Evidence Versus Intuition (Which is Really, de facto, Evidence)

by Gwen Schmidt
Outreach Coordinator, Saskatoon Public Library

I have never been a really great researcher. When I was in library school, our Research Methods class brought me to tears more often that I would have liked. Surveys and statistics and research papers, bah humbug.

What I am good at is patterns. Patterns in nature, patterns in process, patterns in human behaviour. A really intricate visual pattern will actually make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I will be entranced. I have always been this way.

Lots of librarians find their way to this career of librarianship because they love books. Don’t get me wrong; I read so many books as a kid that the library was my second home. I still read a lot of books. But what attracted me to the library most is the patterns. Call numbers. Classification schemes. Interlibrary loan processes.

In my 20 years as a professional, I have become a person who “is good at deliverables”, as my last Manager would say. I can build a process that is lean, sensible, efficient, and understandable. I have also become a connoisseur of human behaviour. I enjoy watching the patterns, and I can get a lot done by anticipating how people will behave in certain contexts.

So, when someone says the phrase ‘evidence-based library and information practice’ to me, two things happen: first, I get anxious and hyperventilate about research papers, and surveys, and statistics, and then I stop myself and start to wonder if ‘evidence’ means different things to different people.

I would like to posit that intuition is as important as evidence in decision-making, and that intuition is, in fact, a type of evidence. If you pay close attention every day to the work that you do, your brain starts to see patterns in workflow, in policy interpretation, and in how humans interact with your work. This is the ‘ten thousand hours’ of attention or practice that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Outliers – the attention and experience that make people really good at something.

Some libraries live by a self-imposed rule that all of their decisions need to be evidence-based, and this often means an environmental scan nation-wide, reading research papers, doing surveys, crunching statistics, and writing reports, all before that decision is made. I would suggest that sometimes there is not enough time to do all of this, and then intuition and years of paying attention need to come to the fore. Neither one is always a better approach, but both approaches need to be in your toolbox.

This is why you might do a bunch of quality formal research before you build a proposal, but you also need to run it past the people down on the ground who work with the processes every day. They can tell you whether or not your proposal is grounded in reality, and whether it will fly or not. They live and breathe where those processes will play out.

Do you need examples to know what I mean? Let’s get granular. At the public library, I have created a lot of programs that resonate with people, and a lot of these I developed using my gut instincts.

I have been programming for years, and, let me say, there have been a lot of duds. Every well-attended or poorly-attended program is a learning opportunity, though, I always say. An opportunity to pay attention. Why did it work? Why didn’t it work? Why do other librarians’ programs work? What are the goals I am trying to accomplish in the first place, and how did this program accomplish those goals or not? What did library patrons say they wanted for programs, but also what programs did they actually show up for? What little things annoy people? Make no mistake: the intuitive approach needs to be fairly rigorous if it is going to work.

If people come to a program, I call that ‘voting with their feet’. After a few years of paying close attention to human behaviour related to programming, and also paying close attention to the things that annoy all of us, the patterns started to emerge for me. Here’s what I know.

Teens are way more engaged in a program if you give them lots of responsibility and make them do all the work. This sounds kind of unbelievable, but it’s true. They do not need us to deliver them fully-formed content to enjoy passively – they can get that from TV or the Internet, and it will always be better than anything we can do. What they need is a challenge or an invitation to create. Since we started to program for teens on this concept, my library has had amazing success with the “Teen Poetry Celebration” (teens write poems), the “We Dare You Teen Summer Challenge” (a literacy scavenger hunt and activity challenge), “Teen Advisory Councils” (teen library club), and most recently the “Book Trailer Contest” (teens make video trailers for books). We get good attendance numbers, and the teens build amazing things.

Other groups of people have patterns too. Most people are too busy to get to a program on a particular date, but they will start to trust you if the program happens repeatedly in a predictable fashion and they don’t have to register. I used to run one-off programs, and sometimes people would come and sometimes they would not. At the same time, a weekly drop-in armchair travel program and weekly drop-in children’s storytimes across the system would attract 20-90 people each time. Why wouldn’t I set up important programs in a weekly, drop-in (no registration hurdles) format? So that’s what we did. We built a weekly drop-in program called “BabyTalk”. Weekly drop-in works for moms and babies, because there is no stress if they miss it, and they can choose to attend at the last minute. I currently run a weekly drop-in program called “iPad Drop-In”, for seniors. The seniors tend to come over and over again, and start to get to know each other. They will also let us teach them things that they would never come to a one-off to learn (e.g. How to Search the Library Catalogue). We get about sixteen people each week with very little effort. It is lean, sensible, efficient, and understandable. The only other thing we need to do is to make sure that we deliver a great program.

These are only a few of the intuitive rules that I live by in my job. Intuition based on watching seniors vote with their feet, watching moms and babies get in the class or not get in the class, teens participate or not participate.

With current developments in neuroplasticity research and the explosion in social media use, there are a ton of popular psychology books out about paying attention, mental focusing, and intuitive decision-making. So, is intuitive decision making a form of evidence-based librarianship? I think so, based on all the patterns I’ve seen.

(I am currently reading “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” by Daniel Goleman.)

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.