Déformation Professionnelle


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:

Thanks to Markus Wust (NCSU Libraries) and Ellie Collier (IntheLibrarywiththeLeadPipe) for their helpful edits and feedback of earlier drafts of this article.


17 Responses

  1. This is similar to the advice I gave 10 years ago in my first article about “keeping up” that appeared in C&RL News. See http://bit.ly/b27vqV

    It is still good advice.

    Many advocates of innovation and creativity point to the important to immerse oneself in totally unfamiliar situations and environments to gain completely different perspectives and free your mind from the old pattern of thinking.

    I’ve explored these ideas more recently in this From the Bell Tower column: http://bit.ly/75iog0

  2. Hi Hilary – I heartily recommend The Scholarly Kitchen blog from the Society for Scholarly Publishing. It’s a terrific multi-author blog, covers many issues of interest to libraries and provides valuable insights from leaders in an industry that is also experiencing significant disruption.

    I also maintain a twitter surveillance stream to info outside the library industry that your readers might find worthwhile.http://twitter.com/radicalpatron

    1. Hilary Davis

      Jean – thanks for your feedback and for pointing to The Scholarly Kitchen. I love the idea of a “surveillance stream to info outside the library industry”! Thanks for sharing your strategies.

  3. Hilary I want to thank you for such an interesting and refreshing take on how to move the profession forward.

    Ideas are the life bread of a profession based on information. Finding ways to spark innovative thinking and the intermingling of disciplines is what will keep libraries and librarians relevant. Good luck to us all.

    1. Hilary Davis

      Simone – thanks for sharing your comments! Partnering with professions outside of librarianship is a logical way forward for much of our work.

  4. Thanks for reminding me to keep practicing one of my most important mental exercises. Lately, especially with what’s going on in with budgets proposals for New Jersey libraries, I’ve caught myself thinking, “How can they think that about libraries? Why would they think that’s a good idea?” Instead, I should be asking myself, “Why don’t I know they think that about libraries? Why am I surprised they’d propose that idea?” Stepping outside the boundaries of my professional experience is really hard, though when I don’t do it as well as I’d like, the reminders can be awfully harsh.

    On a more positive note, I want to share two of my own Blender Conference-like experiences.

    I followed PyCon a bit online (it’s a conference about the Python programing language) and learned about wireless networking at conferences. How nice would it be to go to a library conference and have wireless just work? And how cool would it have been if it were a professional library association that had published the piece about making networking work?

    I went to see Edward Tufte talk about information design (back when I designed websites for a living) and learned about making presentations.

  5. Hilary Davis

    Ellie – thanks for pointing to Kenley’s post. Lots of great ideas that seem so obviously useful – love the idea of photos to help match names with faces at conferences and the interactive conference scheduling tool where you can see who else is planning on attending a particular session, get notifications for changes in an event, send your schedule to Google Calendar, etc. Sooooo much better compared to the current online conference planner that SLA is running for the upcoming SLA conference in New Orleans in June.

  6. Miranda

    Especially relevant post since some of my colleagues just got back from #sxsw. So jealous.
    However, it’s too bad this post wasn’t published a couple days earlier, as readers would have been able to snag the THATcamp deadline. (Looks like I’ll have to postpone to a future year.) Thanks though for pointing us in a new professional direction.

    1. Hilary Davis

      Hi Miranda – Thanks for your comments! I realize that some of the alternate conference opportunities may have missed deadlines for this year, however in some cases there are videos of sessions posted online (or there will be soon). If I come across other similar opportunities, I’ll add them to the Comments for this post. Likewise, if you or others come across upcoming opportunities that sound intriguing, feel free to post them here too.

  7. Nice post. Librarians tend to be a pretty insular bunch easily caught up in library-land trends and issues. Thanks for not only urging us to gain some perspective, but for giving us some practical suggestions and resources on how to do so.

  8. I keep my professional mind open by conversing with people who don’t work in libraries, by following people who don’t work in libraries on Twitter, and trying to think outside the square more often. Keeping an open mind to the possibilities is so important in any field of discipline, otherwise it’s like you’re talking to yourself in the dark… in a room full of mirrors…

    1. Hilary Davis

      Thanks for your comments, Hana! You reminded me of another source that I use to keep up with things outside of library-land: Boy Genius Report. It’s great for keeping up with the latest improvements, critiques and rumors of the mobile tech landscape (e.g., they reported on Monday that Verizon will be getting the iPhone) including Kindles and other devices that libraries have started integrating into their loan and collection programs.

  9. thanks so much for a great post, Hilary!
    I was thinking about what you wrote and I wonder how much people are able to attend completely different professional development opportunities. For example, if a professional is employed by a large bureaucratic system that only allows professional development to happen within their field, how can one make the case to have to support to reach outside of what they know?

    I am guessing this kind of situation would happen more in public libraries, but I don’t know. How can we urge for this kind development in seemingly inflexible environments?

    While I’m sure you might not have the answer, I hope that someone could comment about it… what have the experiences been?

    1. Hilary Davis

      Good point, Emily. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but my sense is that much of our professional development is going to be borne by ourselves. Most of us have already experienced the aftermath of reduced budgets and rejected travel support requests. Just yesterday, a bunch of us where I work pitched in our own funds to support a webinar that our library couldn’t fund on our behalf. I think that creative justification for seeking funds to attend non-library conferences (in person or virtual), seeking external funding (conference scholarships/grants) and out-of-pocket expenses are what we’re looking at. The 2009 Taiga Forum predicts this fate as well (see statement #1).