on bias and asking good questions

Everyone is biased.

During last week’s 511 class, we were given the task of going out “into the community” and asking them questions.  Some groups were assigned to talk to people in the library, while some were forbidden from going there.  Different groups were assigned to ask one of the following questions:

-how can the library help you?

-what problems are you having?

-what are your goals for your degree?

With fairly broad questions, we definitely got some interesting responses, and we decided that some of the questions weren’t all that great.

I’m not going to go into a detailed summary of what we discovered in our very official, scientific survey (because then I’d have to kill you, of course).  But another topic we’ve been discussing lately is bias, and I think that it would be interesting to examine this activity while focusing on bias.

As we all now know, it is completely impossible to be unbiased, as a librarian or as a human being.  No matter how hard you try to remain completely objective, your decisions are shaped by your worldview and your background, and even simple tasks are, in fact, biased.  Want to look something up online rather than in a book?  Bias. Prefer Omnictionary* to Wikipedia?  Bias.  A member wants to know something about Pepsi, and you’re a lifelong Coke drinker?  Bias.

So even though we can and should try our best to provide a variety of resources so that members can make their own, informed decisions, our own experiences are still going to shape how we do our job.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something we need to remain aware of, especially when engaging in conversation with the community.

I think it’s especially important to be cognizant of our biases when asking questions.  In order to determine what communities need from their libraries, it’s kind of necessary to actually, you know, talk to community members.  And in order to truly determine what they need, not what we think they need, or what we want them to need, the questions we ask matter.

As a former teacher, I know how easy it is to try to lead students to the answer you have in your head, based on the questions you ask.  While this does get you an answer, it’s not necessarily helpful, because it doesn’t really show you what the student actually knows.  Similarly, if you ask leading questions when conversing with community members, you’re probably going to get answers they think you want to hear, rather than what they really need from the library.  Also, if you ask questions like ‘how can the library help you?’ or ‘how can we fix things?’ to people who are already using the library, you’re probably not going to elicit responses that will help you make big changes, and you might also insult some people.

We can’t just discard our biases; our personal experiences shape how we see the world and how we do our jobs.  Now that we know how biased we are, we can make adjustments to the conversations we have.  The questions we ask (and how we ask them) are important, and making an effort to acknowledge our biases and form our questions accordingly when conversing with the community will, I believe, be beneficial in the long run.

*This is, unfortunately, not a real thing; fellow John Green enthusiasts may appreciate the reference.

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