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Hesitation, Shipping, and Libraries

May 28, 2010

Happy Friday! It’s a long holiday weekend so feel perfectly free to wait until after the BBQ or beach fun of the weekend to read this post. It’ll keep; I promise. But if you do wait, please do come back and read this post because it is important. Like most posts it is part technology news, part library news, and part a weird amalgamation of the two first parts that seems important to me, and I hope you’ll agree. Today we’ll cover hesitation (and doubt), shipping (a la Seth Godin) and libraries.

First, the technology stuff. If I had to pick one web browser to love, it would be Google Chrome. I’m a sucker for fast page loads, clean interfaces and lots of screen real estate. Now with Lifehacker’s guide, fix the web’s biggest annoyances with Google Chrome, I can just about create the perfect web browser. That helps me get more done because I’m not worried about my browser windows crashing and can focus on more important things.

For example, do you subscribe to This is Indexed? If you don’t, you should. One of recent posts is, Maybe is in the Middle. I love the simplicity of this graph and also how it relates to the situation many libraries and librarians find themselves in today. Maybe is in the middle, but so is mediocracy (when mediocre, non-innovative, and safe ideas rule the day). The graph reminded me of Seth Godin’s admonishments about accepting mediocre work or trying something instead of doing something. We’ll get back to Godin’s work in just a bit, but first I wanted to highlight an article that generated a substantial amount of commentary this week: “Why closing more public libraries might be the best thing right now”.

So, did you read the article? I’ll wait if you want to hop on over and give it a quick review before moving on with our discussion.

While the commentators brought up many good points of contention with the article, what I want to focus on is the discussion about customer service and people skills in the library. I completely agree that people skills are not taught in library school (or at least I wasn’t taught them) and while often listed as required skills on job advertisements, the emphasis during interviewing, etc. was never on my people skills when I was job interviewing. I think this is tragic and something that needs to be fixed asap or we librarians, and our libraries, will be stuck in the trap of mediocracy, trying desperately to brand and market ourselves without changing the underlying, systemic problems that keep us from thriving without the “marketing.” I completely believe the old adage that we should show not tell people why we are great.

One of Godin’s latest posts was a 5 step plan. It’s simple: “go, make something happen, do work you’re proud of, treat people with respect, make big promises and keep them, ship it out the door.” While Godin writings are often marketed as marketing and business sources, they are just as relevant to libraries (which are businesses) and librarians. If we all follow this five step plan, we will build the tribes and be the linchpins that Godin talks about (read his books Tribes and Linchpin if you haven’t already) and the marketing/advocacy takes care of itself. While I no longer work in public libraries, but in academic libraries, and not in big business either, I believe this plan works and that doing–not talking–is the way to get things done. I’ll give you an example.

I teach information literacy to freshmen. It’s not a class they are particularly thrilled to take, but it is required so they (mostly) come. They think they’ll learn how to check out a book; what they come away with (if they pay attention) is the ability to research, to evaluate, and to make sense of the chaotic information world that surrounds them. I used Godin’s 5 steps, without knowing it at the time, in two different ways. First, in my teaching. I teach differently than the rest of my colleagues (who are also wonderful teachers); I interact with my students, we discuss, we watch YouTube videos, we use Twitter, we text and write and argue and figure out together how our class materials fit into their lives. It is about co-creation instead of lecturing. It is also work I’m extremely proud of. I treat everyone with respect (thanks, Mom, for that lesson) and students respond to it. I have high expectations for my students, but I also make promises to them to help them with this journey–and I keep them. I don’t make them wait 3 weeks (in a 10 week quarter) to receive feedback on their work. And then I ship it–which in teaching means I go with the wonky ideas (like using Twitter) that other instructors might baulk at and I try out stuff in class (like creating wikis together) which might fail and we use it as lessons in life. And guess what– it works.

I have former students who are now peer mentors and they push my classes when they talk to their mentees. They are my “marketers” and students are way more likely to pay attention and value their fellow students advice than mine or my colleagues. These peer mentors come by my office to just chat and to get advice on other classes and share with me their lives because they know I actually care. That didn’t happen because I paid lip service to improvement or change or caring, but because of my actions and doing work that I could be proud of.

Part two of the example is that in my first year teaching I also did research into improving student learning in the classes we teach. I didn’t wait around for permission, I wrote the application and got the research approval in the summer. I did my research during the year and respected the students because I asked their opinions about the class and learning and they told me because we actually trusted each other. I made promises to improve my teaching and have kept them. And I shipped it by presenting my research at a conference, writing a journal article, and now will be sharing the practical implications with others at another conference.

Was it all a lot of work? Yeah. Was it worth it? Completely. Would I do it again? Yes. Creating buzz works better when you have fans because they will do it for you, as Godin says. Librarians need to remember this. We won’t please everyone and we won’t be able to maintain some facade of perfection if we actually create tribes and do “crazy” new things. But isn’t it about time we drive the changes and become buzz-worthy (outside of the bibliosphere and our own conferences)?

Finally, in honor of all my friends who are coffee fiends, I though this was an appropriate way to end a Friday post: check out the Caffeine Poster. All I can say, is that’s a lot of caffeine represented in that poster.

Have a wonderful weekend. The Waki Librarian will be back next week.

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