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Communicating Effectively to Librarians (and Wannabees) — The Chessboard Syndrome

27 Jul

Ever play chess? No? Me neither. Not often anyway. But I do know enough about chess to recognize that each piece has its own way of moving. Here’s the list:

  • Queen: Any number of squares, horizontally, vertically or diagonally.
  • King: Same as Queen, except moves only 1 square.
  • Bishop: Any number of squares diagonally.
  • Knight: One square horizontally or vertically and one square diagonally (it travels kind of like an “L”). It is the only piece that can “jump” over another.
  • Rook: Any number of squares horizontally or vertically.
  • Pawn: One square forward or “attacks” one square diagonally (forward only).
  • Rook and King together: Called a “castle” — King moves two squares to the right or left and the corresponding Rook moves 2 squares right (if King’s side) or 3 squares left (if Queen’s side).

So, if you didn’t know already, you now know enough to understand that chess is complicated. Big deal. You have your first-ever conference presentation to design and write. Well, how about this:

Did you ever find that attempting to present something meaningful to a group of librarians is like presenting to a chess board?

Honestly. Librarians are such a diverse group of people, I never really know what angle will be useful to them. For all my criticism of library school, I don’t envy the job of library profs and instructors. Here are just a few tricky points about librarians and what it implies to me when making a presentation:

  • Some librarians come to a presentation because they know alot about a topic and they want to comment or challenge the presenter.
    • “I have to be compelling, credible, armed with rock-solid evidence to defend my views.”
  • Some come because they know very little and want to learn more.
    • “I have to be instructional, informative and not too technical.”
  • Librarians have different bachelor degrees.
    • “I have to offer a very general perspective, connecting my topic to a wide range of theories and perspectives.”
  • Librarians emphasize different ideological aspects of information management.
    • “I have to use the words ‘customer’ and ‘patron’ interchangably.”
  • Some librarians are very tech-savy.
    • “I need to include the obligatory litany of three-letter acronyms (XML, RSS, DRM etc.) in my presentation.”
  • Some librarians are technophobes.
    • “I need to make at least one mean-hearted swipe at the ‘Blog People.’”
  • Some librarians work for an academic library.
    • “Research is important.”
  • Some librarians work for a public library.
    • “‘Budgets don’t reflect the valuable work libraries do.’”
  • Some librarians work for a special library.
    • “I need dollar figures.”
  • Some librarians are cataloguers/records managers.
    • “OPAC central.”
  • Some librarians do public service/reference.
    • “Include the obligatory allusion to Desk Set.”
  • Some librarians are managers.
    • “I need to show confidence, authority and tact.”
  • Some librarians never want to have to manage.
    • “I need to criticize the status quo”
  • Some librarians are professionals.
    • “Values, ethics, and lofty ideals galore.”
  • Some librarians are paraprofessional.
    • “And every bit as good as those so-called ‘pros’ too!”
  • Some librarians will be librarians when they graduate.
    • “The jobs are coming! The jobs are coming! No, really — they are!”

Bottom line is that communicating effectively to librarians requires particular attention to an audience that is as diverse as the pieces on a chessboard. Focus too much on what the Queen’s up to and you’ll find yourself caught in a knight fork or pinned Queen or some other heinous maneuver coming from a secondary audience.Strategies? Well, most of them are fairly typical. But I’ll try.

  • Explain what you are trying to achieve with your presentation. That way, people will know first-off whether your presentation was for them.
  • Consider using some powerpoint design techniques so you can illustrate your point without getting locked up in nomenclature.
  • Be honest if you do not know something.
  • Admit when you are wrong.
  • Prepare by a) doing your homework and b) knowing your homework so well that you dream about it.
  • Test your presentation on someone else.

Admittedly, these are nothing special. But I guess the ultimate thing I have learned in my speckled past communicating with librarians is that you just got to revel in the diversity a bit.

People do not easily come out of library presentations looking like rock stars. This aspect of the profession may be the single most important factor contributing to its longevity, despite the adversity. Think about this next time you struggle over your next presentation.

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