I recently had a disappointing exchange with one of our graduate students. She had been calling the library nearly every day (sometimes more than once a day) eventually talking to everyone who had ever been on duty. After talking to her a few times myself, I asked her to come in with her laptop so we could talk face-to-face. Everyone has different learning styles and I thought it might help to have us work side-by-side using her personal computer.
When she came in and got connected to the library’s Wifi it became apparent that her problem had more to do with poor information management practices than technical skill or library competency. That is, she was disorganized.
Librarians learn reference interview techniques to help patrons identify and articulate their real information needs. It is common for people to start asking for help with one thing and then discover that what they really need to accomplish is something else entirely.
Before becoming a librarian I worked as a social worker in the juvenile justice system and with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. In both fields, I had been trained in "advanced interviewing skills" to get people to reveal information that they hadn’t necessarily planned to expose. Teenagers going through legal troubles and their families often had things to hide from well-meaning social workers. Potential "Big" brothers and sisters need to be carefully screened before matching them with a vulnerable young person. This kind of interview requires keen observation and listening skills as well as the ability to ask direct questions in a non-threatening manner. Then, sometimes, harsh decisions or directions have to be communicated. I have had to tell people that they have to do something I knew would be hard for them or that they could not continue doing a certain activity if they wanted to succeed.
This is what happened with this student. After an hour of working with her re-focusing her attention and drawing pictures to demonstrate visually the difference between two different library related accounts - admitting that this was, in fact, confusing - I told her that when she calls the library from now on, she should talk only to me so we can continue to build on the progress we made in my office. I would instruct the rest of the library staff to transfer her to me to avoid giving her the run-around and to save time. I could tell she was very discouraged. Although it was not my goal, so far, she has not called again.
This exchange got me serious about researching a topic that has been on my mind for several years; Personal Information Management (PIM) as it relates to storing and retrieving information for personal productivity and efficient work habits. I see people struggling with mental anguish under the load of the immense information coming their way. As an information professional, I have dutifully studied to try to manage it myself but it is overwhelming both personally and professionally. How can I help people navigate the information landscape if I can’t manage my own personal information?
I have read a number of articles from a variety of perspectives, listened to some relevant TED Talks, and am reading a book that addresses the need to get organized spiritually. My goal is to equip myself for what I call personal information therapy and to help others gain proper perspective on the information cluttering up their worlds and to feel less paralyzed and more productive. (Not to be confused with the healthcare term of information therapy.)
Over the next few weeks or months I will be writing about decluttering and managing personal information for personal productivity. It will be as much an exercise for me personally (as I am currently in the process of moving from one apartment to another) as well as professionally. Join me as I learn to apply principles toward making information management as painless and productive as possible.
Robin Hartman is Director of Library
Services at Hope International University. She is curious about how
the organization and communication of information shapes society and
is committed to equipping students to impact the world for Christ.