Office Hours: Heretical thoughts

By Michael Stephens

I recently had a phone chat with a valued colleague who runs a university library. He had been working hard to streamline staffing and budgets owing to a financial shortfall, while holding steady to a strategic plan anchored in creating useful information and collaboration spaces for the student body.

I asked the question I always ask when I’m talking to someone who hires new librarians: “What other skills and competencies should a new librarian have?”

His response? “I want risk-takers…innovators…creatives….I don’t want someone who’s afraid to make a move or make a decision without getting permission.”

We chatted longer about skills that are becoming more important, usurping some of our longstanding curricular mainstays.

Strategic thinking and planning

As budgets fall and library use rises. LIS students need a solid foundation in project management and planning. I honestly can’t recall too much devoted to strategic, technology, or long-range planning in my own graduate work. I do remember watching reference books being wheeled into the classroom and explained one by one. That class time would have been better spent developing a mock plan for phasing out part of our print reference and the ins and outs of acquiring, leasing, and paying for online resources.

Programs drawn from schools of business and public administration would be a good fit for the soon-to-be-librarian. Our students need grounding in concepts like decision-making, advocacy, human resources, administration, and management of nonprofits.

As staffing structures change, a newly hired librarian may be called upon to take over departments or projects. Here’s an intriguing assignment for students: give a group a plan halted in midstream, with directions to pick up the pieces and “make it work”–complete with roadblocks from administrators above and front-line staff below.

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In my classes the dreaded group project becomes a real-world example. How do we LIS educators–and others–create pragmatic projects to reinforce the importance of planning?

Creativity and innovation

Thinking and planning are important but so is innovation and creativity. I’ve used Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind in my Intro to LIS class to highlight the importance of right brain thinking. Pink argues that the logically focused left brain, though necessary in professional work, has given way to the more artistic and conceptual. Creative work is what remains after outsourcing and turning repetitive work over to computers.

Pink also stresses the importance of empathy and the power of story to transform products and services. Solutions to common problems can come when librarians tap into their creativity and inventiveness. For example, we could create and deliver library services built on human emotion that add to the ongoing story of a community, as they are doing at the DOK Library’s Agora in Delft, the Netherlands. [For more on DOK, see “What’s Your Story?” LJ 9/1/10, p. 26-29.]

Not all students are ready to take this on. Some can only operate within the constraints of their own limited assumptions of what library work is. To conclude last semester, my LIS701 class walked a local labyrinth, as Pink describes, to engage the left brain and free the right to explore new ideas. “Think about your professional practice,” I said before the walk. “What can you do to encourage the heart of your library users?”

I caught up with one of the students from that class, Tara Wood, and asked her what she thought about it. “I think that it is just as easy for students to fall into a certain ‘comfort zone’ as it is for librarians. We get used to coming to class, listening to lectures, writing papers, etc., but these are not always the best methods for learning. At first, we all felt a little silly walking the labyrinth, but by the end we felt differently…. [I felt] a sense of clearing out the ‘junk’ in my mind and being able to focus.”

Focus on the heart

As a teacher, I practice radical trust. I will never look over shoulders and scold a student for peeking at email or the score of the big game, or practice scare tactics to make sure they do the assigned readings. They’re adults. In exploring the idea of fear as a mechanism for learning, Seth Godin writes in Linchpin that instead of “fear-based, test-based battlefields, [classrooms] could so easily be organized to encourage the heretical thought we so badly need.”

What are your heretical thoughts about libraries and LIS education?
Personally, I never give exams and focus instead on writing and personal reflection about the practice of librarianship. The strongest student papers are usually those with a personal slant that tell a story as a means to show comprehension of course material.

I don’t want students to memorize facts. I want them to understand what it means to be in the ultimate service profession. Being a good, innovative, librarian means to take a humanistic stance toward policy, decision-making, and experimentation. It means a focus on the heart.

Originally published in Library Journal December 2010