Life Lessons from the Library: You Can Never Be Too Clear

Did you ever play the game “Gossip” as a kid? You know, someone started off with a sentence whispered in the next person’s ear and it went mouth-to-ear through every person in the group until the last person announced out loud what he/she heard? Usually, what the last person said bore very little resemblance to what the first person said.

Sometimes, in the library or learning center, we can feel like the last person in that game. We know the message has gotten garbled somehow; we’re just not sure where or how.

For example, last week, a student needed a source on a certain composer, whose name escapes me. What I do remember is that we didn’t have a book on this person. She said that she just needed some basic information about his life. I took her over to the reference center and showed her some music dictionaries and encyclopedias.

She was not happy. “My instructor said I can’t use Wikipedia.”

That would seem to be a fairly clear comment, except that it wasn’t. I asked her if her instructor meant Wikipedia only or any and all encyclopedias. She wasn’t sure, and there was no way to proceed at that point. See, some instructors ban all encyclopedias as sources while others dislike Wikipedia only.

But I was not to be beaten. “Okay,” I said cheerfully, “how about a journal article?” We returned to the computer where I went into JSTOR. Once again, the poor student backed up in horror.

“No,” she said. “My instructor said we couldn’t use any online sources.”

I sighed, but I felt that I was on surer ground here. I showed her the difference between a database and just any online source. I emphasized how the article had once been in paper form and could be used. (Now, I feel good about my advice, but one semester, we did have an instructor who refused all online sources, including databases and ebooks. We did not like him that term.)

So she went away happy and with the information she needed. Still, it reminded me that clarity is often in the eye of the beholder. As instructors, we often think that we have made assignments so clear that it is impossible for them to be misunderstood. But then, sure enough, students not only misunderstand them, but so do the librarians or tutors whom they’ve asked for help.

And once you move from the academic world to the personal one, clarity becomes even more important. How many fights have started simply because one person wasn’t clear about what she/he wanted from the other?

So what are the Jolly Librarian’s tips for clarity?

  • If you are an instructor, always have someone look over an assignment before handing it out. I know when I’m writing, it’s so obvious to me what I need to say that I may forget to be as explicit as I need to be.
  • If you are student, ask questions. Most instructors do not mean to be unclear and appreciate students’ questions for clarification. No one, neither student nor instructor, benefits from poorly-written papers resulting from not understanding the assignment.
  • In all relationships, double-check to make sure your listener is clearly understanding what you’re saying. If you sense the mood changing or someone becoming angry, ask “What is it you think I just said?” Clarify. Clarify. Clarify.
  • Ask for what you want. Don’t expect friends, spouses, bosses, etc. to be mind readers. The old “if he loved me, he’d know what I wanted” is untrue and ineffective.

Being clear about what you what you need and what you expect can solve a whole host of problems.


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