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.

EBLIP and Public Librarians: A call to action!

by Pam Ryan
Director, Collections & Technology at Edmonton Public Library
pryan@epl.ca / Twitter: @pamryan

As a former academic librarian, I’m often asked what the biggest differences are between public and academic libraries and librarianship. My short answer is usually something about having only worked for one (each excellent and probably non-standard) example of each so it’s difficult to know if the differences I’ve experienced are more organizational or sectoral. However, an increasingly concerning difference is the relationship that public librarians have with the research and evidence base of our profession.

Low public librarian participation in research and publication is not a new phenomenon nor is the small overall percentage of LIS research articles about public library practice. Research in 2005 showed that over a four year period just 3% of article authors in North American LIS journals were employed in public libraries. Even in Public Library Quarterly, only 14% of the authors were public librarians. An earlier study in 2001 showed that only 7% of LIS research articles were public library orientedi.

The recommendations in the 2014 Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel report on Canada’s libraries call for increased sharing of research and statistics to support evidence-based practice in public libraries. The recommendations specifically include a call to action for public libraries to make their work visible by posting evidence-based studies on library websites for the benefit of the entire library community, in addition to continuing to share statistical data freely with CULC and other organizationsii.

These recommendations follow from the fact that public libraries are increasingly called upon to show their value and prove their impact yet we are not actively in charge of telling our own story by sharing our organization practice findings or enlisting our librarians to share their work outside of internal operational functions. We need to heed this call to action both as organizations and as individual professionals. I am keenly aware of all of the good program evaluation and assessment work that goes on in public libraries to inform services and innovation yet it is too frequently not taken the step further, to openly available publication, to build our evidence-base, inform our collective practice, and be available to tell our stories.

Of particular note in this call to action is to openly and freely post this work of our public libraries and librarians. A very distinct and frustrating difference between academic and public librarianship is access to the literature behind paywalls. I am well-aware of how frequently I beg sharing of PDF articles of academic colleagues and also, embarrassingly, how less frequently I dip into the literature because access to it isn’t as seamless as it was when I was an academic librarian. Open Access publishing options for our own literature needs a much higher profile than it currently has and is something our entire sector needs to work on.

Where to start? As examples, Edmonton Public Library (EPL) recognizes that research and its dissemination are integral to being innovative. EPL provides two recent librarian graduates from the University of Alberta’s School of Library and Information Studies with one year research internships. These new professional librarians conduct research that is invaluable to EPL’s future planning. Recent assignments on digital public spaces and open data; digital discovery and access; 21st century library spaces; and analyzing the nature and types of questions received at service desks have also included the expectation of openly sharing internal reportsiii via the EPL website, as well as publication in Open Access forumsiv v vi vii. Librarians working on innovative projects are also encouraged to share their practice and findings openlyviii ix. Providing the encouragement, support, time, and expectation that sharing need be an integrated part of public librarian practice is something all libraries can foster. We need to collectively take responsibility for changing public library culture and take ownership of telling our own stories and sharing our evidence.
iRyan, Pam. 2012. EBLIP and Public Libraries. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. Vol 7:1. https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/16557/13672

iiDemers, Patricia (chair), Guylaine Beaudry, Pamela Bjornson, Michael Carroll, Carol Couture, Charlotte Gray, Judith Hare, Ernie Ingles, Eric Ketelaar, Gerald McMaster, Ken Roberts. (2014). Expert Panel Report on The Future Now: Canada’s Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory. Royal Society of Canada, Ottawa, ON. Pg. 120. https://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/L%26A_Report_EN_FINAL_Web.pdf

iiiPublications. Edmonton Public Library. http://www.epl.ca/about-epl/news/publications

ivArnason, Holly Kristin and Louise Reimer. 2012. Analyzing Public Library Service Interactions to Improve Public Library Customer Service and Technology Systems. EBLIP and Public Libraries. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. Vol 7:1. https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/11654

vWortman, Beth. 2012. What Are They Doing and What Do They Want: The Library Spaces Customer Survey at Edmonton Public Library. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vol 7:2. https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/view/1967/2633#.Vh1gAU3lu70

viDaSilva, Allison. 2014. Enriching Discovery Layers: A Product Comparison of Content Enrichment Services Syndetic Solutions and Content Café 2. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vol 9:2. https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/view/2816#.Vh1p4U3lu70

viiCarruthers, Alex. 2014. Open Data Day Hackathon 2014 at Edmonton Public Library. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. Vol 9:2. https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/view/3121#.Vh1f3U3lu70

viiiHaug, Carla. 2014. Here’s How We Did It: The Story of the EPL Makerspace. Felicter. Vol 60:1. http://www.cla.ca/feliciter/2014/1/mobile/

ixCarruthers, Alex. 2015. Edmonton Public Library’s First Digital Public Space. The Library as Incubator Project. January 20, 2015: http://www.libraryasincubatorproject.org/?p=15914

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.