One morning last week, as I poured the last bit of milk out of the carton and onto my raisin bran, I looked at the plastic spout poking out of the “roof” like a chimney and wondered to myself, “Who ever decided that this was an improvement on the original milk carton design?” I thought about how John R. Van Wormer’s ingenious idea to make a self-contained container – a single object that both held milk AND unfolded to give you a spout – somehow became “not good enough.” Why? Whoever thought that a carton needed a second spout, complete with three other small pieces of plastic that now, multiplied by a gazillion, take up space in landfills? What the heck was ever wrong with unfolding the spout?
I’ve thought about this for days. Literally. I’ve mentioned it to a couple of friends and/or colleagues. I’ve asked them if they know why this “improvement” came along? They don’t. And neither do I. But I’ve thought so much about what it represents that I’ve decided my new mantra is “Don’t reinvent the milk carton!” I even printed off a picture of the image shown here and gave it to my supervisor so that she could hang it on her office door. I’m bringing the message to the people.
But I bring this up on my “Library Hats” blog not so much because I feel like the research team that I’ve worked with the past year is engaging in such an act, but more because as my time as an informationist on the team winds down, I’ve begun to look back on the project and take note of some of the bigger (and maybe a few smaller) lessons that I’ve learned along the way. And one of these lessons does remind me of the milk carton mantra.
When we first approached the research team to discuss with them different ideas, options, projects, etc. that we thought an informationist could bring to their work, it initiated a terrific time of “big picture” thinking. Once we explained what an informationist is and what skills and/or services I could bring along with me to the team, we came up with all sorts of ideas for things to do. “It would be great if we could …” and “We’ve wanted to do …” were phrases that came up often. This was just what we wanted and we proceeded to write up several aims and a lengthy list of tasks and projects to undertake in order to accomplish them. These were all new things thought to improve the overall research project, not necessarily things to create extra work for the team. Work for the informationist, yes, but not more work for an overworked team.
That was our design, anyway.
As I prepared a report for tomorrow morning’s team meeting, updating everyone on the status of where I am related to the aims of the grant, I began to think about my milk carton metaphor and wondered if maybe we didn’t wreck a good design with the addition of me. Like the addition of that plastic spout to the perfectly perfect milk carton, throwing me on the top actually has created more work for everyone on the team. The projects that we thought about, particularly related to performing thorough reviews of the literature and examining information technology issues in research… these ideas were things that the team may well have wanted to work on, address, and delve into with an informationist on board, however I’m not sure we really considered how much of their time would be required to accomplish them. Like the milk carton, they were a single, self-contained unit that worked pretty well. Add me, the plastic spout, and now you’ve added the spout, the cap, and the little pull-tab plastic piece that you have to remove before you open the carton the first time. One thing becomes four. Better design? It’s debatable.
I do think that I’ve provided some valuable tools for the team (and future teams) to use, i.e. the data dictionary, data request forms, and a growing catalog of relevant articles for their field of work. But writing a review article is another project. Writing a systematic review is, in its purest form, an entire research project in and to itself. Similarly, planning a conference or investigating big-picture issues like how research happens in teams… maybe these are terrific aims, just not necessarily aims for supplemental work. I think that this is something we need to consider in the future when drafting our proposals for these type of services.
In a time when people, dollars, and all resources are stretched to the limit, we don’t need to be making extra work – or plastic waste – for ourselves.