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?”



Start Walking, You’ll Find Your Way

a path through the woods

This weekend I was walking some trails with my girlfriend. In Vermont the trails aren’t always well marked, so we weren’t sure which way to go. We looked at the map for a bit, but it wasn’t quite clear. Instead of continuing to study the map intently, we decided to just start walking in a direction that seemed correct. After walking for a while, and exploring a few dead ends and things that caught our interest, we eventually found the trail we were looking for.

This mildly boring story can be taken as a parable for how to innovate and go about creating the future of libraries. The first thing you need to do when want to create the future is to start imagining it. Try to get an idea of where it is you want to go. In our walk we had a specific trail in mind. This could mean coming up with a vision statement for your library. It could also mean, for example, saying something like, “In two years I want our library to be completely focused on customer service and be the most welcoming place on campus.” Having an idea of where you want to go is important.

Next, when creating the future some planning is good, but doing is even better. In our walk, the map could only tell us so much. Planning is necessary for success, but it can also paralyze you (I’ve been guilty of this). It is impossible plan for everything, so sometimes you have to give up control. Planning will eliminate some bumps along the way, but other bumps you encounter help you to learn. In a TED Talk, Tim Brown of IDEO says that “instead of thinking about what to build,” we should begin “building in order to think.” He goes onto say that,”it’s only when we put our ideas out into the world that we begin to understand their strengths and weaknesses.”

In addition, don’t forget to explore interesting avenues along the way. This is where you make some great discoveries. In hiking it might be a patch of wildflowers or a great scenic view. In libraries it could be some different perspective you hadn’t thought of, or a solution you had not imagined.

Finally, have confidence you’ll find your way. If you have a vision of where your headed, if you have the ability to explore, be curious, and learn from your mistakes, and if you have the drive to see the vision through, you’ll create a brilliant future.


Power of Stories


flickr creative commons from Honou

Everyone loves stories. Whether it’s your children listening during story time, your mom reading a mystery novel, your dad reading the morning newspaper, or your friend telling you about their crazy weekend, stories grab our attention, help us relate to others, and transport us into new situations.

Stories can help convey your message in a way that a simple relation of facts cannot. Listening to Ira Glass, of This American Life, deliver a keynote speech this year at the ACRL National Conference made me realize how powerful stories can be. The way he works is that he relates a narrative with a certain direction and breaks it up every now and then with a bit of insight or something with emotional meaning. The story doesn’t even have to have a specific point or moral, just a direction.

Narrative is powerful because that is what our life is—a giant story. It goes in a specific direction but we’re never sure what is going to happen next. There is also (hopefully) some meaning and insight thrown in along the way. This is why everyone easily relates to stories and they’re a large part of any culture.

I listened to business consultant Stephen Shephard talked about something similar last week at a conference called Leadership in a Connected Age. He said that to be an effective leader one needs to create a vision for the future of your organization so remarkable that people can’t help but ask “what can I do to make this a reality?”

This is very similar to telling a story. You’re crafting a vision of a possible future that people can relate to. Rational arguments are important, but they don’t have the power of a well fashioned story. Whether it’s a vision of the future or a spy thriller, their power lies in that we put ourselves in those situations. That is why our heart races a little at horror movies. You identify with the person getting chased by zombies.

Therefore, the story should not be overlooked. It should consciously be used as a tool in your personal in professional life. You can use it to lead as in Shephard’s idea of a vision for the future. You can also use it to market your services to users. Tell the story of what you are doing. Make a video, use social media, relate what you or your institution is accomplishing by using narrative.  Your users will feel that much closer and be able to relate better with you and what you’re trying to achieve.