“What amazing things have come to be because you were brave enough to ask a question”?

Last week I received an email from Alexis Caudell, director of the Mitchell Community Public Library. It was posed as a “very simple question” but it took me awhile to respond to her.

She asked:  “What amazing things have come to be because you were brave enough to ask a question”?

When I sat down to think about this question–this is what I came up with…

This is a question that prompts a personal journey into discussing the paths I’ve taken to lead me where I am today, at this moment. Today I’m an associate librarian at the University of Michigan Library. I work on special projects that don’t always fit into defined areas of engagement, research, or services.

I got here because I asked the question “Is this it?” in 2007. I was happily working at the Fayetteville Public Library in the Children’s department, the job that lead me to the epiphany that I could have an impact on the world by providing people with information, tools, and opportunities to invest deeply in their communities. I love this library and it’s where I have grown up, professionally. I had the opportunity to build a career in a nurturing, comfortable environment. This could have been it. Instead, I answered my own question (it was “no”) and enrolled in the MSI program at the University of Michigan’s School of Information (SI or UMSI). I decided to see what I could accomplished when faced with an unfamiliar and new set of skills, opportunities and community members.

I came to U-M because SI (now called UMSI) had a “Community Informatics” track, which seemed right up my alley. It was very student driven, focused on community engagement, and combined user focused research with effective information solutions (or at least attempts at developing effective information solutions).

This started my “Why not?” phase. I accepted roles of increasing responsibility, leadership, and representation at SI, from the student coordinator of the Community Informatics Corps, to coordinator of the Community Informatics Seminar (SI 575), to a research assistant position with Dr. Joan Durrance investigating how public libraries successfully partner with and support civic engagement in communities. I was also the first student at the school to volunteer in Detroit for a week during our school’s Alternative Spring Break. I didn’t shy away from accepting offers to work on projects that I didn’t feel complete confidence in (I learned along the way) and I often said yes when I could have said no. My “why not?” phase includes my work with Open.Michigan, an Open Education initiative in the Medical School here at the university. I have no background in health sciences and I didn’t have much hands-on experience with intellectual property before I joined the team, but I got familiar with the culture and learned a lot about how copyright law works in the education system. I have a passion for connecting people to useful information, and open education encompasses this passion in practice.

My role at Open.Michigan turned out to be a great fit for me, and there I got to ask a lot more interesting questions. One of those was “How can we really help and bring about change?” This could also be considered the “Will you help me?” question that was asked of me or my team and I usually said “Yes!”. One of the things I developed while at Open.Michigan was the “catalyst” series, so named because we wanted to help people turn ideas into projects that would at least let them test out their theories. We hosted design sessions for textbooks that turned into larger publishing projects and helped nonprofits and students figure out ways to develop and implement tracking systems. We intentionally partnered to support people at the early stages of the ideas: connecting them with other people or units with specific resources or skills, giving them a chance to develop prototypes, but we generally created a space where their ideas could take root. We broke down big ideas into smaller actionable tasks. It’s how we helped graduate students pull off the first A2DataDive, a weekend long event hosted at the School of Information that includes alumni, nonprofits, community members, students, and researchers.

I’ve since moved on to my “What’s next?” phase and now I work at the University of Michigan Library. It gets a little overwhelming sometimes and I feel like I wear a lot of hats, but who doesn’t? I like analyzing big problems and breaking them down into smaller pieces that are actionable and do-able for people. I like figuring out connections between people, resources, and ideas and pulling those connections together. I’m a natural learner and I think probably an optimist as well. The challenges our libraries (public and academic) are facing are daunting but also very exciting. There are lots of embedded opportunities there to be found if you do ask the right questions. Often those right questions start with “Why?” or “Why not?”

These are broad questions I’ve given you but they’ve added up to a lot of interesting things that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of both at the university and in the community here in Ann Arbor. While I don’t immediately think of myself as asking key questions, your question prompts me to reconsider my impression of myself. I do ask a lot of questions at work and at home and a big part of that is because I like to figure out why things are the way they are and I’m not afraid to ask the “why not” question when there may be an opportunity to make a change.

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