored the value of gaming in libraries and if it’s crucial to our mission.

Stephen Bell discussed how experiences give us more happiness than things.

Dave Lankes examined The Librarian Militant, The Librarian Triumphant.

Therefore I want to try something different on this blog for a little while in addition to regular posts, which I’m calling the Library Thinker Series. Each week I’m going to post a new question here. These are going to be pretty big questions (you could probably write a book on some of them). I’ll attempt a short, incomplete answer, but I’d also really like your attempt at answering it too. I know I don’t have all the answers and I would really like to see how other people approach these questions. I think it would be a fun exercise in exploring our profession where we might come to some insights together (sorry, I majored in philosophy. I have a warped sense of fun). So, the first question is:

What is a library?

This question came to me when Aaron Schmidt was talking about the day when perhaps libraries would have no content and when Andy Woodworth and commentators discussed if gaming is something libraries should be focusing on. If we can figure out what a library is, then maybe we can understand what a library is not. This would make it easier to answer questions like “should people be gaming in libraries,” or “do we need content to have a library?”

What actually is a library? So like any good researcher (or at least like most of the undergrads at my institution), I typed the full question into Google to see what the internet had to say about it. One of the first hits was of course Wikipedia. Here’s their definition:

“A library is a collection of sources, resources, and services, and the structure in which it is housed; it is organized for use and maintained by a public body, an institution, or a private individual.”

I notice three key things in this definition. First a library is a collection. This could be a collection of things or services. Second, it exists within an environment or structure. Third, it has people who organize and maintain the collection and the space.

For me this works as a definition. Collection, Environment, and People. If you do not have one of those things you do not have a library. A stack of books does not a library make. Under this definition I think Schmidt’s content-less library still holds up if there are still services that are being provided.

Is this definition too broad? What am I missing?