March 17, 2018

Color Me Curious | Office Hours

Michael Stephens“It starts with us.” I use that phrase on a slide in my talks and course lectures and whenever I get the chance to talk about librarians, libraries, and our continual adaptation to societal and technological change. It’s also closely related to my thoughts on professional development and learning in the workplace. This isn’t sweeping organizational change; this time it’s personal.

No amount of training or professional development can move us forward if an individual is uninterested in learning or growing. I’d argue for two vital traits that will serve librarians well throughout their careers. Longtime ­librarians, midcareer folks, new hires, and students, I’m talking to you! The traits are simple yet pack a powerful punch: curiosity and creativity.

Nurturing your curiosity

Curiosity about the world and how people create, use, and access information should fuel our practice (see “Reflective Practice,” LJ 1/14, p. 52). It should also drive ongoing evaluation of services and user needs. When a librarian asks me how to figure out what new services, tech, or materials to provide, I’ll always start with “ask your users.” In A Curious Mind: The ­Secret to a Bigger Life, authors Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman promote “curiosity conversations,” discussions with “accomplished strangers” that led Grazer to develop some notable television shows and movies. For us, it might be similar chats with constituents, colleagues, and those who inspire us. How interesting might it be to sit down with city commissioners, the provost, the school superintendent, or the CEO and speak with them about their perceptions of what libraries do.

Maintaining your creativity

Acting on what our curiosity reveals might lead to some innovative approaches to service. Maybe users have told you they visit the library to browse and serendipitously discover something new. “Out of the box” displays of materials and spaces devoted to learning new things, such as the classes taught with sewing machines and 3-D printers at White Plains Public Library, NY, can spark creativity in ourselves and our users. And the emerging trend of adult coloring books? Johanna Basford’s The Secret Garden coloring book (2013) is a hit among adults, and a Game of Thrones–inspired book is on the horizon. NPR recently ran a story by Barbara J. King, who highlighted her own experience coloring as she dealt with the passing of her mother: “Coloring brings a different kind of sensual engagement, one that perhaps echoes the embodied pleasures found in creative cooking, gardening, and carpentry.” In coloring, King also notes she found a comfort steeped in memories of childhood. The article prompted Stacie Ledden at Colorado’s Anythink Libraries to ponder on Facebook, “What if a library set up a coloring station in a busy part of their community to offer a little artistic reprieve in people’s days? Maybe at bus stops, at the mall, the DMV, the park?” Creative thinking in action!

The zero sum librarian

The techniques above might balance some of the discourse we fall back on that could be construed as zero sum thinking. We could never launch 23 mobile things during summer reading months, right? Staff are just too busy! We can’t launch new Maker initiatives because we are still teaching people to use a mouse, right? What if the sewing machine breaks?

Maybe that learning course for staff timed with summer reading will offer some insight into new directions such a tried-and-true program might take. Mousing skills may eventually no longer be needed, but as long as they are, we can help. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be looking forward and talking with key players about what other learning opportunities the library might offer. How wonderful would it be to find a YouTube video detailing a simple repair to a sewing machine and learn how to do it with your users?

I bounced these ideas off of John Blyberg, assistant director at Darien Library, CT, and a 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker. He commented, “You don’t need to know how to use a mouse in order to have curiosity, you just need to love the world and want to be engaged with it.” Amen.

I may not always agree with the comparison of librarianship to other professions, but in professional development the examples are many: doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, airline pilots, etc. All of them must learn, on a regular basis, about changes to the tools and processes of their field. To fight growth, to rebuke learning, is the same as not updating that annual edition reference book, or not inserting the revised legal codes into the law book. No excuses.

The willingness, the desire, the need to learn and grow is what defines librarians and librarianship. Following the creative spark, nurtured by curiosity, to where it leads us may yield surprising results.

This article was published in Library Journal's July 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Joneser says:

    Newsflash – library staff are users/customers as well. Do they have adequate time to pursue these opportunities? Yes, often there IS too much to do and training time isn’t built into the day. And have they been given a voice in suggesting and evaluating development and other opportunities? For every article I read about complaining staff, I could give you an example of clueless and inept supervisors who have worn out the “change agent” meme. Perhaps internal users/customers need to have their own comment box.

  2. Professional development is vital. How can we promote information literacy (a.k.a. lifelong learning) if we don’t model it? I would add two notes of caution, though.
    First of all staff and users should have a say in setting the learning goals. Then the learning would truly spring from curiosity—not from a mandate.
    Secondly professional development can take many forms. If people equate it with conferences or workshops, they may miss out on its full meaning.