Reading Time: 8 minutes

I struggle with perspective on a regular basis. You look at a problem and you see it one way and then you talk to someone else and they see it differently. Sometimes it’s just two ways of seeing something but, when you’re making a decision, the difference can determine how or whether you invest resources. The difficulty I have is knowing whether the frame through which I view the problem is an appropriate one.

This is top of mind for two reasons. First, I just finished Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil. The entire book discusses the way humans use framing to consider problems. It also discusses how we can reframe our perspectives but also the challenges in doing so. If anything, it emphasizes that we are more likely to re-use a mental model that has worked for us before, even if it is not the right frame for a new situation.

The other reason was a recent issue that came up where I had a very different perception of a problem from the one that was being discussed. I went through all of the mental internal struggle of whether to even share my viewpoint—and potentially experience resistance it, as an outsider’s observation—and then went ahead and shared it.

The experience reminded me how difficult it can be for people with a different perspective to share their insights, let alone have it impact the underlying problem. There are cultural or in-group hurdles to surmount before even getting to the actual idea itself. When you view yourself as an outsider, perhaps even when others don’t, it can impact those choices.

Frankly, reading the Framers book was a huge personal success for me. I have struggled with reading long form writing for a couple of years now. I’ll blame it on the pandemic although I’m not sure it doesn’t pre-date the virus by a bit. I finally started to attempt ebooks in the past year but I found that it was hit or miss. For whatever reason, the trick seems to be both the passage of time and physical format books. I’ve read more in the last couple of months, with books borrowed from the San Diego Public Library, than I have in years. It’s a return of a sense of normalcy.

Framers touched on a lot of topics that I find interesting. It’s always fascinating to me to know more about the science behind why we make choices. This sort of book reminds me to be wary about certainty in my own perspectives. But it also reinforces that, just because my perspective isn’t commonly shared, it doesn’t mean it’s not one I should use. Getting diversity in framing is a big challenge.

Framing, Hiring, and Retention

One thing that struck me, perhaps because it reflects my own experience, is the impact of diversity on creating a variety of perspectives. The book does a good job of discussing how diversity hiring and retention initiatives, by themselves, aren’t necessarily going to improve that variety. Those initiatives are vital but the book suggests you may still end up with group think if you hire a group of individually diverse people who are part of an in-group: they are all alumna of a particular educational institution or share an economic class perspective or private membership affiliation, and so on.

When I think about hiring in a law library, it is often encumbered by the limitations created by the pipeline to our roles. Even in the best of circumstances, where you’ve eliminated the obstacles caused by needing a law degree or a library degree, it can be challenging to attract librarians.

The idea of cognitive diversity as a hiring factor makes sense but how do you put it into action? You want to hire people who don’t see the world the same way. Does hiring people who have similar educational attainments limit that? In particular, does the law school process of homogenizing thinking “like a lawyer” make that less likely, by homogenizing framing?

It seems as though we want people who have experienced a variety of environments:

Research shows that a willingness to leave our mental comfort zones for new intellectual quarters pays off….[T]he economist Susan Pozo asked if American citizens who were born outside the country earned more than those born on American soil. They did….Pozo called this premium the “returns to aquiring international human capital.” The ideas is that such people have their perspectives broadened by being exposed to different customs, languages, and ways of problem solving….

Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil, p. 154.

At the same time, we know that Americans are moving around much less frequently than they used to. People are staying close to where they started, limiting their exposure to new ideas and organizations and cultures that aren’t already present in their lives.

A chart labeled "Annual migration rates, 1947 to 2022" and created by Brookings Metro.  It shows, with a 10 year gap between 1970 and 1980, a drop from about 20% to 8.4% of internal migration by people in the United States
A chart showing annual internal migration dropping from 20% to 8.4% in the United States. Source: Brookings Metro

Immigrants, even those who have library experience and degrees, may not come with an ALA-accredited document to enter the pipeline. So whether it’s an international premium or even (what I suspect) home-grown adjacency to multiple languages and customs, the ability to attract people with that cognitive diversity may be difficult.

Do we look to hire people who have the family resources to have afforded a junior-year abroad in college? Who have cross-border (state or international) families? Who went to university somewhere distant from where they grew up? Who grew up multi-lingual? Whose parents may be immigrants who struggled to assimilate but who themselves found a path to fit in?

The international focus is, I expect, merely an example of how diverse cultural upbringings can impact perspectives. I grew up in Michigan and our mum participated in a group of international women in the community. So, as kids, we were often around adults and kids from other countries and backgrounds, to the point of feeling it was a pretty normal thing. As I’ve learned since, it wasn’t very typical and is hard to communicate to others, but our experience can’t have been entirely unique.

There is also the retention challenge. One piece of research I’d love to see is law library longevity. How many of our staff are entering our or a local law library and remaining in the geographic location for their entire career? How does that impact the mental models we bring to our decision-making when people stay in one geographic location, perhaps having grown up in the same place? We may call it “we’ve always done it that way” when we’re part of an institution but how much of that “we” is our own perspective becoming aligned with an institution? Is the inability to change because we are not able to see the change possible or because there are real constraints to change?

I have no idea. I’ve worked in 2 countries and a half dozen different states. I saw a colleague take a job recently who had worked in one library for a decade or more then worked in 3 others, in 3 other states, before landing at their most recent job. Peripatetic law librarians are still a thing but I don’t get a sense of how common that is. Does it only happen at a particular point in your career: early, when you’re gaining experience? late, when you have more ability to choose?

More questions than answers.

Anyone can adapt and adopt different mental models and reframe. They, like me, need to be hyper-aware of that bias towards their own default frames (“we’ve always done it that way,” what’s worked in the past will work in the future). Even if you can hire and retain a cognitively-diverse team, it doesn’t suggest to me that you can assume that diversity will remain as time goes by. There’s conformity bias and there’s fear of speaking up if our leadership has not nurtured an open organization. That’s particularly true if you have leadership who devalues or ignores competing perspectives.

Framing and Decision-Making

If I had to choose, I think the nearest analog to how I make decisions is a combination lock. It’s not like a key, which is turned either to yes or to no. Instead, I’m most curious about the different variables that can get to a positive solution. That can mean rotating a couple dials and leaving others alone. Or rotating all of them a little bit. Sometimes we need to reset everything to zero and start over.

The difficulty with that approach is data. If you have experience—hiring, firing, installing, implementing, redrafting, collecting, weeding—then you have some data already. If your organization tracks information, whether it’s usage data or personnel demographics, that can help to inform your choices too.

But without data, you are really just guessing at outcomes. Sometimes that’s the best we can do. Sometimes we can try something for a while—change just one variable, like A/B testing or debugging—and reset it later while we try another. That can be hard, if we or our organizations are resistant to change or the perspective of failure (well, that didn’t work, I won’t take that risk again). Many of the things we want to improve—hiring, for example—don’t happen enough to give us either experience or good data in our organizations.

The lack of data can create fear about choices. I expect that that encourages us to default to the mental models that have worked in the past. What is a law library? What should it do and how should it look? I expect we have a lot of shared ideas about what that means.

There is a trap, there, I think. I’ll use the public law library as an example but I’m sure it’s the same in other contexts. We’ve seen a continuing drop in the use of our law library by legal professionals. We’ve seen foot traffic decline, even pre-pandemic, due to changes in information gathering or demographic changes in where people live or perhaps in how they resolve their legal issues.

It means that the way we describe a public law library needs to be updated. There’s resistance to that and it’s as likely to be from within the law library as not. It’s not resistance in the sense of unwillingness. It’s more like an anchor, that holds on to one position even as the boat floats in another. That anchor might drag along the seabed in the same direction as the boat but the boat could be going faster in the new direction without the anchor.

I met with a lawyer—I’ve told this story before, so skip ahead if it sounds familiar—who had ideas about how we should operate. They had formed these ideas based on how they’d used the law library at the start of their career 20 years ago. They had no information about how we were funded, how lawyer demographics had changed, about the shift in self-represented parties, etc. Their framing was that of a very particular, and out-dated, perspective. I heard them out because that sort of input can be an indicator of widely held but not widely shared understandings or beliefs. Then I educated him on how a public law library operates in the 2020s.

A chart showing internal migration in the United States between 2010 and 2021, post-pandemic.  Urban core migration has plummeted, as shown by the line at the bottom right.
A chart showing the pandemic impact on cities. If your public law library is located in a downtown, this should cause you some concern. Source: Brookings Metro

It is easier to get into a pattern of repeating the things that we’ve been doing because they’ve worked in the past. Or because our governance boards have approved them in the past and it’s hard to undo a choice we make. In fact, we may fool ourselves into thinking that a recent pattern of success reflects long-term success. Our mental model must be working because it worked this last time. Anecdata.

What if that’s an aberration, though? We know that we have to be mindful of recency bias. We may want to rely on past success as a measure of future success. But we also need to consider how the environment is changing around us. I would guess that most law libraries collect fewer books now than they used to. We’re adaptable, whether it’s because of demand or funding or some other reason.

The trick is in starting to make the change to a different strategy or mental model or whatever before it’s too late. There’s an inflection point where the utility of one approach needs to be revisited and, often, a new direction chosen. But that transition, from something that is perceived to work to something that may not, generates fear.

Some days, I wish I was more confident in my decision-making. I tinker with my choices all the time, up until the point of making a decision. After reading Framers, I think I’m even more self-aware (self-conscious?) about whether I’m thinking about decisions in the right way.

The easiest way I can see to offset that confidence challenge is to ensure I’m seeking input. If there’s a diversity of opinion, it will be helpful. If there’s a uniformity of opinion in a different direction, that can expand options. If there’s a uniformity of opinion in the same direction, it can make me more vigilant about revisiting whether that uniformity reflects our preference to default to our tried and true patterns.

In the meantime, I plan to read more books. And continue to struggle with my decision-making. That will mean continuing to wait to share my thoughts until others have shared theirs, and noting that, when I’m feeling a bit smug about things working out, it may be time to be a bit wary about getting comfortable with my approach.