Thursday, September 4, 2014

Addressing the Perception Problem

This summer’s media images of colleagues, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers huddled together over three-by-four inch cell phone screens and shared ear buds during the World Cup recalled memories of sitting in the front room with my dad, brothers, and stray relatives watching Sunday afternoon football on television. CBS and ABC were the only options in rural north-central Wisconsin in the early 70’s; essentially limiting all Sunday television viewing to sports until such time as the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom made its weekly appearance. As a less than an engaged-and-willing participant, I typically inquired if we were cheering for the black team or the white team (i.e., which team was the Green Bay Packers). A question of necessity given that my family owned a 20-inch black and white television. In the excitement of the game I doubt we thought much about the size of the screen or the lack of color; instead my family was interested in the game.

Similarly the World Cup images reminded me that the need for information is paramount and that convenience
is going to trump format. That is, even though screens of once un-imagined size were displaying the matches, sports fans and patriots that were seeking information wanted it now!  In fact, so much so that they were willing to huddle at train stations and bus stops and near vending machines with complete strangers to watch the action on small screens. Or in my experience, to detour on the homeward bound commute to stand drink-less and three-deep in the doorway of Miller’s Pub on Wabash Avenue in Chicago in order to be part of the collective cheering on of the home town team. In short, a simple every-day reminder that facilitating information means tailoring it to the community.

Likewise the recent OCLC report, “At a Tipping Point: Education, Learning and Libraries” advises librarians that we need to start listening more closely to our communities. The report notes (ironically) that libraries are branded as the “book” place despite evidence that our electronic resources and services far surpass our print collections and on-site services. The research results indicate that our communities want libraries that are convenient to use, support online learning, and function as places “where work gets done.” For some reason, our users don’t seem to think this describes us!  So in short, we have a perception problem and we need to reframe our message to move us beyond the out-of-date and inaccurate “book” brand. The OCLC report warns that our survival depends on this rebranding. 

Where to start? I went back to the basics and reread The Atlas of New Librarianship. I often return to David Lankes, because well, I’ve long thought his theory about librarianship is “right” for lack of a better word. Given that, the Atlas was likely to be the place to help me come up with ideas to address the perception problem.
Book Cover Atlas of New Librarianship

Lankes reminded me that “Innovation is not a time slot, it is an attitude.” In other words, I was not going to be able to solve a “perception” problem by setting aside an hour one afternoon and getting it done! Nor was it going to be easy or comfortable. His advice: “be merciless in questioning tradition: Uphold what works and innovate or eliminate the rest.” Last and perhaps most importantly, he reminded me that innovation is not invention. Somehow that makes it all seem so much less daunting!

Academic librarians are very privileged. There is a feeling that we get a “do-over” with each fall semester. And if each fall comes with an opportunity (real or imagined) to “do it better” than I want to make sure I don’t squander the opportunity. So I have some thinking and evaluating to do. In the end I want my library to develop 21st century information skills in its users. In other words I want my users to recognize when there an information need and understand that the library has the resources and services to help them respond to the need in a scholarly and professional manner. 

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