Sunday, January 5, 2014

Questioning the status quo

I like to question why. I don't believe the status quo or the way things are is always the best that is possible. I ask why. I agitate for change. I try new things. 

But after over almost 7 years of working on various projects and initiating various changes,  "the way things are" have started to slowly shift to what I had a hand in deciding or at least help guide thinking in - in some areas at least.

In other words, I am slowly becoming part of the status quo in a small way. So it's really interesting to be at the other end of the questioning when new young (they are almost always young) staff who just joined the library ask me why things are the way they are.

This typically happens when I am partnering them at the reference desk. I am supposed to train them and impart knowledge and experience but I must admit, the most interesting part for me is after telling them a certain policy or procedure they go...

"I don't understand why we do it makes no sense to me, why do we do it?"

or the more diplomatic 

"This may be a stupid question, but I always wondered when I was a student why the library does X or does not do Y"

You have to understand the psychology of such questions.

When you are new to a work place, you generally try to learn and understand before trying to poke holes. This is true even if say you have a lot of experience from another library and most of our new hires are freshly hired librarians who have even less of a ground to stand on to ask such questions.

So for such fresh new librarians, to ask such questions implies that the current status quo defies common sense (for them at least) to such a degree to over-ride their hesitations to even dare to venture to question.

To put it more bluntly, they feel the thing I explained is so wrong (to them at the gut level), they can't resist questioning, despite knowing they know little.

As the bible puts it, Out of the mouths of babes..... , some of what they say can be quite insightful or interesting.

I am human enough to sometimes feel defensive sometimes (especially if the questions are about my work) but in general I find these questions fascinating and I try to consider them without the usual  "your lack of experience is showing" bias that more experienced people tend to have. (I like to think I succeed but only others can judge).

No matter how much you try to remain open minded and "question everything", how much you think you are biased towards change, in time as you rise up the ranks, you inevitably start to accept what exists as the norm.

That's human nature. So it's important to try to seriously consider the question from new staff who can see things with fresh eyes. 

The types of questions they ask tend to fall into  

1. Reasons exist for the status quo

2. No reason exist (as far as I know), just that nobody ever thought to question the status quo to change it for the better.

When I say reasons exist, I don't necessarily mean good reasons exist, though of course often they do. 

Often the new staff questioning just isn't aware of the full details or just haven't thought deeply enough on the issue and when I explain the reasoning or the difficulties they accept that the existing status quo isn't obviously silly.

It is of course sometimes a matter of judgement on what is a good reason for the way things are. But I often find it interesting when newcomers raise the same objections I myself actually agree with when I explain the official line.

Other times, I like to explain in detail the thinking behind the way things are, the various options we tried or considered trying (this works best for things directly under my charge such as Summon, Social media, Chat, etc where I can give a full accounting of things) and then ask "Given the following issues/restraints, what would you do if you were in charge?". 
This often leads them to reconsider, they may not agree the current status quo is the best way to do things but it still helps I think to encourage the idea that nothing is set in stone and everything is amendable to change.

Still, the most interesting questions are those where I don't know the reason why they are the way they are and didn't even occur to me to ask why.

Of course, just because I don't know why things aren't otherwise doesn't mean there isn't a good reason (I don't know everything that goes on!). 

Usually there's a good reason when I ask. 

Sometimes though it's a relic of a procedure/thinking that was passed down through the decades without rethinking.

Years ago, in one of my first library projects studying improvements in the workflow of cataloging caught a certain procedure that was dutifully done for every book ever cataloged.

None of the long time cataloguers I asked could give a good reason why we were doing it. Each speculated a different reason. Eventually it dawned on us that it was a step that was necessary only back in the days before computerization.

But that's besides the point, even if it turns out in the end there is a good sufficient reason,  having your mind opened this way, to see a familiar thing in a new way and wonder why is a great gift.

I believe, the librarians who care enough to always wonder and never stop asking why are the ones who will push the boundaries and make a difference. 

One of the things that I worry after 6-7 years of working in the same place is that I will get too comfortable and stop asking why. That's why it's important to try to force yourself out of your rut and get thrown into new situations outside your comfort zone.


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