Longing for the endless immensity of the sea

Longing for the endless immensity of the sea
Thoughts on problem-solving
18 December 2014

Unfurl that Frame was a symposium attended by library leaders from across the country and from every library sector, held at the National Library of Australia 12-13 December 2014. Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, the Library's Assistant Director-General, Resource Sharing, was asked to speak briefly on 'problem solving'. These are her notes.

Yesterday in my work group we coined the term 'December-ish' to describe how some of us are feeling at the end of the year. Tired, ratty, scatty, too many problems, let's call them strands, interconnecting or tangling on so many levels it's hard to know where to start ravelling the skeins so they can be turned into things that are both serviceable and beautiful. Mired in 'analysis paralysis', definitely suffering from what the Western Desert Pintupi people name palilpa meaning 'tiredness of spirit', resulting from continually attending meetings. 

Feeling that the policy environment in which we work is too often reaching for sledge-hammer sized and shaped solutions to 'problems' that seem to slip away, shard into ever more discrete sizes and shapes the more they are examined.

Worrying about how easy it is for us, in our profession, to do the same. How easy it is for us, when we are approaching problems, to swing from leaping in too soon with solutions when we haven't really examined or looked at the problem from enough angles, to chasing down every tiny little aspect of the problem so that we are so lost in the woods we can't make our way back out again.

December-ish: definitely a month short of inspiration. 

Christmas Day at the Australian gold-diggings, 100 degrees in the shade

Perhaps these miners were feeling December-ish? Joseph Swain Christmas Day at the Australian gold-diggings, 100 degrees in the shade, 1873. Wood engraving, Pictures Collection, http://www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview/?pi=nla.pic-an9091990-2

Luckily, I collect inspirations and keep them in my not-so-new best friend Evernote. So when my brain kept skittering around the problem of talking about problems, I decided to look back over the inspirations I’ve collected in the last year, and see where they led me.

My first exhibit is from the American journalist David Brooks. Back in September, Brooks wrote a great piece in the New York Times. He speculated on what would he do if had $500 million to give away. In other words, he imagined having a solution with no problem. He had to design the problem that he would want to solve. He writes:

My first thought … was that I'd pay for independent candidates to run against Democratic or Republican members of Congress who veered too far into their party's fever swamps.

But then I realised that if I really had that money, I'd want to affect a smaller number of people in a more personal and profound way. The big, established charities are already fighting disease and poverty as best they can, so in search of new directions I thought, oddly, of friendship.

He goes on to write about the difficulties people have establishing friendships in the modern world, and how you could go about changing that. In other words, he moves quickly from thinking about a problem that is 'oppositional', a 'push-pull' kind of problem, to thinking about a problem that is not binary, a problem that might be about gaps and absences, and that might have a network solution to knit up a stronger social fabric.

I commend the whole piece to you, but want to just share these bits:

So, in the fantasy world in which I have $500 million, I'd try to set up places that would cultivate friendships… People these days are flocking to conferences, ideas festivals and cruises that are really about building friendships, even if they don't admit it explicitly. The goal of these intensity retreats would be to spark bonds between disparate individuals who, in the outside world, would be completely unlikely to know each other. The benefits of that social bridging, while unplannable, would ripple out in ways long and far-reaching.

I think that this is at least one of the things that we are trying to do in our profession: create places, physical and virtual, that cultivate friendships, between people living and dead, present or present only in their words, pictures, voices, and between people and ideas. 

My second exhibit is a July 2013 poem by Andrew J. Berger, thinking about Lorcan Dempsey’s 2012 essay, 'Thirteen ways of looking at libraries, discovery and the catalog: scale, workflow, attention'. As most of you will know, Dempsey's essay is about the 'problem' of discovery happening 'elsewhere', and led to the proposed solution 'the inside-out library'. Berger decided to respond to, reconceptualise, even problematise Lorcan’s essay by turning it into a verse honouring Wallace Stevens's original poem 'Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird'. Again, I commend the poem to you.

Berger's poem is a bit too long for me to quote in full, so I have selected some stanzas:

I do not know which to prefer,
The unity of experience
Or the diversity of resources,
The catalog interface
Or just discovery.

O traditional library,

Why do you imagine one-stop sites?
Do you not see how the catalog
Can work through the flow
Of the people about you?

When the catalog slipped out of sight,

It marked the edge
Of one of many layers.

At the sight of catalogs

Aggregated in a network,
Even the champions of serendipity
Would cry out sharply.

I so wish I had written that last stanza. And I think that the kinds of problems we encounter, or propose, or try to solve in our profession are often about things slipping out of sight, edges, layers, and networks. 

Next is another quote, this time from Neil Gaiman's November 2014 love letter to libraries, which he describes as ‘cultural seed corn’. He argues for the importance of literacy as:

a measure of imagination and empathy, because a book is a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else's head. You see out of the world through somebody else’s eyes.

Here I think we are getting a firmer grip on some of the attitudes we might want to bring to the problems we might deal with in our profession. We do need imagination and empathy, to be inside somebody else's head, because it is somebody else we are trying to serve. But we also need to put those to work, to make them into a machine, something productive, either of solutions, or of new problems we can imagine for the publics we serve.

A bit closer to home and in time, consider Richard Flanagan's words when he accepted the Prime Minister's Literary Award for fiction this week, simultaneously announcing that he was donating the entire prize money to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation:

Money is like shit, my father used to say. Pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around and you can grow things, he said.

Flanagan said words were the first beautiful things his father knew, and he wanted to help close the indigenous literacy gap:

If just one of those children in turn becomes a writer, if just one brings to Australia and to the world an idea of the universe that arises out of that glorious lineage of 60,000 years of Australian civilisation, then I will think this prize has rewarded not just me, but us all.

Spreading it around so that we can grow things is surely the essence of what we as a profession try to do in our networks and our collaborations, growing an environment that might help our publics to bring to themselves and their networks' ideas of the universe.

To me, spreading around the tasks of problem solving, but also spreading out the problem, raking it out on the ground, stalking around it from multiple angles, stepping far back from it so that we can get a sense not just that we want to grow something, but what it is we want to grow, what we want to generate from all those edges and layers and empathies and connections and slippings and slidings, what our machine needs to produce—that's one of the hardest things about working on problems. 

La Favorite en route pour Bourbon au commencement de l'ouragan

Longing for the endless immensity of the sea. Sigismond Himely (1801-1872) La Favorite en route pour Bourbon au commencement de l'ouragan (The Favorite en route to Bourbon at the start of the hurricane), 1835. Hand coloured aquatint print, Pictures Collection, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an8538749

The very hardest is how to knit together that big view of the universe of our problem with the designs and cogs and spokes that we need to build to get something like a solution: always contingent, always needing redesign, but nevertheless useful, facilitating imagination and empathy, making connections.

So I'm not quite sure I entirely agree with Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The little prince, attributed with saying:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign the tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

In our work, in any work, in any problem-solving environment, there must be a time for drumming up people together, to collect wood, assign tasks and work. Our hardest job is to keep ourselves and our teams longing for the endless immensity of the sea, aware of slippages, layers  and things at the very edge of our problem solving arena, whilst also rolling up our sleeves, building a ship, building a canoe, building a raft, building the networks, fostering intensities, and machining solutions that enable others to imagine their own sea.