If It Ain’t Broke…

4 Apr

There’s a world that exists independently of your presence. Sounds, lights, people – there is an entire space that functions quite well without you. It is necessary to see and understand that which already exists to know what contribution you can make. (Livingston Taylor, Stage Performance)

A friend recommended Livingston Taylor’s book to me. He told me it’s filled with terrific advice to help develop skills and techniques for performing on stage, something that I do with both my band and at open mics. What he didn’t tell me – because why would he ever think of it? – is that it’s also filled with terrific advice for librarians, the above quote but one example.

In interviewing researchers about their data practices, one thing that has become pretty clear to me is that most people follow certain processes and/or have certain habits because they work. It isn’t so much that they don’t want our help in managing their information and data, but rather they don’t see that they need it. Everyone knows a person or two who keeps an incredibly cluttered desk. The registrar at a school I once went to was one of these people. The man worked behind a mountain of files and papers and books. You couldn’t see one square inch of his desk. You could hardly find one square foot of clear floor space to stand, if you had to go see him for anything. That said, no matter what you went to see him for, he could reach his hand into the middle of some pile within a second and produce for you just what you needed. Was it a disaster waiting to happen? Sure! I feel for whoever assumed his duties when he retired. What a nightmare it likely was. And you can imagine the disruption and chaos that could have occurred if anything suddenly happened to him. But, you would be hard-pressed to convince him to adopt a different system of organization by arguing that his didn’t work. It did. It worked quite well for him.

I think one of the big mistakes that we can make when we’re trying to develop and sell new services to our patrons is forgetting to first gain a really good understanding of their world. Interviewing folks is really helpful to this end. So is simply observing people; paying attention to how they work. We can get a little insight into how a student finds a database on our website by asking her, but we can probably get a bigger picture by watching. We all describe how we do things a little differently than we may actually do them. If you ask me how I form a G chord on my mandolin, I’ll put all four fingers on the fret board. If you saw me playing with friends last night, you’d have seen me take a dozen shortcuts. If I want to develop some kind of tool that would help me play better (besides practice, practice, practice), I’d do well to take both situations into account.

For a long time, medical librarians have been claiming expertise in the area of searching the literature. We are “expert searchers,” we like to say. We get really frustrated when students or clinicians or researchers don’t come to us for help. We fret over their incompetency. We either get angry or suffer inferiority complexes when we’re brushed aside unneeded. “They don’t know what they’re missing,” we think. Maybe. But also, we don’t know what we’re missing – the fact that the way in which these folks are searching is working for them. Most of the time, it works just fine. With this being the case, it’s pretty hard to convince them otherwise. We need a different tact.

As we begin to promote the librarian’s role in data management, I hope we don’t repeat some of these same mistakes. We need to understand how people are already managing their data. When we talk about how important it is to share data, it’s good to know ahead of time that most of the people in the room already share data. Like searching, we claim expertise in areas that we believe can make the situation better, but we need to remember that “there’s an entire space that functions quite well” without us. With this mindset, we’re likely better able to see how we can fit rather than how we can fix. We hope that the final outcome is that we fix a thing or two, but saying (or even thinking),”You’re doing it wrong!” isn’t going to get us very far in finding where we fit. Accomplishing the latter will ultimately allow us to develop and provide the kind of tools and services that people will both want and use.

Next week, I’m off to the Texas Library Association’s annual conference. I’m looking forward to reporting some fun facts from there, all with a bit of Texas twang!

Playing Along

Playing Along

7 Responses to “If It Ain’t Broke…”

  1. Gail April 4, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    Your “see what exists without you” advice is not only good for the stage AND librarians, but, really for anything we do in life. Thanks for this eye-opening advice. 🙂

    • salgore April 4, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

      Very true, Gail. Very true. 🙂

  2. margotmal April 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    I’m a person who has a messy desk. For me, part of it is to ceate a territory that is “mine”. I remember having a boss who had an extremely messy desk, and no one would go near it for fear of knocking over a precarious pile. If someone offered to organize my desk for me, I would not feel that the person was trying to help me. So, I get what you are saying about people suggesting that other people are “doing it wrong”. 🙂

  3. Andrew Creamer April 4, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

    This is really helpful for me to read right now as I start in a new place and have to figure out what type of research is being done, how it is being done, what are they doing already, the curriculum, etc. I would love to dive right in, but the reality is it will take me a good chunk of time to get a handle on what folks here already do, and what policies, tools, resources, etc. exist. I still need to track down where all the sci research is happening on this campus, and all the usual acronym-soup of offices we need to partner with. Good advice, Sally!

    • salgore April 4, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

      Thanks, Andrew! Think of how much we learned here by just interviewing a handful of people. You know that the time you spend learning the ins and outs of things at your new digs will pay off mightily. Hope to see you soon! Sally

  4. Regina Raboin April 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    Sally, this is a terrific post! As librarians and information professionals it’s important to remember it isn’t our research. We need to realize we’re not there to change our faculty/students research processes, but we can offer ways to make their work easier, more productive and strategic – hopefully saving them time and precious grant monies. Recently, I’ve been talking a lot about data management and data management services and listening to librarians discuss building these services at their institutions. This post would go a long way in helping understand how to build a successful service!

    • salgore April 7, 2014 at 10:53 am #

      Thanks, Regina! As hard as it is to resist just jumping right in, I’m convinced that we’ll be a lot more successful by taking the time to understand the processes of those we seek to support first.

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