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.

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