April 27, 2011

Lengthen Your Stride

In 2002 I trained for and ran the Chicago Marathon. (And although some find that wording pretentious, I always say I trained for and ran a marathon because the training was the bigger challenge by far.) I am eternally indebted to the excellent trainers and mentors I encountered through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. They told me not to be intimidated when the faster runners passed me by, reminded me to keep my gloves on even when I had shed most of my other layers, and they encouraged me to leave something on the course at the place where I realized I would in fact finish the race.

Another bit of wisdom they drilled into me was that if I felt I was unraveling, it was probably time to lengthen my stride. This was counterintuitive: it essentially meant to slow down so I could speed up, or at least that’s how I remember processing it initially. It didn’t make any sense to me but it worked, undeniably. In Mile 8 of a 10-miler, or Mile 22 of the marathon for that matter, my technique was to start taking longer, more focused (and seemingly slower) strides just as the end-of-course pressure started to envelop me. It’s a counterintuition that, by analogy, has served me well in many situations.

I’m collecting examples of such counterintuitions: things that completely “flip” your understanding of a situation, and shake up your thinking at just the right time. Dan Pink has some great examples in his book A Whole New Mind. For example, he proposes that organ donation should be opt-out instead of opt-in to recruit more donors. This prompted a colleague of mine to posit that airlines should charge for carry-on bags as a disincentive, and then check baggage at no cost, in order to expedite boarding and deplaning.

Once you start looking, examples of counterintuitions abound. A recent post over at Get Rich Slowly explains why extended warranties are a lose-lose proposition. Gretchen Rubin has written about how reading boring articles improves a vacation, and also about how asking for a favor from someone can improve your relationship with that person. I once heard that peeling a banana is much easier if you start from the “other” end—the one we are less accustomed to starting with. And I’ve gotten much farther in the Sarah Vowell book I was trying (and failing) to speed through ever since I decided to read just one essay per week, but always on Sunday nights.

When I decided to do a Week of Extreme Slow as part of my Embedded Librarianship project, I had no idea how many happy returns there would be, and this far into the year. What I learned then is what is now enabling me to lengthen my stride and give time to the things that actually require more time and focus. Busywork tends to fall away during these periods of more intense focus, and you can actually eliminate a lot of little things that you realize may not need to be done after all. Sometimes we distract ourselves from our real work with things we like to think are real work when they are really just distractions.

This really came together for me as I was reading (and loving!) Sarah Glassmeyer’s essay The Bomb Under the Table, part of SLA’s Future Ready 365 blog project. In it she asks information professionals to consider this question, "How much do you change your life because you’re afraid of what might happen?” This, too, is one of those distractions. It’s like asking yourself at Mile 22, What if I don’t finish the race? Instead, maybe you need to just lengthen your stride. And keep running.

April 13, 2011

Fire and Watercoolers: My Charcoal Project

“You’re using words like tricky and weird, but this sounds strategic.” ~A colleague commenting on my Charcoal Project

We have a watercooler, an honest-to-goodness watercooler, in our office. I’m in earshot of it, so I happen to know that it functions as both an actual and a proverbial watercooler—serving as a gathering point for thirsty staff and, every once in a while, acting as the crucible wherein ideas are born. It’s not that there aren’t more formal opportunities for people to brainstorm and plan, but the fact of the watercooler is one of those laws you can either accept or break yourself against.

Another one of those laws is that you’re not always going to be told everything you need to know. While I don’t advocate eavesdropping, the embedded librarian still needs to find herself in a lot of right places at right times. And not only do you want to be at your own watercooler, you and your organization probably have a vested interest in overhearing what goes on at watercoolers throughout your network, and even slightly farther afield than that.

People always seem to want to know what partner organizations (or competitors) are working on before it is made public. This is how we know we are paying attention to our field and our customers. Some of this quest for nascent knowledge is experienced most painfully in the realm of shared calendar aspirations: that Sisyphean task of wanting to know what everyone else’s upcoming (and as yet unannounced) webinars will be before planning your own. Everywhere I turn there are unfulfilled ambitions of “picking the brain” of the other guys so we know what they are working on—not so much to get there first, but to avoid duplication.

This may be the real life version of an academic concept I learned in a much more clinical setting: grey literature, or as one library defines it, "that which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers." I like the added caveat in this definition that grey literature is produced by organizations “where publishing is not the primary business activity,” and in this one that it can be “difficult to locate and obtain.” What about grey literature that isn’t even literature yet, or isn’t even grey?

When I speak to students, I always include a slide about the “unit of analysis” and say something about how I am not cataloging monographs, I am keeping track of a lot of seemingly random wisps of information—events, tweets, names that come up in conversation but not necessarily in searches, and other miscellanea. Very often I sense the need to have a running list of other organizations' in-the-idea-stage projects. At some point I was asked to follow and report on “emerging research,” but specifically the kind that is not even formalized enough to be in Research-In-Progress-type databases yet. How do I get to all those watercoolers?

I struggled for months to devise a strategy to perform this important task. I wasn’t sure I even understood the task. We didn’t even know what to call it. Arcane and misfitting terms were bandied about until the “grey” theme morphed into color wheel jokes and we landed on “Charcoal.” It stuck.

Our federal funders wisely wrote into our workplan (in characteristically verbose but vague language) our requirement to collect and disseminate these random bits (Thing 1). Additionally, we are to document instances where one of these random bits develops into published research or some similarly tangible event or outcome (Thing 2). The challenge is how to do this in the first place, and then how to track and evaluate it. In my internal organizational system (and my Gmail tags!) these two respective Things are now lovingly referred to as “Charcoal Added” and “Charcoal Inflamed,” each of which is pegged to a numeric indicator in my quarterly progress report to the feds.

I find bits of charcoal from the hodgepodge of list-serves I’m on that target issues at the periphery of our work. I also receive dozens of small, specialized print publications on similarly dispersed issues that may or may not bear an obvious connection to any of the non-charcoal goals outlined in our workplan. By far, the greatest source of charcoal has been Twitter. After all, it’s a conversation, so it’s a great virtual approximation of the watercooler.

The “Charcoal Added” stats in my quarterly report were paltry at first, but this year I decided to do a content analysis of our program's Twitter feed from the first quarter in the hope of boosting our numbers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that of our 400+ tweets, roughly one quarter were related to the charcoal-like goings on of organizations in our immediate network of partners and various consortia we oversee; about 20% were promotional of our own events, ideas and resources; about 15% shared items of interest from our federal partners, and another 15% were about industry trends. The remaining quarter were a mixed bag of regional best practices and blog posts from policy think tanks. Taken together, the tweets provided a roadmap to show what we are already collecting and disseminating with regard to emerging research. We had much more charcoal than I thought.

The process is now somewhat automated, and some categories have been identified to help us even begin to talk about the Charcoal Project. This will help refine the information sources I seek out and evaluate. The next step is a “Research We’re Watching” collection that I will be curating. It will draw from the amassed charcoal, but will of course be more selective than what makes it into our quarterly reports. The whole endeavor has been encouraging for all those other unstructured, chaotic-seeming projects that sound good but have no concrete steps outlined to move them forward. As for this project that continues to come into focus for me, onward!

April 6, 2011

Scope Notes

A focused collection is an information service; an unfocused or overwhelming collection is a disservice to the user. ~James A. Jacobs, at ALA 2009’s Grassroots Program

I’ve been kicking around collegiate memory lane ever since the INTJ post. In addition to my major experiences with Myers and Briggs, I had a minor adventure in conflict resolution. The lessons drawn from that particular discipline—a lot of getting past no, getting to yes, and getting together—are important and lofty, but here is a simple slogan we used that has stayed with me: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

This is one of those universal truths that surfaces over and over again in myriad forms, some of which stick better than others. It also has an impressive array of applications besides reducing and resolving conflict. It’s a sure-fire method of finishing a tricky crossword puzzle. It’s how JD Roth and I learned to use our Amazon wishlists to mitigate impulsive spending on music. (It works sometimes.) It can even be used to promote lucid dreaming. And I think this counting-to-ten business should be part of the solo librarian’s toolkit. File under “Collection Development.”

There is a pathology in some organizations that I like to call “We have stuff. Let’s put it online.” It could easily be called “More is better,” as well. You know how it goes. Someone unearths a document and has a brainstorm that we could add it to our servers and then make a webpage about it and then tweet about the webpage. And no matter the contents of said document, it’s become an instant classic between sips of coffee. “We have stuff,” someone says. “That’s right,” someone else says. “Let’s put it online!”

I spend a lot of time trying to identify and communicate the difference between usable information and other information—the kind that is virtually unusable, or easy to misuse, when it is presented without proper context or no context at all. (Not to mention that if we put it online it has to be accessible, we have to maintain it, and we ought to promote it once it’s there.) Part of this process is very often saying a bad word: No.

Peter Drucker once said that people are effective because they say no, not because they say yes. (He actually said this of leaders, but as you know…) This is an important function, but it is very difficult to be the gatekeeper, to constantly be asking the questions What makes this collection special? and How do we keep it that way?

Just waiting a while can be surprisingly effective at getting people to more thoughtfully consider adding something to your online collection. Sometimes the urge to put something online is fleeting, and people quickly move on to something else. The “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” approach is a gentle tactic to keep in mind for your next scope emergency.