by Hilary Davis
Déformation professionnelle is a French phrase, meaning a tendency to look at things from the point of view of one’s own profession and forget a broader perspective. It is a pun on the expression “formation professionnelle,” meaning “professional training.” The implication is that all (or most) professional training results to some extent in a distortion of the way the professional views the world.
Sometimes it’s hard to step outside of your own mental model to achieve transformative thinking. Writers get “writer’s block,” software programmers experience “anti-pattern,” and we all find ourselves thinking “I’m in a rut” every now and then. In fact, it’s easy to get stuck in seeing the world only through the eyes of your profession: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail,” (Maslow, 1966). Librarians are certainly not immune to this way of thinking – even with all of the resources for inspiration at our fingertips, we fall prey to routine, to thinking about our problems from the perspective of a librarian. Stepping out of the mental models of our profession to achieve transformation and to come up with new ways to solve problems is difficult. How do we overcome these trapped ways of thinking?
A great way to revitalize is to try new things such as attending conferences outside of your own discipline or comfort zone. I was a virtual attendee of a conference that is completely outside of my comfort zone: the 8th Annual Blender Conference held in Amsterdam (Oct 23-25, 2009). Blender itself is a collection of open source software tools for 3D application development. How did I hear about this conference? My neighbor happens to be the proud father of one of the presenters who was attending his first professional conference, delivering his first conference presentation and making his first trip overseas. He did a pretty good job (click on the presentation by Wray Bowling about digital puppetry). The sessions were streamed live and have also been posted online for asynchronous viewing.
At the Blender Conference, I saw real-world applications of augmented reality created using Blender along with other software tools. I’m not a programmer or anything close, but what I learned from the conference is that augmented reality is being employed by people who aren’t necessarily high-level programmers and that the techniques are being used to develop tools for mobile phones. This technology is already being employed in marketing tv shows, selling real estate, and beyond. In libraries, we’re struggling to find ways to expose and deliver our collections and services to users wherever they may find themselves and within whatever technologies they may be using. There are a few examples of augmented reality being developed for library book-finding use cases, but they’re pretty crude. The concept is clear though – these are examples of applications that could be translated to libraries in use cases such as making it easier to find content on the shelf, find the expert librarian who can help you with your literature review, find the bathroom locations on each floor of in the library, the current open study rooms, etc. Through attending the Blender Conference via streaming video, I also learned that this open source software is being used in modeling road safety conditions, guiding robots during medical procedures, improving fire safety in buildings, engaging chemical engineering students with 3D animation, and in creating digital puppets that act in real-time using common video game controllers. Could libraries potentially benefit from being able to model moving whole collections, staff and service points between buildings, studying use patterns of physical spaces layered on use of virtual space? While I am not a programmer and I don’t have the skills to apply ideas from this particular non-librarian conference to my local setting, I see possibilities that could be tapped to solve some of our problems and generate innovation in our work.
Attending conferences outside of library-land also shows us how other disciplinary cultures work – how they run their professional gatherings, how they engage in training, how they organize networking events. For example, at the Blender Conference, they play cool music between sessions (when is the last time you heard cool music between sessions at ALA or SLA?). They developed great camera angles for simultaneously displaying the speaker, their slides, the audience, and any gadgets they brought with them to demo. How often have you been frustrated by the lack of visuals when reviewing videos from conference presentations either in real-time or after the fact? Perhaps getting ideas from other conference cultures can give us some ideas about how to help minimize déformation professionnelle within our own conference experiences. Attending non-library conferences could also give us some insight into how non-librarians conceive of the role of libraries, how they interact with information, how they approach research, what they think about copyright, etc. – all of the things that we care about in terms of connecting our users with what they need/want – straight from the source.
Another option for minimizing déformation professionnelle is to participate in unconferences. Many unconferences were established to counter the routine of conventional conferences. Remove the traditional sponsored sessions, eliminate registration fees, collect people interested in discussing shared interests, and you’re left with good ideas generated out of good conversation. “At traditional conferences, the most productive moments often occur in the corridor between meetings; at unconferences, attendees like to say, it’s all corridor” (Craig, 2006). Library-land has seen its fair share of unconferences as well. Derik Badman wrote about attending Library Camps – experiences that are in the spirit of stepping away from the traditional meat and potatoes library conferences. “The unconference offers an agility not found in a formal conference. Attendees make the decisions of what the discussion topics will be, allowing for not only a greater sense of participation (how very 2.0) but also a greater chance of currency” (Badman, 2008). Library-centric unconferences might get you closer to getting away from the trap of déformation professionnelle because the lack of structure can open up opportunities for exploring issues or ideas that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks of pre-established session themes and schedules. A colleague recently described his experience attending a camp with a broader perspective than just the library scope. THATcamp is a digital humanities unconference attracting everyone from scholars to educational technologists to artists and granting agencies. He described a memorable experience from THATcamp that was based on a 3-minute lightening talk by a student who used 3-D software to simulate how light fell on an ancient Roman mosaic over 2000 years ago. This idea alone could be translated to creating applications for students to interact with the unique special collections held by our libraries and museums.
The next time you find yourself in a professional rut, whether self-imposed or brought on by your local library or the profession overall, consider attending a conference outside library-land. Other ways to broaden your scope and breathe new life into your work could include stretching your professional reading regimen a little via listservs, blogs and published literature. I’m an on-again/off-again subscriber to a listserv about plant and animal taxonomy where they have been discussing issues related to open access publishing and intellectual property rights. Through this listserv, I get an insider’s perspective on how these issues impact this particular group of researchers and scholars. A colleague of mine subscribes to a commercial publication called “CPU” which focuses on trends and intersections between computer science, computer engineering and cognitive science. He gets insights from the computer science field in terms of how they consider the impact of computers on e-books, and where their visionaries see the profession and the computing industry headed. Much of these insights can give fodder for good ideas on how to shape the future of our profession as well.
Take time to invest in broadening your perspectives and open yourself up to possibilities of learning something that you didn’t already know. Start by keeping up with the conferences, events and reports that the visionaries (e.g., Clifford Lynch, Stephen Abram, Joan Lippincott, Andrew Pace, TAIGA Forum members, David Lankes are some that come to my mind) stay up-to-date with and follow the trail. What’s the risk? You might learn something new and you might be able to inject a new idea or tool into your own library setting and, perhaps even in the profession.
What ways have worked for you in keeping your professional mind open? Please share your strategies below in the Comments section.
Some conference examples to try:
- TED Talks
- Past Blender conferences (2009 videos – scroll down to find the videos from October 2009)
- Online News Association
- EmTech/Emerging Technologies Conference – offers some complimentary videos from the 2009 conference
- Free Culture Conference (already occurred, but look for free online streaming of sessions next year)
- PaidContent 2010 (already occurred, but look for free online streaming of sessions next year)
Thanks to Markus Wust (NCSU Libraries) and Ellie Collier (IntheLibrarywiththeLeadPipe) for their helpful edits and feedback of earlier drafts of this article.