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Find your cake and eat it too

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on December 4, 2009 - 11:54am

What do four-year olds know that three-year olds don’t? In college, I took a class on linguistics that focused on brain development. The professor told us about an experiment done with small children. The children are told a story about Billy and his father baking a cake and leaving it in the cupboard to cool. Billy goes outside to play and while he’s outside, his father moves the cake to the fridge. When Billy comes back in, where will he look for the cake? The three year olds say he will look in the fridge, while the four year olds know that Billy will look in the cupboard.

Although we start to understand how to put ourselves into another’s shoes at age four, it’s a skill we continue to hone for the rest of our lives. It’s a fundamental part of a reference interview; when we ask our patrons about what they’re asking us, we’re probing to find out where they think the cake is. It’s a tough question to keep asking. We all drift towards assuming our experiences, perspective, and understanding of the world are shared and easily grasped.  We know where Billy will look for the cake, but how often do we assume that local practice is common to all libraries?

Starting a new job is a great exercise in parsing local practice and librarianship. I’ve recently started working at a consortium and the job is my first contact with consortial activities. Every time I have a question, I try to distinguish if I’m asking about the ILS, consortia generally, or my consortium in particular. Often, I have no idea where my question falls.

With their very presence, new coworkers challenge us to parse our particular library’s practices from librarianship in general. New technology demands that we separate policy from technology. As library technologies from PC management packages to ILSs become more flexible and customizable, decisions about practices and policies are not as constrained by what the computer will or will not do.

If the tail is no longer wagging the dog, libraries are free to create policies that work in concert with technology for their patrons and staff (and for good tips about keeping up with technology, I recommend Roy Tennant’s post Making Good Technology Decisions). But the siren call of “we’ve always done it this way” is hard to ignore.

“We’ve always done it this way” takes on different forms (and has also been discussed on this blog in Cindi Trainor's excellent post The Sacred Cows of Library Technologists) and can be easy to fall back on. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – sometimes, we’ve always done things a certain way because that way works well. Accommodating technological changes can be initially frustrating and time-consuming, but the payoff comes in the form of increased efficiency and flexibility.

Avoiding the trap of “we’ve always done it this way” requires us to be on guard for our own workplace inertia. An outsider’s perspective can help (this is where consultants come in) but a little mental audit is a lot cheaper. Sentences that start with variations on the theme of “we’ve always…” should trigger a wave of follow-up questions. Some examples:

“This is where we…”

Does the technology limit this task to one space (e.g. software that can only be installed on one computer, barcode scanners that are hard to move) or is this a task performed frequently enough to warrant its own space?

“We need it for statistics…”

Is the statistic something required by a parent organization, grant, funding agency, or state library? That can’t be helped, usually. What is the statistic for? What information is it actually conveying? Are we using it to make decisions? Is there an easier way to either get that statistic or equivalent information for decision-making?

“Patrons don’t want…” “Patrons won’t…”

How do we know? What is the front-line staff reporting? Are they responding to a few people or a large number? Have we asked our patrons? The same goes for “Patrons want…”

“We’re used to…”

I’m used to Microsoft software. Whenever I teach someone how to use Word for the first time, I’m reminded of how counter intuitive aspects of using Word are. I’m used to it. So used to it, it has become intuitive to use. It can be incredibly difficult to break away from what’s familiar. An outsiders perspective can help – someone from a different department might have a “wouldn’t it be easier?” insight that “used to” can’t see.

“We’re used to…” is often a substitute for “we need/want/like…” so figuring out what features are useful and what are just familiar is key. Is it a function or feature that’s needed? Is it a question of aesthetics? Is it about workflow? (Full disclosure: when I started using a Mac again after a several year hiatus, I downloaded Fetch for FTP, largely because I had used it before [on OS 7 and 8!] and because I liked the little dog.)

What else do you listen for in your organization (or your head)? What are your follow-up questions? How do you figure out where your cake is? Or where your patrons or coworkers will look for their cake? I’ll add (with credit!) contributions to this list. Leave them in the comments below or you can email me at kate[at] loosecannonlibrarian [dot] net.