Remembering to question what you know

Over the course of 2013, I read about a gross of books (probably equally distributed among the platforms of published paper, yet-to-be-published paper galley, ebook [both Kindle and iBook], and with my ears). It was a relatively light reading year for me and I even had several opportunities to make selections based on purely personal grounds (It’s the “purely” in there that is unusual for me). However, as December 31 rolled into January 1, I could pronounce the hands down “winner” in my reading year: Samuel Arbesman’s The Half-life of Facts enlightens me daily, even though I gobbled it up months ago.

Arbesman, a scientist, walks readers through a wholly accessible and skillfully scaffolded exploration of how we retain “facts” long past their due date, or information about their debunking spreads. This “half-life” is personal, with variance from person to person, and cultural. Especially as adults of  iddle age, we know what we know. But we also tend to have formed rigorous beliefsabout knowing that we know. Do you know full well that Pluto isn’t a planet, and yet “feel” as though “really” it is?

Applying this to the library, and to people who use the library: Do we know that we know what is important that we provide them? And applying this to the library, and the people who work in the library: Do we know that they know what is expected that they know in order to provide the community what is important?  In Infopeople’s Core Reference Fundamentals course, I am lucky to have the opportunity to discuss basic library tenets straight on twice a year, with cohorts of 50-75 library people in all stages of career and all ages of adulthood. This allows me to see the half-lives of a whole smorgasbord of facts–both arising from the group and in my own initial takes on the assertions of one member or another in the group. Some participants work in libraries where the outmoded “fact” that public internet access is “extra” and beyond what a community information and cultural resource needs to provide. Some are sure of the “fact” that homeless people are by definition behavior problems, a “fact” of a little “fact” nest: to be homeless is to be mentally ill and to be mentally ill is to exhibit disruptive behavior.

Of course, when it’s asserted that way, the logical fallacies get up on their tap shoes and dance. And that is part of Arbesman’s message: sometims, just by pausing to investigate logically, we can see where the “fact” leaves off and the belief begins.

And sometimes, we need to remember to ask ourselves: am I sure that I’m making this decision with factual information, or am I relying on the half-life of a fact that has been debunked?

Are YOU Reading on the Level?

A friend of mine, a librarian and lifelong reading enthusiast, shared with me the Excel spreadsheet her newly minted high school graduate niece keeps as a personal book record. Organized from about kindergarten through the present, this spreadsheet is an effective and evocative album closely akin to a well organized collection of snapshots and class pictures of this 18-year-old’s reading experiences–or places she’s gone and documented and remembered across her book life to date. My friend noted that both she and her niece were aware that the list tends toward books that “aren’t on the reading level” of someone who expects to enter university in a few months. That expressed concern, even as a casual observation, suggests an assessment of one’s reading life that flies in the face of why we readers read.

A couple of recent studies and blogging accounts of them direct–I would say misdirect–attention to the aspect of reading that is simply mechanical rather than aesthetic, social or formative. Like the cancer of the Accelerated Reader program that equates reading books with passing quizzes on factual information remembered from them, how we talk about books and reading choices with youth is endangered by a bloodless, intolerant perception of book reading as something that corresponds to grade level accomplishment, grade making ability and a rigid ladder up which one must ascend rung by rung, without a look backward let alone a step off the ladder and into the twisting boughs of the tree.

Book reading–in which “book” is a sustained narrative with complex underpinnings of meaning and message, connotation and denotation built of language, point of view, evocative cultural elements and more–is not endangered by changing platforms. But we are endangering future potential book readers when we consistently draw attention to their mechanical abilities, intellectual memory and expressions rather than allowing them to bathe their minds and hearts in whatever the books open for them.

Some years ago, the math department at a local high school required each student enrolled in any level of math, to read four works of fiction during each semester. The fiction requirement was loosely constructed and those at lower levels of math achievement did not need to concern themselves with the added attribute more sophisticated maths students were to use in making their reading selections. For the calculus, statistics and  other higher level classes, fiction books were to be read with an eye for the math in the fiction they selected. No, not the math books they selected, but the fiction. The assignment must not have been a lone wolf among contemporary high school math departments because I was ecstatic to discover a most helpful guide published by the California Department of Education, a list regularly updated with input from language arts teachers, public and school librarians and, of course, math and science teachers.   (Yes, there are nonfiction works on this list, including plays and poetry, but not textbooks).

I’ve heard John Green, the young adult literary novelist whose second book won both literary honors and a place on CDE’s math literature list, discuss how reading–and for a writer, the reading done of his books by others–strikes him as a collaboration, a collaboration between the author and each reader. That collaboration isn’t, of course, singular, he is quick to point out, but is a different one with each reader because each reader brings to the author’s book his or her own unique understanding, appreciation, and concerns or interests.

That’s reading on the level: collaborating with the book (and the author) as a reader, climbing off the ladder and into the tree where you, the reader, can get what is the best view for you.

The Art — and Act — of Listening

For twenty years, I’ve been teaching library staff best practices in reference and information and referral interviewing. It’s been way longer that I’ve been practicing reference work, and “practice” here comprises both repetition for the sake of skill building and working with comers who want and need the service (think medical or legal “practice”, just two other professions which require constant improvement while consistently providing skills in the aid of others needs). It’s been an era of huge changes in available tools, the requirement to learn new methods, and landscapes of information.

All these changes have also increased the attention reference workers need in what some might identify as a personality trait: listening, rather than simply hearing.  The kernel of reference work remains authentic, useful response to another’s stated need for information. The statements vary widely in degree of articulation (thus the demand on the practitioner to be a skillful interviewer), but  remain the true focus of the interaction. The capacity to listen is the germ within that kernel; without its presence, our work is sterile and our efforts to reach the needs bound up in the query don’t reach fruition.

To provide quality reference assistance, we do need to have appropriate tools as well as familiarity with their practical and meaningful uses. But to turn to those tools with the expectation that the best response lies within them or through our use of them bypasses the art of understanding what and when and how to connect this seeker with the most useful resource of assistance.  What must come first, and what must remain as we engage with that seeker, is our own capacity to listen.

To listen, we need to suspend our suppositions of what the seeker needs. We need to be able to hear what the key words are for the seeker, not concentrate our hearing for clues that hit on resources we know. The artful listener can interview the seeker in a conversational manner rather than in imitation of a punch list. Listening is about the speaker (in reference work, the one seeking assistance), rather than about connecting the dots between what we know of our resources with generalities ascribable to the “real” question. Remember, another truism of library work, and reference work, is specificity over generalities.

Listening isn’t an ears only activity. We listen with our eyes to body language, when the seeker is physically present.  The telephone introduced a layer of complication to understanding through listening; video chatting has helped assuage listening across space. Email listening may be the most difficult of all as it occurs in a milieu devoid of shared, visible space  and also of shared time. For practitioner purposes, email is more hazard than convenience (Imagine trying to diagnose via email). Texting improves upon the chances of written back and forth leaving room to listen in real time.

Are you comfortable with listening? Are you aware of when you aren’t listening but simply hearing (noise) while cruising your own inner dialog for tools to suggest?  Do you know a model listener, someone who seems to be able to suspend that inner dialog to attend to what you are saying or trying to say? That art of listening isn’t silent–the best listeners determine which questions need to be asked for mutual understanding. Are you a model of artful listening yourself?  How do you build others capacity to practice the art?

New Year’s Resolutions @ My Library

Once upon a time, when public library collections revolved around the paper of books and magazines and the vinyl of locking CD and video cases, the midwinter high school break was nigh and all of the teen workers employed at my public library wanted to schedule extra hours of work. One of the reasons we had created and maintained this worker classification was to give adult staff more awareness of how teens saw the library as a working environment, and another, of course, was to expose the teens to the library as a working environment. With those two (among about five) documented rationales for “extra” teen worker presence as the year slid to its close, I asked them to spend one afternoon organizing personal lists of resolutions for the new year and then find materials in the collection that might help them reach or maintain these goals.

Needless to say, what the kids turned up in the way of collection abundance (college application essay writing) and paucity (career planning advice for a serious female wrestler), datedness (useful guidance for exploring weight control for an adolescent diabetic) and out of age scope coverage (religious conversion) ranged from the expected to the laughable to the frightening. The kids had the role of canaries in the info mine and some of those birds weren’t going to be singing much longer.

Since then, at the bitter end of each calendar year, I look ahead to how libraries play a role in my resolving for an improved me in the new year. This turn-of-the-cycle, it’s a resolution to act on the good advice, or adopt the commendable insights, of some of the librarians I know:

From Michael Cart, I learned years ago to be a readers’ advisor anywhere anytime. In 2013, I resolve to listen to more book talkers and follow through on their suggestions, instead of hewing so closely to my abundant assignments and what strikes me in print reviews.

From a cooperative project between the human resources officer and some union members, Berkeley Public Library experimented with a staff walking program that involved local scavenger hunt style inspirations and the opportunity to learn Twitter to report sighting the week’s target. In 2013, I resolve to act on “lifelong learning” including  physical as well as intellectual renewal.

Ryan Deschamps, a librarian I was lucky enough to meet during my short stint in   Nova Scotia, used his double degree–MLIS combined with a master in public administration–to feed and nurture his care for community, rather than as a boost up a corporate or civic ladder. In 2013, I resolve to continue to explore who needs what and where and how to smooth access to information, innovation and imagination.

And finally, a librarian with whom I worked for years, amidst all those comings and goings of teen workers, has the perfect response for someone who can’t quite pull off what they had hoped just now: “Well, every day’s a new day.” And so, in 2013, I resolve to have 365 new days.

Stressed workplace? Take a walk!

The benefits of regular exercise as a stress reducing or coping activity have been documented in a wide variety of forums from medical journals, to popular self help magazines, and human resources texts.  Walking–one of the simplest, least equipment heavy exercise options–has been touted as having benefits as such exercise, as well as offering potential for socializing while undertaking, seeing the sights in many and varied environments in which it can be undertaken, and requiring little or no post-exercise cleanup.

If your library staff is stressed–whoa! Whose isn’t these days?–think about putting a simple walking program into place for employees (and that would include you).  Berkeley Public Library offers a simple and elegant model:

  • All staff are invited to participate, and any can start participating at any time (There’s no “first session” for which you needed to have shown up).
  • Steps count, not time spent stepping, and only the steps taken getting to and from work, while on a work break, or meal hour count, not whatever running around you might do outside your working life (That levels the playing field for those whose nonwork environments aren’t walk friendly).
  • Very inexpensive pedometers are available from the Human Resources staff office, but many new walkers discover that they become addicted to the counting and obtain their own, which happen to be available through many healthcare offices for a cost under $10.

But how do you create interest in getting people up and out into the neighborhood just to walk around?

  • At BPL, there’s a regular spot-that-interesting-picture-opportunity theme.  By and large, staff have cell phones and almost every modern cell phone has photo taking capacity. This week’s suggested photo op might be a mural you see while walking, next week’s could be an ironic sign.
  • Encourage staff to walk together to encourage each other–and while they encourage each other on foot, you’ll find that they come to see each other as pretty regular human beings, instead of just the job title.

There are lots of variations that are possible with such a program: you can introduce staff to social media, like Twitter, by suggesting they tweet the day’s walk or step goal; you can post the snapshots taken while folks were out walking; you can ask for route suggestions and blast email (to staff!) a customized Google map showing the route and some interesting landmarks along it so they can keep an eye out for what’s up ahead.

On the benefits side:

  • Stress reduction at the personal level
  • Stress reduction at the staff group level
  • New communication lines open across departments as walking partners discover each other
  • Better familiarity with the neighborhood around the library
  • Real opportunities to meet and say “hi” to customers when they aren’t inside the library

Oops, looks like it’s time for my afternoon walk! Be back at work in 15 minutes!