There’s a reason that people in the know recommend putting thoughts down in writing & I’ve struck a very good example of it for myself. In response to this presentation, I wrote this blog post. On further reflection, I’ve realised that I haven’t actually been pondering separation from clients/patrons/community/etc since my early days of professional practice. What I have been doing, is pondering it when I’ve worked in situations where the dominant voices (those of authority figures or power figures) have emphasised “being of the library”. In these cases, we have seemed (in my experience of it) to be focused on what the library wants clients/patrons/community/etc to do &/or to think. I’ve taken to calling this practice “founded in behaviourism”. In the situations where the dominant voices have sought close connections with the clients/…, I think that Richland Public Library & Lankes’ presentation would actually have been welcomed & acted upon.
This is a really important realisation, especially if I do manage to get the research project off the ground as confirmation biases like this one are going to seriously impact the credibility of my question, lit review, methodology & analysis. I have to ensure that my passion for this doesn’t bleed into the research so I need to take action to keep thinking about the possible research question is objective terms. I started off that way, but I think that I’ve been drifting into subjectivity.
I also think that could be links to the things discussed in this article from The Conversation.
My comment about the courage & truth telling remains at this point. And, I guess that this level of feeling & thinking is at least part of the reason that I didn’t recognise my confirmation bias in the first place!!
The social responsibility of the library and the librarian in a post-factual world
This introduction to a panel discussion (which isn’t included in the recording – alas) left me pondering something once again. I have had this feeling since my very early days in librarianship. I have no evidence for it, I haven’t yet explored it through the literature though this is now on my list of jobs to do. I think that perhaps we are “raised” to see ourselves as of the library rather than of our clients/community/patrons (whatever words individual librarians prefer to use to help them understand their professional ontology) – as being part of the “Institution of the Library” first & foremost. I think that this leads to a level of separateness that sometimes leads to a worry that, if we really became part of our community/etc, our professional ontology may be challenged – that people might ask us to take on roles we don’t want for ourselves or can’t imagine for ourselves. I think that this separateness sometimes becomes a protective barrier for us.
In this presentation, Lankes outlines four goals of the Richland Public Library – goals that it established by truly connecting with the Richland community:
- Help create a strong and resilient economy
- Strengthen community cohesion
- Transform educational outcomes for youth
- Help break the cycle of poverty.
I see librarians creating goals such as these as courageous & (in a way) to be “truth telling”; to be a way of opening themselves & their library up to be what is wanted & needed of them; to be proactive & responsive & innovative & whatever else is required. For me, these librarians & other library staff are truly inspiring.
Today The Conversation had an article about managing self-motivated intelligent workers (David Tufley). As a knowledge worker, I’d been listening to this kind of research with great interest over the last little while. The research findings and resulting recommendations about practice have really struck a cord with me and my experiences as a worker. As I’m not currently working, I didn’t read today’s article with anymore than general interest while enjoying the nice warm feeling that I get when I read a smart person feeding my confirmation bias 😉
A few days ago I listened to a presentation given by David Lankes (have to check which of these two is the one I listened to) to public librarians & this afternoon the possible value of such management research to library liaison/client relationship work struck me – I think that it was the Lankes presentation that got my brain linking the two.
I’ve never been a librarian who complains that clients don’t listen to me & I’ve never had trouble developing productive, respectful, reciprocal, fun relationships with all kinds of clients. I realise now that the “characteristics of engagement” discussed by Tufley are things that I have always sought to use in my practice as a special librarian & as an academic librarian. I wonder if the use of this approach and the relationships I’ve built is more than coincidence? I suspect not, & that it is something that deserves further reflection exploration – it seems another nice positive topic to consider while I have to be taking it easy out of the workforce.
I’m really getting eager for my copy of Hall to arrive in the post. I think that I’ve had another one of those high context communication experiences.
I was coming into work & an academic client yelled out, “Sandra!”. I looked around & she said to me, “Did you know that our students can’t find books on the library shelves?”. Like so many academic librarians, my answer was “Yep” and an addition, “But, remember most of the books in your discipline are ebooks so there aren’t so many to find as there are in some other disciplines”.
Warming up to the subject, I added “And, some students can’t use a table of contents and can sometimes struggle with an index”. Her response? “I know – it’s Google. And, did you know that lots of students haven’t read a book since primary school?” From me another, “Yep” … “but, in third year, the smart ones figure out that it’s going probably going to hold them back when they do their 4th year research project so at least they are starting to think about it”.
So, I asked “Are we going to do something about it?” & her answer was “Yes”. I expected that from this client, but the next part of her response took me by surprise.
She also felt that she needed to get back into weeding because we needed to make it easier for these struggling students to find things in the subject areas where their analytical thinking is really challenged (or perhaps more to the point I was thinking to myself, eliminate their chances of being able to just make do with irrelevant items because that’s quicker).
Could it be that context spoke to her, as a truly thinking educator, so clearly that she had started to think like a librarian? Well, perhaps that’s an over-statement but …
I have come to the conclusion that, as a liaison librarian, I am a custodian of the library’s relationships with the clients in my discipline portfolio.
My responsibility is to continue to evolve so that the library’s relationship with our clients remains strong & relevant in a rapidly changing environment.And, that it grows & shifts in breadth & depth as is necessary.
It also means that I need to honour the liaison librarians (with this same discipline portfolio) who came before me – I build on the relationships that they created. And, I must be mindful of the librarians who come after me – set things up so that their relationships can build even better relationships between the clients & the library so that we are continually empowered to work towards the learning, teaching & research goals that drive all of our stakeholders.
Today the Scholarly Kitchen has a post – Seven things every researcher should know about scholarly publishing. The post contains a very useful comment – “As an acdemic, you are one of many players in a highly complex ecosystem of scholarly communication and publishing much of which functions beyond the boundaries of your perception”. I think that this is a useful prompt for librarians – we & our clients operate in a highly complex ecosystem, much of which functions beyond the boundaries of the perceptions of each of us in this professional partnership. But, they do influence each other – profoundly so, for those of us on the service delivery side of the partnership.
As librarians, we can identify ecosystem intersections & use our professional relationships to communicate how common aspects of our ecosystem affect each other in different ways, but in ways that inevitably influence both of us. I think that this brings us back to the value of high context communication. Two recent examples of liaison work spring to mind – one related to information literacy & the other to collection maintenance.
Yesterday I had a discussion with a Head of School about problem solving learning in our undergraduate programs. His part of the conversation focussed on the difficulties teaching problem solving in the current format & the students’ complaints about the problem solving courses & their value to their studies. From a librarian’s perspective, I could talk about a number of information literacy issues that I often see when I work with the students who approach me or use the online resources that I create. I have learnt that many students struggle to focus on the problem solving process & look to the outcome as the artefact which must be produced. He agreed & this got us talking a little about information literacy & the problem solving process, which moved us on to the Research Skills Developement Framework & its sister problem solving framework & two “translations” of the Framework that I have developed to support staff & students – a teacher-friendly version of Levels 1-4 & a student-friendly version of Levels 1-4. It also let me talk a little about some RSDF work & interest in the University & some interest that his evolving in his School & a closely related School. This is a valuable conversation as it helps a key stakeholder see how librarians’ work links in with teaching work in a way that he has not experienced himself.
And, back to my big weeding project. My communications here have focussed on the common factor in our ecosystem – Google & free web-based information. Yes, it has led to a student preference to avoid the use of scholarly & professional material purchased by the Library & that frustrates markers who see the impact in assignment work. But, that means that demand for library resources declines & hard copy materials are taking up space for no purpose & so libraries want to weed. Turning physical artefacts/records of a discipline’s knowledge base naturally concerns many academics – for many even more than the assessment concerns, so we have a perfect opportunity to connect the various experiences in our ecosystem to create greater understandings &, hopefully in time, responses to a lack of use of the resources that the library purchases.
I think that the cross-cultural concept of “context” (Hall 1976) could be a really helpful way to think about effective liaison with clients. Let’s begin by considering the two types of environmental (& communication) contexts:
- Low context environments – “low levels of programmed language are used to provide context” & so “a large amount of information must be present to specify meaning” (Korac-Kakabadse et al 2001, p. 6)
- High context environments – “high amount of programmed information is used to provide context” & so “more time is required to programme & abstract meaning from a given set of rules” (Korac-Kakabadse et al 2001, p. 6).
When we are interacting in & with our client groups, we are in a high context situation because we are working in different discipline cultures, so we need to say & do in ways that let our clients make sense of what we are saying & why it is relevant & important to them. And, to ensure that we (as service providers) understand what our clients are saying & doing.
- Putting aside for one moment all the socio-cultural differences within the group I serve (Engineering, Surveying & GIS), I am working with relatively low context communicators. So, building trust, respect, etc is critical to the liaison role as we need to be able to understand each other & engage openly & honestly to work with the issues of mutual relevance.But, these issues are the focus of my role & not the focus of the clients’ role so the clients will not necessarily recognise them the way I do or prioritise them as highly as I do. So, as the service provider & the person responsible for progressing library-related issues, it is my responsibility to be the one to start building the trust, respect & understanding with the group as a whole & with individual clients.This means that I have to have a high context approach in a low context environment
- At the same time, many high context cultures are represented in my client group so there is an additional complexity on a more human level which adds another layer to the liaison role.
Although I have to be able to communicate to make meaning for & with the clients, I also can’t just be a high context communicator as the disciplines are low context communicators & not terribly patient with high context communication styles. So, I have to translate all of this meaning into a much lower context communication style than I would naturally use if I want my clients to work with me.
At the same time, in an organisational sense, I am the one with the least power & authority so I have to maintain the high context complexity approach over time as situations & working relationships with the client group change.
Could this lead us to some insights for liaison librarianship I wonder?
- To be effective, liaison librarians need to be communicating within a high context framework whether or not their clients are high context communicators
- Depending on their personal professional style & the clients with whom they work, liaison librarians may need to operate with communication context that does not come naturally to them.
I’ve discussed this with a liaison librarian in Education & the high/low context environments speak to him too. Education disciplines are incredibly different to my disciplines – they use different tools to understand the world & they use different words to talk about the world – so I wonder if there is something in this way of framing liaison work?
My experience with mega weeding & subscription cancellation projects is that they are wonderfully positive opportunities to develop client relationships:
- Clients have a big stake in these activities so they place the “library stuff” higher up their list of priorities & take the time to engage where they normally would not when “library stuff” is lower down their list of priorities
- So, if I’m communicating well, they get to think about the library stuff in different ways & so we get to work together differently towards mutual goals. So, clients begin focusing on what non-use means in a world of Google & finite library space, what that reality means for the use of their own space, & how information literacy may be relevant
- Not everyone engages and not everyone thinks about all of these things, but a good number of people do start thinking & talking about these things when they never would in the standard settings. And, all this engagement leads to the development of new relationships between client & librarian & stronger existing relationships between client & librarian.
Korac-Kakabadse et al 2001, ‘Low-and high-context communication patterns: towards mapping cross-cultural encounters’, Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 3-24.