So What’s the Problem?

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

Our libraries are full of books, journals and other materials that can help people understand the world and its problems. Being well informed about a problem is likely to lead to a more robust and lasting solution. So it is somewhat puzzling that even in libraries (where clarifying questions is fundamental to good reference interaction) there is a tendency to skip the information gathering and clarifying part of the problem-solving process and leap straight to a solution. If action is taken to implement a solution without a full understanding of the problem, it is unlikely that the resolution will be long lasting.

Exploring problems can be uncomfortable for some people because dwelling on a problem may feel negative. There is a general expectation these days that we should always have a positive attitude in our approach to work and life. Also, when a problem is being investigated some people may take this as criticism of their performance, so it is no wonder that people want to get out of the problem phase and onto solutions as soon as they can.

If we are not clear what the problem is, and more importantly, whose problem it is, we may end up confusing the cause of the problem with the ownership of it. To illustrate this, think about a baby throwing its food. The cause of the problem is the baby, but the baby doesn’t have a problem, rather the person who has the problem is the one cleaning up the mess.

For a library example, consider a scenario at a university, where attendance at library information literacy classes is low. In order to clarify the low-attendance problem the perspectives of key participants need to be considered:

  • Faculty report that they are concerned at the number of references to Wikipedia or commercial webpages in students’ essays. They would like to see students use more scholarly resources and think more critically.
  • Most students don’t consider information literacy (or their lack of it) a problem; they are quite happy not attending the library’s information literacy classes. They are probably pretty confident that they are literate or they wouldn’t be at University. But some are disappointed that their grades aren’t better, given the time they spent on their essays; others find searching library resources frustrating, complicated or confusing.
  • Librarians recognize that they can help by teaching students more about finding quality resources, plus there are efficiencies to be gained for the library by encouraging users to become information literate: The more they can do themselves, or learn in a group, the less pressure there is on the reference desk to provide routine, basic help (leaving librarians with more time to provide expert, specialist help). Librarians also want students to attend classes for the students’ own good. (Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime).

‘Information literacy’ is a useful term for librarians as it describes a set of activities and knowledge that they consider essential in the information age. But like ‘OPAC‘, it is very much a librarian’s term. So while students’ poor information skills may be the cause of the problem that librarians are trying to solve through information literacy programmes, it is the librarians who own this problem, not the students. A full description of the problem will need to include these differing perspectives in order to identify an appropriate approach to the solution. In this case, the real problem may lie in the terminology or in how classes are marketed. A successful resolution of a problem is more likely if you can convince others that your problem is also their problem and to do this it is necessary to be able to see the issue from their viewpoint.

Once the problem has been clarified solutions can be considered. Just as having a problem can make librarians feel uncomfortable, action is what makes them feel effective. Often the action gets underway at the first hint of a possible solution, and it’s all hands to the pump to get rid of the problem. But if it is not a good solution to the problem then the action is wasted.

Devoting time to exploring ideas is important at this stage. Comparing the strengths and weakness of several options, even those that may not be possible (perhaps its cost is not affordable) will help pave the way to a strong decision. Working collaboratively with experts from other areas (e.g. IT or faculty) can give access to more options and viewpoints, but the problem needs to be shared with them, rather than just asking them to implement a specific solution.

Robust problem solving is time-consuming, but leaping to action too soon is not going to help, despite librarians’ eagerness to get to work fixing things. It is important to take time to gather information, ask questions and consult with others, so that we really can answer the question: What’s the problem?


Vye Perrone is Associate University Librarian, Collection Services at the University of Waikato Library in New Zealand. She was President of the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) in 2007/2008 and has just finished her year as Immediate Past President. Vye completed her MLIS from Victoria University of Wellington in 1998.

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