Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Fishbowl Model

In-looking-out, or out-looking-in?
How do you facilitate a conversation in a conference setting when you don't want to settle for a "classic" Q&A, roundtable, or panel? Have a Fishbowl Conversation!

I first encountered the fishbowl model in a conference at which I presented in undergrad. One of the sessions at that conference was strikingly different than most traditional conference presentations. Chairs were arranged, not in rows, but in a large circle, with a number of aisles to the center remaining open. The presenters were quite deliberately spaced out, about evenly around the 25-or-so chairs in the center ring, and they were explaining their set-up as we entered:
"Come join us! We hope to have an active discussion, and we'll be calling on those people around the center of the room to contribute. If you'd like to participate less actively, please feel free to take one of the seats outside of the center ring--but know if you sit in the 'fishbowl' here in the middle, you'll be watched by everyone outside the bowl."
And it was true--the "presenters" served as facilitators, conversing with other participants in the center ring and leading the discussion by setting the tone. People in the center changed around, too--as they felt they had said their piece, some got up and moved back a few rows, freeing up seats in the center for others who wanted to come forward and speak. For the majority, who came more to listen to the presenters and the ideas than to advance a position of their own, it was information design at the very best; they could sit outside the center ring and absorb the scene in the middle, quite literally gazing into the fishbowl and watching the fish.

I've been looking forward to repeating the experience from the center of the fishbowl, and it looks like I've gotten a chance! The Hack Library School Conversation Starter at ALA annual will be fishbowl-style, so come hang out and join the conversation!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Dangerous Ideas & Killer Questions

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending "Dangerous Ideas & Killer Questions," the final session of the Maryland Five Quarters program, a statewide, collaborative staff development effort. As the only student taking part anywhere in the state, I found myself observing, more than taking part. While I did jump on a few questions when I simply couldn't bite my tongue any harder, I was so aghast at some of the things I was hearing that I was shocked speechless. Rather than a direct reflection on the day and the process, there was a deeper issue that I am compelled to address. 
I am earning a degree in Library and Information Science. Nothing makes me want to drop the "Library" from that title and run screaming from the whole institution of libraries more than an afternoon spent rehashing old ideas packaged as innovation in a room full of practicing librarians.

I'm beginning to think that libraries are doomed. Not, as many claim, by market forces and the rise of readily-accessible information on the Internet, but by inexorable librarians who are so busy clinging to the sinking ship that they can't see the lush islands just off the starboard bow. We can reach the archipelago--but only if we start swimming now. And the sharks are hungry.

Any conversation of ideas--"dangerous" or not--in which I've taken part since beginning my relationship with Library-land has had a chorus of people saying "We can't do that; we've never done it that way before." If even half of the energy and innovation used to rephrase and reuse that statement could be applied to invent new ways of doing in libraries, libraries would be wildly exceeding expectations. Instead, library workers are so attached to keeping their safe little jobs in their safe little communities that they're deliberately obstructing progress. When a truly dangerous idea comes up, they get scared and self-censor that idea into oblivion within moments.

Here's a thought:

Life is scary. Suck it up and ACT.

Librarians have done great things, incredibly brave things. They've educated their communities, they've led political change, they've harbored some TRULY dangerous ideas, and they've only grown stronger for it.

Libraries are dealing with problems everywhere, and it hardly seems a secret that while they may win an occasional battle, they aren't yet winning the war. With a truly dynamic change, I am convinced the tide will turn, and that is one of the primary reasons I've chosen to pursue librarianship.

I can already hear the responses--that I'm too young, that I don't know what I'm talking about, that once I get into the "real world" my enthusiasm will tarnish, that I should shut up around my "elders and betters" who have worked in libraries for decades, that I have no leg to stand on before I've earned my MSLIS.

My response to those people is that it's often the newcomers in a field that make breakthroughs, if for no better reason than we don't know what rules we're breaking.

To that end, I'm forced to wonder why "library innovation" sessions are always so closed. We shouldn't be hiding away in a bunker, but instead should be inviting comments from doctors, artists, engineers, academics, and (heaven forbid) the actual communities that our libraries serve! Assuming that "we know better," simply because we work in libraries or hold the degree, is more than incredibly elitist: it's also incredibly short-sighted.

Change is good. Talking about change without doing anything? Not so good.

Try again. Fail early and often, and try something else. Shorten the timeframe of evaluation, and get rid of dead wood to make way for new growth.