Interview with Annie Downey, Instructor for Techniques for Creative Problem Solving in Libraries

Annie Downey is teaching a class for Library Juice Academy next month: Techniques for Creative Problem Solving in Libraries. Annie has agreed to an interview to help give a better idea of what this course is about and how it came to be.

Annie, thanks for agreeing to the interview. To start, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you came to be teaching a course on this subject?

I graduated from library school in 2005 and have been a Reference Librarian, Outreach Librarian, Manager of Instructional Services, Head of Research and Instructional Services and am currently the Director of Research Services for Reed College. I have been in this position for a little over two months. This was a big change personally and professionally because I moved from a large comprehensive public university in Texas to a small private liberal arts college in Oregon. I have been lucky throughout my career to be given a lot of room to try new ideas and develop new programs and services, but I have also had to deal with budget cuts, staffing problems, and the need to change how we provide service as students and higher education changes. I always try to approach these situations with an open mind and a willingness to see new solutions because I believe creative approaches are the best resource to use to solve any problem.

I have always been interested in creativity and how people think because I come from a family of artists, but do not possess any talent in that area myself. Lacking this thing that I thought was really important and what I thought in many ways defined who we were as a family made me curious about why people respond to the world the way they do. I discovered from a very young age that many of the people around me actually saw the world differently. I still see that in my 7-year-old daughter who is incredibly talented artistically – she sees lines, shapes, colors, and details that most of us miss and that (and fearlessness) is why her drawing is amazing.

So in typical future librarian fashion, I began reading about creativity and genius. Over the years, I have learned that I actually am not as removed from the creative talents I so admired as I once thought because creativity is more about how you see than a final product you end up with. There are techniques that we all can use to train ourselves to see things differently. Approaching every day situations with a different mindset can translate into opening yourself up to see solutions to problems that you may not have even been able to comprehend of before.

I love being a librarian and working with patrons to find information and solutions to their problems and I also love being a manager and working with other librarians and staff to help them be their best and provide the best for those we serve. I think a lot of people think that these are two completely different skill sets, but I believe one of the main things that makes me successful and satisfied at both is how I have trained myself to look at and solve problems. I am very excited to get to share with others some of what I have learned and help them use these techniques to approach and solve real issues they are facing in the workplace.

Thanks, that makes it clear how you came to be interested in creativity. Could you describe the course itself, and what students can expect to learn from it?

The course is activity-based. The reading requirements will explain some basic concepts and be very light. Participants will spend most of the course time working on creative problem solving strategies and techniques including effective brainstorming, cross-fertilization of ideas, creating time and space to think, perceptual positioning, questioning assumptions and biases, concept mapping, unconventional problem solving, problem redefinition, and reality checks. It will also include discussion and feedback from me and other participants taking the class.

The course is meant to be practical and includes strategies that librarians can immediately put to use at work. The final outcome is the development of a plan of action for a current work problem or issue using the 6-step Productive Thinking Model. Working through this process will illustrate for participants how the ideas we have discussed work together and will give them an opportunity to translate the course material to their real-life work in a meaningful way.

Students can expect to learn how to look at problems differently and to open up to new possibilities in order to come up with realistic solutions. This is not an exercise in creating ideal, but impossible, scenarios. It is only a solution if it can be implemented so our focus will be on coming up with well thought out and creative ideas and plans that are grounded in reality.

That sounds really interesting. I wonder if you could give some examples of the kinds of work situations in which librarians would apply these techniques?

Sure. I use at least one of these on an almost daily basis. For example, imagine that you have been directed to combine service desks and integrate the functions of two departments that have historically not gotten along. You may use perceptual positioning to try to gain an understanding of the nature of the conflict, effective brainstorming to develop ideas for staffing that will get buy-in from everyone, and then cross-fertilization of ideas to come up with how you will actually implement the service. Using these techniques will allow you to develop a plan for the new service that will please patrons and will begin to heal the past wounds of the people in the departments and turn the whole group into a cohesive team.

Or maybe you have been teaching a library instruction session for freshmen writing students the same way for five years and you think it is time to refresh what you are doing, but you are stuck in a rut and not sure what direction to go. You could approach this from the angle of unconventional problem solving to help you come up with fresh ideas and then use concept mapping to determine what you want the session to look like.

Or perhaps you need to change your workflows to account for staff cuts. This could involve moving a lot of responsibilities around that have been handled in the same way for many years. You could use the productive thinking model process to develop a realistic plan.

These techniques can also be used for more every day, smaller situations like in helping you figure out how to approach your supervisor effectively, train volunteers, deal with a difficult colleague, be more organized, or design a web page. It’s largely about training your mind to approach and deal with problems more openly so you can see solutions that you would not see if you followed along in your same old thought patterns.

That sounds great – effective and realistic. To finish, I wonder if you could share any ideas you have for courses that we could teach in the future at Library Juice Academy?

There are several great courses being offered at Library Juice Academy. One area that I think academic librarians are always trying to improve is their liaison work, including communicating and working with faculty. Information literacy issues are another constant in our lives right now. I believe we have pretty much come to consensus in the library world that the best way to educate students on information literacy is to get it woven into the curriculum, but most of us are struggling with how to do that. Another area that I don’t think I saw on the course list that I think librarians may want more training in is how to incorporate ebooks into the collection and the ins and outs of patron driven purchasing.

Thanks for those ideas. Some interesting suggestions there.

I want to thank you for your time, and to wish you a good class.

Thanks, it’s a pleasure.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Annie Downey, Instructor for Techniques for Creative Problem Solving in Libraries

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