The “Creativity Crisis” and Library Instruction

I noticed a bit of Twitter buzz this week about a recent article on “The Creativity Crisis” in Newsweek. As so often happens, the article pulls you in with a scary research finding: “research shows that American creativity is declining”. (!!!) If that’s true, of course it’s unsettling, though one must always regard such research results with a critical eye. But what is more interesting to me about this article is what some educators are doing to nurture creativity. And, as I read the creativity-fostering examples in the article, I began to think about how library instructors, whether in K-12 schools or universities, might do the same.

For example, the European Union has apparently been trying to institute “problem-based learning programs—curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults”. That phrase “real-world inquiry” particularly caught my eye. I realized such inquiry is as important to consider in library instruction (whether “formal” or at the reference desk) as it is anywhere else. It seems to me that our job as reference/library instructors is to guide patrons and/or students as they try to solve their “real-world inquiries”. And when a patron has a question they are personally invested in finding out the answer to, something that is really relevant to them, they are going to go to more lengths to find out the answer—and they might be open to creative ways of doing so. Therefore, it behooves us to connect our library instruction sessions to students’/patrons’ assignments or “real-world inquiries”—or at least as close as we can get to their “real-world inquiries”. Basically, this article reminded me of the importance of embedding library instruction in the school or university setting. Show the relevance of the research and information gathering process at the point of need and give students the tools, guidance, and skills they need to get creative in answering their research question or solving their problem. Yes, the research process can be quite creative! Perhaps we librarians should be sure to point that out and talk about the ways we’ve gotten creative in finding information for our own lines of inquiry.

I encourage you to read the article. Once you get past the fear-of-creativity-decline stuff, pay attention to those “real-world inquiry” curricula I mentioned earlier. I particularly loved the story about the “National Inventors Hall of Fame School” in Akron, OH. Notice that the first creative activity the fifth graders engage in is what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger calls “fact-finding”—sound familiar? It seems to me there might be a role for librarians in helping nuture creativity at all levels of the research process.

ALA 2010: My conference experience

It’s been about a week since the American Library Association’s annual conference in DC, so I thought it was about time I shared what I saw and learned. Here are some of my personal highlights:

  • I met so many interesting young librarians who have been out in the professional field for a few years now and are doing amazing, interesting, and cutting-edge research (and practice) in libraries. Having just graduated from library school, this was an inspiration. On Saturday, I wandered into a poster session down at the far end of the exhibit floor and ended up meeting librarians involved in building online community through a digital academic repository/clearinghouse and studying and promoting the use of ebooks and mobile devices (from Holly Tomren and Lisa Carlucci Thomas, who were both an absolute joy to meet). I have decided that poster sessions are excellent places to meet and connect with other innovative librarians and I would highly recommend that other newly-minted librarians (or, really, librarians at any stage!) do the same when attending conferences.
  • Listening to David Lee King, Bobbi Newman, Toby Greenwalt, and John Blyberg talk about “Designing Digital Experiences” for users was a treat (click the links for David, Bobbi or Toby to see some of the presentation material). It was also pretty exciting because I’d been hearing about all of them on Twitter or in my classes for quite a while! They all had thought-provoking things to say about creating a holistic user experience for library patrons from the website to the brick-and-mortar. I particularly liked what Toby Greenwalt said about making the digital experience more human by combining digital and human interaction at “pinch points” (aka providing service where things get difficult for patrons). At his library, there’s a chat window located on every page of their online catalog. He also talked about using QR (“Quick Response”) Codes (I heard a decent amount of buzz about these at this conference) as another way to marry the physical library to technology at a point of service. For instance, as part of a physical display for a teen photography contest at Greenwalt’s library, patrons could scan a QR Code with their smart phones and get a video interview relevant to the physical display they were standing right in front of. (Sidenote: It seems to me the creative possibilities for the use of QR Codes is endless).
  • I learned a lot about the importance of needs assessment in terms of information literacy instruction, especially at the ACRL Instruction Section’s session on Evidence Based Practice in information literacy instruction with Megan Oakleaf and Diana Wakimoto (read Diana’s blog post on ALA including her overview of the EBP session). They were both engaging and dynamic speakers who really brought home the importance of pre- and post-assessment for any library instruction endeavor. What does that mean? To me, it means that to guide your patrons/students in the best way possible, you must find out what they need to know and learn — really, that’s what assessment and evaluation is all about. Don’t just guess at what you think they need — find out! As Diana said, Evidence=Good, Anecdote=Bad, When in doubt, ask! Having grumbled my way through an evaluation and research class as part of my library degree, it was good to see the relevance and importance of needs assessment and evaluation in a part of librarianship I want to practice.
  • This post is getting quite long now, but I want to make a quick mention of two other highlights. The “Starting Out? Start With You!” session, with Lisa Carlucci Thomas and Karen Sobel gave some good advice to those of us starting out as librarians (e.g. Ask yourself these questions: Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What’s your expertise, talent, niche? Make it so — build your brand). And the “Yours, Mine, and Ours” session covered a hot information literacy topic that I’m particularly interested in: the transition from high school to college and how instruction librarians can help. I’m glad to see this topic receive more and more attention!

There were some things about the conference that could have been better. Mostly, I have to agree with Buffy Hamilton (who I am SO sorry I didn’t get to meet) that there could and should have been better spaces, both virtual and real, for social and professional networking and informal learning opportunities. I love what she says about crafting the conference experience to be closer to the three Ps to make it more portable, participatory, and personalized. Buffy has some great suggestions on how this could be done – like having a better-designed Networking Uncommons space (which didn’t seem very welcoming to me at this conference), space for division or topic-specific lounges for hot topics and emerging themes, and expanding the Unconference to more than one day. I would have loved to have more of a chance to participate in the Unconference, but I couldn’t be at ALA on Friday while it was happening.  And certainly, the ALA conference website could be better designed and more social-media friendly. Buffy mentions redesigning the site to pull together social media streams for the conference, which I think is an excellent idea. Twitter is just one of the places people seem to find out the most about what’s happening at the conference — surely the ALA website could make better use of that fact. And I think many of us can agree that HUGE telephone book of a conference program does not make life easier for anyone. I also think it makes those new to the conference experience feel more overwhelmed.

That’s my experience. I definitely encourage you to seek out posts from others who attended, too, since there’s no way one person can cover it all at a conference as big as this one. And please feel free to share your experience in the comments or in your own post!