Thursday, July 12, 2012

Loving the Questions, by Andy Burkhardt

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

The above quote is one of my favorites. It is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the collection of letters for which this blog is named. It stresses the importance of questions themselves, as opposed to seeking only answers. Good questions send you on a quest, and arriving at a single answer puts an end to the quest.

Some of the best advice that I can give to new librarians is an echo of Rilke’s guidance: love questions and questioning. Even when you have an answer don’t stop questioning. Ask questions purposefully.

One of the biggest strengths that a new librarian brings to their position and their new team is their fresh eyes. A new librarian may not have the same level of knowledge as one who is more seasoned, but that is not always a bad thing. Knowledge can at times be a curse. New librarians are unencumbered by the view that “this is the way we have always done things.”

New librarians should be asking questions and challenging what has always been done. Perhaps a service was originally implemented to fulfill a user need, but that need has since changed and the service needs to be dropped or updated. It is difficult for librarians with a lot of experience and institutional memory to see that a change is needed because it has become routine. Asking “why” gives people the gift of fresh eyes and helps the library to move forward.

When asking questions though, it’s important to ask them in a purposeful and helpful way. Instead of asking “can we get rid of this reference collection?” it would be exceedingly more helpful to ask “is this reference collection getting a lot of use? Is it still serving our users?” Instead of asking questions that tear down, ask questions that encourage and allow others to create. “Can you tell me about a time when you had a really amazing reference interaction? What made that successful? How can we build more of that into our reference service?”

Developing a knack for asking questions regularly and purposefully is one of the most important things new librarians can do. We can’t continue to do the same things we always done. But by staying curious and asking questions, new librarians can help us all create the future of libraries.

Andy Burkhardt is the Emerging Technology Librarian at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. He tweets @vonburkhardt and blogs at Information Tyrannosaur.


  1. The most cherished feeling in this entire world is just dream about your entire life. Having previously penned down bestsellers on the domain of entrepreneurship, Connect the Dots and Stay Hungry Stay Foolish, Rashmi Bansal has penned down her third book I have a Dream on the same lines. The context in which this book differs from the others is that it is centered on the topic of Social Entrepreneurship.
    These books has the inspiring and interesting stories of 20 idealists who act and think like entrepreneurs, but have dedicated their lives to various causes that do good to mankind in one way or the other.

  2. I appreciate your suggestions for ways for newer librarians to affect (or effect!) change in their new jobs. As an old guy manager, I love what new eyes bring but sometimes other staffers who created or oversee something are mighty threatened. These tips will help establish a rhythm and respect - that natural curiosity questioning really can make inroads!

  3. Marge, it can sometimes be hard to find that balance but if you approach situations and changes with a genuine spirit of inquiry as opposed to a spirit of tearing down, people will appreciate it. I love being able to get new perspectives and see things through different lenses and new eyes can help with that.