LIBRARIANSHIP AND CREATIVITY
I've just been reading a fascinating book called Sparks of Genius: the 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People*, and couldn't help noticing that librarians use virtually all of those tools routinely in the course of their normal workday. OBSERVATION, for instance -- we pay close attention to what we see, think about the ways in which it can be used, classify it, and file it away mentally or physically or both.
ABSTRACTION is the ability to stand back from the details and grasp larger truths. Could anything be more abstract than knowledge itself? MODELING is a means of making sense of the abstract; the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system are models of how knowledge works, skeletons that establish the relationships between individual branches of it and make clear where the organs, blood vessels and muscles must be attached. RECOGNIZING PATTERNS and FORMING PATTERNS is what cataloging and classification is all about, a dance between the specific qualities of the individual work and the relationships it has with other works.
And as reference librarians, we make use of other creative tools. EMPATHY, for instance -- how can we answer a person's question without understanding the context of the question, the nature of the need? We can have 3 people ask us for information about melanoma and offer each of them entirely different bodies of information, depending on whether they are nursing students, professional researchers, or newly diagnosed patients.
We SYNTHESIZE knowledge and help our users do so; having broken down subjects into their subject subdivisions, we then help users to think about these different ways in which they might address their topic. We help them think across artificial boundaries like disciplines and see that a religious issue might have philosophical, historical, and even political dimensions. We help them find a wide range of viewpoints, in a wider variety of formats than they knew existed. As they search, we help them negotiate the rigidities of thought and language, moving up and down the continuum of terminology, from specific to general.
We engage in TRANSFORMATION every time we take a user's request and translate it into the terminology of the system, and every time we translate it into the kind of reference source we need to answer it (whenever we have a "what is it question" we are mentally translating that into "I need a dictionary or encyclopedia").
And whether we think of it that way or not, we engage in PLAY all the time. We roll ideas around in our head, try out different ways of expressing them, compare them to similar things, try out different ways of arranging them. We see them large and see them small. We test out different solutions; if one doesn't work, we refine the question, or find another angle of approach. Even when we've found exactly what our user wanted, many of us will keep on looking, keep on playing because we became more curious about the topic than our user did. Knowledge is a lot like a ball of yarn, and what we all do is tug at the end and pull it out, a little at a time, until we have just as much as our user needs. But we also know that every bit of information we find gives us more clues, and that we could keep tugging and tugging until the whole ball lies in a little puddle of yarn on the floor.
So, when people ask you what you do, you could say, "I'm a librarian." But you could also say, with equal justice, "I'm an artist."
* Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
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And I can't help but think of the consequences of the obsolescence of libraries for the leaders of tomorrow. With library research, finding the information you need for a project determines the success of the project; searches can be exhausting and invigorating. The search itself often results in unexpected discoveries that the wise researcher files away for future projects. And, the search as often invalidates a point of view as it validates. In poring over vast quantities of information, you are more likely to find alternative points of view that enhance your own picture of the true nature of things.
James Mathewson. "The Mighty Myron: An ode to the libraries of yesterday." Computer User, October, 2000 http://currents.net/articles/1910,3,1,1,1001,00.html
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FURTHER NOTE: I've finally gotten around to adding new stuff to virtually every category of books in the reading lists on BookBytes http://marylaine.com/bookbyte/index.html
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
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