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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 16

Perception is key

Long, long ago, in a high school far, far away, I was part of a debate team. We were pretty good, which you could tell mainly by the fact that our arguments inevitably showed that adopting the other side’s approach would lead to disastrous consequences – up to and including the threat of nuclear war.

Aside from that, though, another of our major arguments boiled down to the phrase: "Perception is key!" which we often hurled at the other team in an implied insult about the paltriness of their perceptions. But, high school silliness aside, this is a phrase that has stuck in my mind – and which pops up often when reading the professional literature or online discussions.

Perception is key

So many of our professional arguments and frustration boil down to an inability (or unwillingness) to see things from another's perspective. Last month's column talked about the importance of realizing how our online comments might be perceived by others, and the ways in which our off-the-cuff comments sometimes feed into larger stereotypical perceptions of generations or groups.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg: the ability to see things from another's perspective affects everything from our budgets to our personal career paths. Our success as professionals and the success of our institutions depends on our ability to phrase our requests, market our services, and make our arguments in terms that resonate with stakeholders, supervisors and customers.

I recently rediscovered a web animation I'd forgotten: Michael Edson's, Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person. This of course says upfront that it's an "exaggerated tale", but it also brings out some of the typical perceptions the "web tech guys" among us have about the "angry staff people" in our institutions. Here, the arguments of the angry staff people are presented as knee-jerk reactions, while web tech guy is calm, logical, and persuasive. If you've been reading along here for a while, you'll know that my heart belongs to web tech guy – but I'm also concerned that angry staff person is so easily dismissed. We need to find common ground with our angry staff people so that we can work together to achieve our libraries' goals, in whatever format.

Who ya calling non-essential?!

An understanding of our own biases can also help us gain some much-needed perspective. "Perception is key" kept running through my mind, for instance, as I was reading John Berry's latest column over at Library Journal. Berry objects to his local Government's recent announcement that "non-essential" government agencies – including public libraries – would be closed for the day in response to a blizzard forecast .

Perception, again. While all of us library folk likely agree that libraries are an essential foundation of a literate, free, strong society, we may not necessarily agree that a public library is an essential service during a snow day. Firefighters? Sure. Police? Yes indeed. A public library? Can probably wait until tomorrow.

Berry takes exception here to the word non-essential – but "non-essential at this moment" doesn't mean "non-essential ever". Perception. What likely feeds Berry's and others' outrage is a number of recent articles and letters describing public libraries as less than essential in an Internet age, when "everything is online" and we can all just go to our local chain bookstore. Because of our underlying frustration at the fact that some don't see libraries as an essential public good, any use of the term "non-essential" can elicit an angry reaction, even when used in an entirely different context.

Spin, spin, spin again

I was again reading Library Journal when I saw a little squib about the recent PLA (Public Library Association) conference. What's fascinating is that the article as I first received it in my e-mail and read it online changed over a few hours. The original verbiage?

"The Public Library Association's biannual conference lured 7,725 to Portland, a moderate dip from the 2008 affair in Minneapolis (9,635) but far below Boston's 11,029 in 2006 – surely a sign of the economy's effect on travel budgets and librarians' own purses [emphasis mine]."

And the new verbiage:

"A total of 7,725 people attended the 2010 Public Library Association (PLA) National Conference March 23–27 in Portland, OR, a not insignificant dropoff from previous conferences, but likely attributable to both tightened travel budgets and the somewhat hard-to-get-to location [emphasis mine]."

What's the difference between a "moderate dip" and a "not insignificant dropoff"? Likely, the belated realization that a 20 per cent decline in attendance from the previous conference – and a 30 per cent decline from 2006 – is actually pretty major. But the minor differences between these two seemingly similar paragraphs show the ways in which our professional media also spins our news to make things sound more or less dire or support this or that position.

Our job as information professionals

As librarians, we learn some basic ground rules about dealing with information, including:

  • Consider the source. What biases are present? What spin is being given? What stake does the source have in the presentation of these facts?
  • Conduct a reference interview. What does the person really want? What's underlying their initial question? What assumptions are you making about their needs?

While we're trained to do this when dealing with patrons, we're as usual not so good at following these rules when it comes to our own professional interactions.

Perception is key

So what do we gain when we step back and look at the issues from others' perspective? And how do we make that move? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Cultivate an awareness of your own reactions. When someone's comment strikes a nerve, take a step back. Why are you reacting this way? What did the person really mean? What's the larger context?
  • Cultivate an awareness of others' priorities. Are you trying to raise funds? Get your boss to approve a project? Increase your gate count? So many of our activities require the ability to put our arguments in terms that will appeal to our constituents or our supervisors, and the recognition that their priorities may not be the same as ours. Awareness is the first step towards finding common ground in order to move forward.
  • Cultivate an awareness of your own language and actions. You know what you mean to convey – but how is your audience going to react? Are you choosing examples and terminology and arguments that are appropriate to the situation and the listener?

Back to the basics

Go back to LIS 101. Consider the source, and consider working a modified reference interview into some of your professional interactions. Going back to the basics helps us figure out where our own and others' assumptions lie, and helps us use our hard-won skills throughout our professional lives. Information is the lifeblood of our profession, and we need to treat it as carefully in our interactions with each other as we do in our interactions with patrons.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (