David F. Kohl
One of my clearest memories from my many years of working at a reference desk is of a certain patron type. This is the person who would approach the reference desk, usually with a fair amount of confidence and ask for “that big brown (or red, or green or whatever) book, I think it's over there somewhere.” Now if you have not spent a fair amount of time working at the reference desk, it may sound improbable for me to say that, in fact, I often had a pretty good idea of exactly the book they had in mind. However, a good reference librarian will also know that the appropriate response is not to simply take them to the requested item, but while walking over to the likely item to helpfully inquire “May I ask what information you're looking for?” Sometimes, it is true that they had identified exactly the right reference tool but not usually. Usually, they did not have a clue and were simply hoping that something that had worked in the past would work again.
This experience from an earlier life came to mind recently as I was reading a newspaper article on Steve Jobs and his iPAD announcement. The author (and like an idiot I did not think to make a note of the citation at the time), after going through the usual hoopla for most of the article, made an interesting distinction in closing. He commented that what made Steve Jobs so unusual was that he had a history of finding “opportunity-driven possibilities” rather than providing “demand-driven solutions” as more traditional business leaders do. In other words, rather than waiting for the customers to tell him what they wanted, he used technological possibility to create and offer new possibilities to customers for making their lives easier, more productive, or just more interesting.
The Apple personal computer, for example, is a classic example of an opportunity-driven possibility. At the very beginning of the computer age, Tom Watson of IBM was alleged to have famously remarked that the worldwide demand for computers was probably around 5 1. See “Famous misquote” under Tom Watson, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_J._Watson. (1). Clearly, when “computer” meant “mainframe,” no one was clamoring for, or even imagining the possibility of, a personal computer. As soon as “the Woz” put one together, however, and Steve began hawking them, an Apple computer quickly seemed like the coolest and most wonderful thing you could have. And so, also, with the mouse and the iPhone and other neat and magical things. Of course, there were failures, too. But the point is that, there are two ways to solve problems: wait for someone to tell you what they want (which assumes they know their needs and the solution possibilities clearly) or to know your customer and the solution possibilities well enough to provide a useful solution that would likely never have occurred to them.
I think there is a lesson here for librarians, especially as we seek increasingly sophisticated tools to monitor our success in creating patron satisfaction. While being aware of and responsive to what the patron says he or she needs, we need to go beyond that. I worked for some years with a colleague who, more than once, was known to remark that if we only asked faculty and students what they wanted, we would quickly end up with the best 19th-century library in North America. While it is important to remain sensitive to patrons' expressed needs, we also need to add a measure of opportunity-driven leadership. As trained information specialists who are also dealing daily, upfront and personal, with the changing information environment, I believe we are particularly well positioned to develop the insights and perspectives that allow us to see opportunities and possibilities that are not as clear or as obvious to our patrons. And, in fact, our track record is not bad. Past opportunity-driven solutions—online circulation and catalogs, digital reference resources, e-collections, consortial co-operation—were not demanded by patrons but, ultimately, were embraced by them as great ideas when made available by librarians.
I suspect that some could see a commitment to opportunity-driven problem solving to be rather arrogant. It certainly is a charge to which Jobs is no stranger. But I do not think such a charge is valid if we continue to go about our opportunity search in the right way. In fact, finding appropriate opportunity-driven solutions is not the opposite of responsiveness to patron needs but represents instead a more sophisticated kind of responsiveness, not an authoritarian prescription. As in the case of the patron who thinks he knows the right reference tool, the true service of the creative professional is to discern the unasked but real question underlying the ostensible question. A literal answer to a patron's expressed need can be provided by a student assistant. For a professional, a literal answer is just the beginning of a much more complex process to provide a more satisfactory solution. Especially in such fraught times of disruptive change and financial constraint, I am convinced that the ongoing development of opportunity-driven tools, services, and programs continues to be a key to our continuing professional success—and possibly even our survival.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.
1. See “Famous misquote” under Tom Watson, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_J._Watson .
Is Steve Jobs a Role Model for Librarians?
The Journal of Academic Librarianship - Volume 36, Issue 3, May 2010, Page 191
Imagem: Capa revista Time, Abril 2010