Dreams DO come true! At this past weekend’s Boston Book Festival I fulfilled my lifelong dream to dress up as a cartoon character. I don’t mean the Halloween costume kind of character, but a real character. The kind that you find at Disney World or King’s Dominion or sporting events; Mickey Mouse, Huckleberry Hound, Finz of my beloved Worcester Sharks.
It started when I received an email, the long-anticipated reply to my volunteer application:
My reaction was an email reply to Sarah at the BBF saying, “OH MY GOSH! OH MY GOSH! OH MY GOSH!! I can’t believe I got picked to be a character. It’s like a lifetime dream come true! Thank you!!” a response that neither hid nor exaggerated my excitement. Really. This was a big deal for me. Several weeks passed before I learned my assignment (Curious George). I watched YouTube videos to prepare myself – method acting, you know. I practiced George’s dance moves and tried to absorb his mischievous nature. I dodged a last-minute change in schedule that tried to thwart my big day, and come 3:45 on Saturday afternoon, I donned the sweaty padded under-suit, the furry overcoat, the bright red t-shirt with “Curious George” in yellow script across the front. I put on the big feet, the expressive hands, and, of course, the head, and I headed up from the basement level of the Boston Public Library to the awaiting throng of children and adults alike.
For the next 45 minutes, I posed and waved and hugged and had my picture taken a hundred times or more. I wasn’t Sally in a Curious George suit. I WAS Curious George.
We’re hard-pressed to think of a superhero who gains superpowers without the aid of some transformation. Superman dons a cape, Batman a bat suit, the Hulk emerges from an angry Dr. Bruce Banner, and with a clink of her bullet-proof, Athenian gold wrist bracelets, Diana Prince becomes Wonder Woman. The ordinary becoming extraordinary is a common thread between most of these characters. Clark Kent needs glasses, but when he is Superman, he has X-Ray vision.
What does this have to do with being an informationist? Am I suggesting that I jump into a phone booth on my way to meetings with the research team? Hardly. When’s the last time that you saw a phone booth? No, embedded librarians have no superpowers, at least none that I’m aware of yet, and alas, we don’t get to wear any special costumes.
Still, think about it. What is it about a costume that can change a person?
What’s the importance of a medical student getting a white coat?
It changes perceptions – both those of the student, as well as any patients and/or family members s/he comes into contact with. A first-year med student, one month into his/her studies, knows no more about medicine than most of us with average intelligence and a bit of background in our own health. Yet, with that white coat on, the one with the embroidered name and the school emblem on the chest, the student is suddenly something more than a young adult lugging around a too-heavy backpack of laptop, books and notes. With that white coat on, the student is, in the eyes of the patient, someone who knows something of what’s in those books. S/he is someone to be trusted with a person’s health. It is an empowering and powerful thing, that jacket.
In a really wonderful TED Talk, neuroscientist Beau Lotto and 12-year-old student, Amy O’Toole, share the story of the Blackawton Bee Project, a research project conducted by Lotto and 25 students from the Blackawton School in Devon (UK). Their work, Blackawton Bees, was published in Biology Letters, making O’Toole and her 8-10 year old (at the time) classmates the youngest peer-reviewed, published scientists in history. When you have 15 minutes, watch this video.
The purpose of Lotto’s seeking out the primary school students and doing research with them was not, however, to set any new world record. Instead, it was to demonstrate his theory that science is for everyone and it is merely our perceptions of science (and scientists) that prevent us from being open to and accepting of this fact. As he pointedly states,
Perception underpins everything we think, we know, we believe, our hopes, our dreams, the clothes we wear, falling in love, everything begins with perception. Now if perception is grounded in our history, it means we’re only ever responding to what we’ve done before. But actually, it’s a tremendous problem, because how can we ever see differently?
Lotto goes on to talk about how hard it is to create new perceptions because doing so involves asking questions that, in turn, create uncertainty. And as much as we talk about wanting change, particularly in this election time of year, let’s face it… we do not like it. Human beings do not like change. We do not like uncertainty. Lotto argues that this is part of us, as a species. He says, “Now, uncertainty is a bad thing. It’s evolutionarily a bad thing. If you’re not sure that’s a predator, it’s too late.”
To put all of this in the context of being an informationist, if the perception of librarianship, both by librarians and our patrons, is rooted in our past experience(s), we’ve more than a bit of work to do to get others, and ourselves, to ask the questions that prompt the uncertainty that will ultimately lead to a new, more accurate perception. And to make it all the more difficult, we must do this without any superpowers and, for most of us, no costume changes.
There are many who argue that all we need to do to change the perception is call ourselves something other than librarians. As much as I respect this idea, in my opinion it falls short. I believe it holds some merit and is worthy of discussion, but think that it is only the beginning – the very beginning – of a longer, harder, more arduous process. The Blackawton Bee Project didn’t try to change what people called scientists, but rather, what people perceived scientists to be.
I propose that the next steps in librarianship’s pursuit of changing the perception people hold of it are found in the story of the Blackawton kids. By choosing children, Lotto demonstrated that their intrinsic abilities, i.e. their nature to play (as kids do), is the key to being a good scientist. Said another way, the key to being a good scientist is play, not age.
Play is “evolution’s answer to the problem of uncertainty,” says Lotto. Play involves five characteristics that correspond closely with the work of a scientist. Play:
- celebrates uncertainty
- is adaptable to change
- is open to possible
- is cooperative
- and is intrinsically motivated
The Blackawton Bee Project was carried out to show that these five characteristics of play, things possessed by children, made them ideal scientists despite every preconceived perception held by the scientific community. Despite years of experience that said otherwise.
I’m just back from the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Health Sciences Libraries organization, the regional group of the national Medical Library Association. Being at the meeting, I missed the weekly meeting of my research team yesterday, so have some catching up to do there. But it’s these times of professional gathering, particularly among groups facing uncertainty, like medical librarians, that brings to focus more than ever our thoughts and discussions and anxiety over the uncertainty we see before us. And so I’m thinking this week about these things and about Beau and Amy and the other kids of the Blackawton Primary School, of the researchers who believed in the possibility of kids as scientists, and of Biology Letters who ultimately published their article. I’m also thinking about the teachers who didn’t think the kids could do the project, the funding bodies that wouldn’t fund the project, the open access journal that originally rejected (twice) the article that the kids wrote. And finally, I’m thinking about how to do my own scientific experiment; how to incorporate the aspects of play that describe so well both scientists and librarians like myself who are looking for the best way(s) to become embedded in their research teams.
We play to play, says Lotto. “Play is its own reward.” It seems a really fitting message for a day when adults dress up and tap into their childlike “trick or treat” selves. I’m going to start looking at my work as an informationist this way. It’s play. Enjoy it!