Browsing as an art and lifeskill

One of this year’s recurring topics at Book Expo revolves around the current book industry reconsideration of DRM (the digital rights management coding that essentially keeps ebooks and eaudio locked from the user’s attempt to copy–and, too often, from accessing a rightfully owned file  due to technical incompatibilities between  file and player or other downloading snafus). As digital intellectual property becomes increasingly accessible, both technically and popularly, some of us librarians here in the digital collections conversation are identifying the need to create the opportunity for collection users to engage in physical browsing.

This, for me anyway, is an unexpected lapse in the rich world of digital collection use habits: youth readily scan web pages, sample music, and put their eyes, ears and imaginations to the end of sorting among options to find what fits the moment’s need or want, from an information standpoint. Browsing, however, has become a stranger. Browsing–be it among horses in a meadow or middle schoolers in the school media center– is a physical activity as much as an engagement of thoughts/feelings elicited by auditory or visual stimuli. Confronting three potential resources for pursuing research on Egyptian jewelry making is, of course, a lot about what visual scanning–and in the case of a video’s soundtrack, in this example–sound resonance. Engaging one’s evaluative powers, however, can be enhanced by leafing through plates that were set in just this specific order, noting that the volume offers a biographical note about its author who turns out to be a noted jeweler, and how this volume’s smell contrasts with the scent of that other one which has beautiful little pen and ink sketches and no photos of artifacts. And, oh look, this third is printed on heavy stock that seems to promise its contents are similarly substantive…but are they? Can one judge content worth by its package…oh, look, another now personalized question to explore by the beginning researcher….

The intrinsic difference between this kind of browsing and online research scanning is subtle. No superior term paper grades abound to demonstrate the academic worth of touching, turning, riffling and hefting as part of the resource selection process. And yet, these browsing activities call up resources within budding researchers’ awareness. It’s not just who said it, when it was said, and whether it works in my information gap context; it’s also about learning to learn, and learning is an engagement with the world in its concrete aspect as well as the abstracted formulations we can draw.

Socrates in the Library Manager’s Office

How does a library leader manage him/herself when someone else is the library manager? That was the first part of the question posed to me by a colleague yesterday. How does the leader, in such a position, maintain that internal flame of creativity? How does such a leader lead in practical terms?

My own go-to resource, when faced with a matter that requires a political frame in which to examine how best to synthesize a way forward where paths appear to divide, is Socrates.  (If you know all matters of library management are political, then you can probably manage–not knowing this already, however, is no preclusion to your blossoming as a leader–albeit, a leader who best learn that all library management matters do, indeed, have a vein of politics threaded through.  Thus the big[ger] bucks). Socrates, unlike a manager, did not direct, supervise or set performance standards. Socrates asked questions, and not just random questions but questions that demand reflection, imagination and a willingness to experience some level of personal ambiguity or discomfort on the part of the person who works to find the best response to each such question.

The nonmanager leader in the library needs to learn how to frame such questions. The best questions a leader poses bring the management forward; they don’t push a personal agenda, coerce, or belittle management as it is. The best questions focus management attention on how to synthesize the leader’s new, perhaps strange (to the nonleader) vision with political reality.

And what do managers who are fairly certain that their forte is administrative rather than visionary have to offer such leaders to forestall their disaffection with outgrowing the library that needs their guiding light? Cetainly the top of the possible heap of responses to that one is a willingness for ambiguity and mild intellectual discomfort (conditions from which no one dies and unfortunately too many recover with no after effects).

Managers and leaders rarely stumble unconsciously into a healthy symbiotic relationship. It takes conscious–and conscientious–work on the parts of both to synthesize how to manage and move a library forward.

Embed ‘Em Where the Action Is: Watering Holes

Every week, I have the opportunity–often the opportunities–to provide on-the-spot reference services at a local coffee shop. Among other morning caffeine inhalers on hand as I make use of my own most portable electronics, some shyly ask about the rudiments of choosing and/or using specific creation-enabled tools (iPad, smartphone) . Others ask for help altering the settings on their ereaders. Another kind of query relies on my ability to connect them to online resources when they’ve been stumped by their own efforts to find the very specific information they’d like to uncover.

This morning’s exchange began with an elderly woman who is in the market to replace her laptop, which has become a burden for her to haul around. We toured the possibilities a tablet would allow: document creation and editing, document exchange, searchable pdf files of publications on the iBook shelf, the keyboard’s utility, and, in this case, of course, the heft of the tablet itself.

Not for the first time, I regretted that I have no business card from the local public library (the main branch of which was three blocks away and open) to offer her, with the suggestion that she could follow up our discussion, if wanted, with further exploration with the reference staff (Saying and supplying a card with hosting invitation are two very different messages). What would be welcome here, of course, would be a real presence by reference staff, equipped to guide, to explore database possibilities (in response to some other reference interviews I have carried on over my glass of coffee), and to hear what community members are wanting and needing on the spot.

It’s a two-way street as well: in this venue, I have had the opportunity to casually listen in while groups of teens from the local high school discuss what they are reading for pleasure; I’ve heard and been able to ask questions about what undocumented detainees can expect to happen before a judge (from a court-sanctioned interpreter and one-time high school teacher and professional actor, demonstrable skills for a public presenter); and how changes occurring in university library public staffing practices have affected alumni efforts to pursue scholarly research of their own. If I worked for the public library here, I would be gaining valuable insights that range from traditional collection management to the real deal behind the policies of other agencies and institutions that should be impacting service provision plans in my own workplace.

There are public libraries that have taken the step of stepping out, assigning and supporting trained staff to move from behind the reference desk and out the door of the building to be where the action is. Staff visits the local food pantry to see what groceries are going home with those in need that week that will most likely require recipe help for consumers unfamiliar with canned garbanzo beans or bulk buckwheat. Others hold down booths weekly–not just for special events–at farmers markets, prepared with netbook and ready to aid other market regulars with non-market information needs. You can read about the theory and forty-year-old practice of this kind of where-the-action-is library service in John Pateman and Ken Williment’s new book, Developing Community-led Public Libraries.

There is opportunity for the evening library staff shift as well. Bar customers famously lay bets in need of demonstrable settling, if we are going old school, and those of us who read in them are regularly approached for advisory help–real advisory help, not just “Would I like the book you’re reading now?” (Bars, by the way, serve soft drinks unblinkingly, so the on duty staffer need not imbibe on work time).

A challenge? No more so than evaluating the traffic–both volume and professional need–at your current information or reference desk, and sorting service priorities to address the reference needs where staff probably already drink during breaks, before or after work. Scary? Probably for many, administrators as well as staff. Training is involved, but so, too, is valuing proactive library service over maintaining a line that has become a kind of monument to pre-wired days. Come on, I know you can do it. I’ve seen it done. I’ve done it myself, both as an administrator and as frontline librarian.

Mountaintop Experiences

Next week, Infopeople is sending a few California librarians to a new and unusual library conference. “R-Squared” (Risk x Reward) promises an exciting “mountaintop experience,” both in that cheesy life-changing sense and also in a completely literal sense, as we’ll be spending a few breathless days in Telluride, Colorado, at close to 10,000 feet. We’ve received advisory emails about drinking extra water, toning down weekend exercise goals, and coming with open minds. The conference focuses on experiences that will vividly demonstrate how to lead libraries in taking healthy but meaningful risks–risks with rewards that will revitalize libraries, keeping us relevant and even innovative in a changing world.
 
Although I now live and work at sea-level in Los Angeles, I grew up on Cobb Mountain in Lake County, and just a few summers ago spent 13 weeks in the Sierra, so I’m pretty familiar with mountaintop experiences. I remember the exhilaration, the inspiration–and needing to sleep a lot. Here’s hoping for a week of beautiful perspectives on the Rockies and libraries, new dreams and ideas to bring back to California, and a conference schedule with mandatory nap-time built in!
 
Sarah Vantrease is a Branch Manager at Los Angeles Public Library and was a participant in the 2010 Eureka! Leadership Institute.

The Difference Between Creativity and Innovation

In my Edgy Librarian webinar on Culture Shift in Libraries, I asked the question “Does it feel like, all of a sudden, everyone is talking about the need to be creative and innovative?”  Most of the people on the webinar responded “yes.”  Much of the webinar covered why this is so, and what to do about it.  What I didn’t get a chance to do was really get into what it means to be creative and innovative.

One definition for creativity often used by researchers is “the generation of novel and useful ideas.”  A definition for innovation is “the successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization.”

It’s important to understand how these are different because you may be strong at fostering creative ideas but weak in implementation. Or weak in idea generation though you have the desire and means to implement something cool. (Do people still say “cool?”)  To me the benefit is in understanding that there are phases which involve different skills and organizational structures.  Coming up with the “cool” idea is often the easy part and is too often generated by a select few. That’s the topic of another blog post. 😉

When working on your next innovation, keep in mind that the setting, rules and behaviors required for generating creative ideas is different from the effort to prioritize and decide what to do.  When you get to the “how“ phase, there will likely be a need for more creative thinking.  The final piece is to manage the change process that incorporates the innovation into daily work flow.  In the ideal organizational culture, people at all levels will have been involved, or at least informed, along the way and will have learned to see change as opportunity.

We already have all of the raw materials in both staff and resources to supply innovations in the area of connection to learning, resources and community.  With changes to our organizational structures to promote creativity and experimentation and a little more practice reframing change from challenge to opportunity, we’ll be set.