What if users ate rather than borrowed books?

OK, so this post is really about ‘thinking outside the box’. There I said it, and I wasn’t struck down by a bolt of lightning! This phrase is now considered to be so uber-corny that even your common or garden bullsh**ter – every organisation has one - doesn’t use it anymore. Anyway,  I was last encouraged to, erm, think outside the box, earlier this month during a ‘creativity workshop’ at the EBSLG conference in Ashridge. As you can probably imagine, just the phrase ‘creativity workshop’ struck terror into the hearts of many of the attendees, as they mused on the inherent danger of role-play implied by such a title. The reality was thankfully painless, and better still, I do think that it has encouraged me, in one very specific respect, to think differently.

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The session, which was led by Phil Anderson (he of the startlingly orange shirt) and Angela Jowitt, began with the audience trying out simple tasks such as joining up A & B on a piece of paper and tearing up paper with our eyes closed - you know the sort of thing. However, these seemingly pointless tasks had an important function, as they proved that we are conditioned to think in a certain way, for e.g. with the A & B paper task, most of us fell into the trap of following the maze that had  been printed on the paper to join the two points, rather than just drawing a straight line between the two, or simply rolling the paper up to link them, despite the fact that no rules had been specified.

We were then asked to look at different images, problems and sequences, that had been posted  around the room, and to add our answers or descriptions to the sheet. There were of course no right or wrong answers this was about using our imagination and perspective to provide different ideas and options.

Prior to the conference we had been asked to send on details of questions we wanted answering during this session, and these formed the basis of the next stage of the workshop: working in groups to solve these dilemmas creatively. However, before we separated into groups, everyone was given the opportunity to pose more questions. All the questions (new and pre-sent) were subsequently sorted into generic groups by a whole crowd of delegates (I sat back for fear of being trampled to death in the ensuing melee!) before we had to individually choose an issue that we were most interested in solving, by going and standing next to it (a bit like TV’s Runaround but without Mike Reid bellowing at us to “Runaround nahhhhh!”). I had wanted my pet topic of ‘engaging faculty’ to be solved but by this point in the proceedings this has unfortunately been genericised to the overall problem of communication so I chose that. Of course, Phil then turned the tables and we ended up being given another group’s problem to solve (‘making library services innovative’), while another group took on our choice. Dang!

We were then guided to separate breakout rooms where we were greeted by terrible jazzy music (which I think was meant to encourage us to be creative, but by general agreement was promptly switched off ), what I can only assume was the ‘EU coloured card mountain’, spray glue and a stack of magazines. Yep, you’ve guessed it, the next task was a mood-board.

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After duly sticking innovative slogans and images all over flipchart paper for a good half hour, two of us (there were six in our group and around 6 groups in total) were asked to join some other equally intrigued pairs back in the main room, in order to learn a technique for thinking creatively. The technique we got to learn about was using ‘What if?’ statements in order to encourage leaps of imagination,  to lead you in turn to solutions to problems that would not ordinarily have occurred to you. The examples we came up in this mini-session are listed on the flipchart in the image below (e.g. What if monkeys ruled the world; What if this isn’t reality? and the firm favourite: What if we had an unlimited budget?) all of which led us down surprising new lines of thought and demonstrated once again how we can become too constrained by rules and regulations when attempting to solve problems.

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Concurrently to this ‘What if’ teaching , other pairs were being taught other techniques (examining the reverse of a situation, word association etc.) The two of us then returned to our group and began to try out this new technique and thus began what can only be described as a dizzying spiral into insanity. For example: What if users ate rather than borrowed books?, which led us to muse that you would have to classify books according to taste (!) and from there to what flavours would be most popular and the fact that there would be no loans as such just a gradually diminishing stock, and so on. This and several other ‘What if’s’ ultimately led us to consider the possibility of library film nights, a hunt the librarian quest and, my personal favourite, giving the students a physical induction gift ironically called ‘The Gift of Knowledge’ (subtitled: the gift that keeps on giving) – a little box containing little cards advising on effective searching, key resources and the like. After coming back to reality we then had a chat with the rest of our group and agreed how we would present our collective findings to the other group. This other group then chose the idea of ours they liked best and vice versa. It is at this point that I must admit that I have entirely forgotten what was selected, probably because it seemed inane and far too safe to me at the time. However, I suspect the choice was largely irrelevant as the whole purpose of the afternoon was NOT to focus on the solutions, but to recognise that there  just might be creative ways of getting to them.

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The workshop proved useful and entertaining and not just because we weren’t being talked at, but because it genuinely highlighted how programmed and limited we can become in our thinking.

I wonder how many blank looks I’ll get from next year’s students when I get around to presenting them with ‘The Gift of Knowledge’ TM?

Andy