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making better decisions

August 10, 2012

The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities (Lankes, 2011)

It is significant that “improve society” is at the beginning of this mission statement, not at the end – chronologically it should be at the end, but conceptually we need to put it first. If we’re not trying to make the world a better place, even just in some small way, why bother?

But how? It’s easy to feel powerless with all the challenges our world faces today (and has faced, and will face). What is our power?

“Librarians believe that more information from more sources will lead to better decisions.” (p. 119) This sentence may sum up how I have found my calling in librarianship. At my worst, I overthink things. At my best, I research issues extremely thoroughly, leading to the best decisions –  informed decisions. Perhaps I need to work on my efficiency in this regard, but being thorough is definitely one of my strong suits.

One of the challenges of any attempt at thorough research is the need to be flexible, and open to surprise.  It’s impossible to be completely unbiased – as soon as you choose a word to search, some bias has entered the equation, even just by virtue of the language of the word you choose. So an important skill is to be open to, and even to specifically seek, resources that contradict your expectations.

There’s lots of conversation about the fact that we now live in an age of information abundance, contrasted with the world of information scarcity that librarianship evolved from. Our challenges are not so much information seeking as information choosing.  Lankes discusses the idea of “satisficing,” from the research of Herb Simon, describing a tendency for people to choose convenient information over information that is “potentially higher quality” (p. 119). Not necessarily because of laziness, but more because of a desire for efficiency: “they trade what is at hand against the uncertainty of whether they can do better” (p. 120).

I have found that teaching my students time management is as important as any of the other content I might share with them. Our world seems to be getting more and more complicated every day, and most of us have more and more demands on our time. There is a time and place for satisficing! But it’s important that we learn, and that we teach, when it’s appropriate to settle for convenient information vs. when it’s important to search more deeply for “better” information.

My work of late has been very tied to history, and to artifacts, but in service of this goal of helping people make informed decisions. I find that it’s sometimes easier, across more distance of time, to consider the factors that affected decision-making processes in the past. I also find that an analysis of seemingly unimportant decision-making, like what was eaten for dinner or what was worn on a particular day, can be very eye-opening when considered many years later, showing how even the smallest decisions relate to larger issues. It’s hard for us to see this in our own lives, as we’re living them, but when we consider it in the past, it draws attention to the factors that affect our decision making even now.

One of the best ways we can help the world is to help the people in it to make thoughtful, informed decisions. There’s a whole scale of how active, or not, that this help can be, but at any level, this is our power.

References

Lankes, R. D. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press .

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