30 Years ago I graduated from Library School – and the future was in front of me…
By Stephen Abram, Toronto Chapter, Business & Finance, Information Technology, Leadership & Management Divisions
In part one I listed nine things I wished that my 1980 self (the freshly minted MLS) knew when I graduated in order to be future ready. Here’s another ten philosophies that I believe would help most people be more future ready (and I hope happy) :
- Prefer Action over Study.
If you or your team is studying something to death – remember that death was not the original goal! Although information professionals have a great core competency in research and study, we must know when to fish or cut bait. Recognize that studying something too long is staying in your comfort zone instead of making progress. In our somewhat risk-averse culture, this can be particularly difficult. What needs to be learned and understood is that delay is as big a risk as poorly considered action. Pilots and good process reduce your risk (and provide learning opportunities too). You can iterate your way to the future. This philosophy is closely related to the one where an enterprise values its conservative culture and gradually declines due to its lack of adaptation to modern expectations or changing external conditions.
- Get Out of Your Box!
It is unlikely that you are the alpha user profile. Understand that. I know that as an older, experienced librarian I am pretty limited in my ability to really connect and empathize with the challenges faced by newbie library, web or database searchers. I am not saying that I can’t overcome this, but I have to be explicitly aware that my training, biases and experiences have forever changed me and my perceptions of the information world. Also, my experiences are an old part of a different world and may not be fully relevant to today’s valid experiences of new librarians and end users. It also means that when I am designing services for seniors, kids, teens, challenged communities, the differently-abled, or even other professions like lawyers or engineers, I have to keep in mind that I need to be aware and prioritize their needs and competencies over my own. I need to build on their strengths and not repair them based on my perceptions of their weaknesses! I find that it pays to remind myself that I am not trying to create products and services for mini-librarians and that this is a poor goal in the first place. I need to understand the user’s context and needs and not project my own biases on them. For instance, it is likely that the end-user doesn’t actually want ‘information’ but, more likely, wants to be informed, entertained, taught and/or transformed in some manner. Libraries are great environments for that.
- You can’t step in the same river twice
This is ancient Confucian wisdom. It means, in our context, that our knowledge of new information or technology developments means that we probably cannot easily see all of the potential pitfalls or even its great potential. I remember when AltaVista was first introduced and many colleagues said that this couldn’t be the future of searching. After all, it had no fields, no true Boolean, and it didn’t allow the use of set searching! How could this be the future of online searching? Then along came relevancy ranking driven by the search engine’s algorithm – again pooh-poohed by my colleagues (and me for a while). Now along comes Blekko and I hear the same refrain. This time I am not so sure. After all, Google Scholar is still an infant. Can you point to someone’s beautiful baby and criticize her as being a lousy accountant? Keep yourself open to the movement of the river – it’s always changing and the river is strong. In the battle of the river and the rock, the river wins. Just look deep into the Grand Canyon and see the power (and beauty) of steady progress. Today we must invent a future for libraries that exists in a world of users who are literally changed in their perception of information use and the role of technology. Spend time understanding the beauty and strengths of your own box and then take a break outside of it occasionally.
- Have a Vision and Dream BIG!
“How will you shape the future?” When you try to be future focused and ready you are making a choice – to shape the future not just be ready for it. Have the confidence to build the future with your ideas and energy. I have seen the power of vision in every workplace I have been employed in. When it is absent or lost the workplace is missing something and verges on a horrible environment. When a shared vision is present we have achieved great things. When the vision doesn’t have enough stretch in it, things seem mediocre. Think back to great work environments you’ve worked in or great leaders you’ve worked for and you’ll usually find there were some great and compelling visions at work there. And for those who don’t dream big and have a vision, they’re doomed to an endless series of the present. I hope they love the way things are.
- Ask the Three Magic Questions:
a)What keeps you awake at night?
b)If you could solve only one problem at work, what would it be?
c)If you could change one thing and one thing only, what would it be?I have discovered that these questions are truly magic. They start conversations with users rather than delivering simple answers. They’re open-ended instead of closed-ended, yes or no answer questions. They avoid assumption. Just set the context and ask away. I have used these questions with primary school kids, titans of industry like Bill Gates, librarians, IT managers and cabinet ministers. These questions work every time to delve deeply into our users’ needs and personal goals. When we are armed with that knowledge then our libraries are unstoppable.
- Feedback is a Gift
One of my closest and dearest friends taught me this when In was having trouble dealing with a round of public and negative feedback. She told me that, like that wedding gift from Aunt Sally, you can keep it, display it, return it, or hide it in the closet. It’s your personal choice. Don’t overvalue one piece of out-of-context feedback or let it loom out of perspective and balance. I have learned over my life that objections to my ideas are best handled two ways: listening more, or framing the objection as an opportunity for more information and education. Feedback is best digested in the aggregate rather than in small doses. Squeaky wheels are fine and need to be oiled. But if it’s the engine that needs attention, then that poorly oiled wheel is just a distraction. Feedback shouldn’t be cause for stomach-wrenching stress. You are in control of how it can be dealt with (good or constructive or bad) and need to hear and accept this gift from your stakeholders. Do you have feedback mechanisms in your life?
- Sacrifice is the Magic Sauce of Setting Priorities
Every person and organization has thousands of ideas that are worthy of consideration. No one can do them all. That’s the tough part. When you have 100 good ideas to choose from the critical skill isn’t choosing the best 5 but sacrificing 95. Learn the skill of temporary sacrifice. You can store your good ideas in an idea parking lot and bring them forward into the strategic planning process as projects are completed. If you don’t focus and choose to limit your energy to achieving success on those that will deliver the most value to your enterprise and users, then you are choosing mediocrity. Sacrificing ideas isn’t forever or a loss. Time was invented so everything doesn’t happen all at once. Give your ideas time to grow and gain acceptance.
- Build for the Future and Embrace Ambiguity
Too often projects that are planned for 18-36 months naively assume that things will stay the same technologically. Remember the lessons of the past where the things mutated quickly – DOS became Windows, diskettes became CD-ROMs, Netscape begat MSIE which begat Firefox, online dial-up became web broadband, etc. You can’t be certain of the future but you can’t wait for total stability either. That’s the ambiguity. Dealing with ambiguity is a key competency in change management and introducing innovation. Stability is a chimera. Only fossils are truly stable.
- No Mistake is Ever Final
One of my better bosses had this phrase framed in needlepoint on the wall of her office. We were part of a skunkworks that was tasked with re-technologizing a major corporation as well as introducing transformational cultural change into a huge publishing sector. No small task. Not only did we make many mistakes, but we learned from them. If we weren’t making mistakes we weren’t trying hard enough. Albeit, we tried to limit the exposure of our experiments, but like learning to ride a bike, if you’re not falling down, you’re just not learning well enough. Her sign “No mistake is ever final” encourages us to try just that little bit harder to achieve greatness because we knew we had her support. If you want to change things for the better, you have to be a change agent and that means you have to be more comfortable with making mistakes and dealing with them effectively – and learning all the time.
- Have some Fun!
We are often too serious. Our work is serious and our impact on our communities and the world is enormous! However, working creatively, trying new things and being innovative is fun. Take the time to recognize that and live your life to the fullest. Celebrate your successes and your team’s work. Champion your library’s achievements! Reward your colleagues when they succeed. Don’t ever get so heads-down that you can’t see the big picture. It’s a wonderful world.
Congratulations to Cindy Romaine, SLA, and the SLA board and network for actively seeking the future for over 100 years. I am more future ready for having been involved with SLA and learning from such a great group of colleagues.
Stephen Abram, MLS is a Past President of SLA and is Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and Markets, for Gale Cengage Learning. He is an SLA Fellow and the past president of the Ontario Library Association and the Canadian Library Association. In June 2003 he was awarded SLA’s John Cotton Dana Award and the AIIP Roger Summit Award in 2009. In 2011 he is Canada’s CLA Outstanding Librarian of the Year. He is the author of Out Front with Stephen Abram and Stephen’s Lighthouse blog. Stephen would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.