Wicked and Kind: The Strength of Librarians as Generalists

Written By: John Connolly, host of our Vertical Files podcast.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the unique position of librarians in the information sphere. I spent a long time as a solo librarian with a specialized library collection. I think it’s important to remember that just because library collections might be specialized doesn’t mean that the library worker is specialized, too. In fact, I think a great strength of libraries comes from the ability of library workers to be generalists.

I’ve been reading the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. I’ve found the book enthralling. Epstein got his start as a sportswriter and draws a comparison between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer in the book’s early pages. Woods, very famously, started in golf as a toddler, and was groomed to be a golf star. Federer, in contrast, tried out many kinds of sports before settling into tennis. Even then, for years his teachers were frustrated by his lack of dedication to the sport. Both athletes enjoyed tremendous success, but Epstein makes a compelling case that it’s the generalists who are more regularly successful and who are better equipped to solve the world’s problems.

The crux, of course, lies in the nature of the problems themselves. Epstein explores the concepts of “wicked problems” and “kind problems.” The two are very different. Kind problems are defined formally. A great example is chess: while there are many permutations of a game of chess, the solution of the game is found within the confines of its fixed rules. This contrasts with wicked problems: these are problems that are extremely complex and which do not have a single solution. There’s no way to test a solution, either. Examples of wicked problems are poverty, or climate change, or homelessness.

The thing about this distinction of kind problems and wicked problems is that they employ radically different approaches to make progress. Epstein looks closely at chess, which can be broken down into cognitive chunks and analyzed quickly. Chess masters can analyze the correct move almost instantly, provided the rules of the game are being followed. With their ability to process thousands of possible moves very quickly, artificial intelligences have a huge advantage in this kind of thinking. But when you move the game in a wicked direction, computers quickly lose their advantage.

A good example of this is in playing advanced chess, where human players use computer chess programs to assist them with analyzing moves. With the lower-level analysis left up to the computer, the human side of the game becomes much more apparent: the players must employ creativity to develop a winning strategy. Computers struggle against their human counterparts in this context.

On the other hand, wicked problems require creativity and the ability to see patterns and bring analogies from a variety of contexts. Specialization is a huge downside when contemplating wicked problems, because specialized focus suffers from “inside thinking,” the perspective from inside a problem or field or study area, which limits the consideration of more than one approach.

All of this is a fascinating contemplation when it comes to libraries. Library workers are often generalists, meaning they have insight from a broad range of knowledge areas. The habit of regular reading outside of a field of interest puts the library worker in a unique place when it comes to tackling problems.

I have felt lucky to have gotten a very general library education when I went to library school. Consequently, I never settled into an area of focus that left me pigeon-holed. I have been a cataloger, a reference librarian, an archivist, and a manager. The perspective is enlightening, when you can perceive different contexts. It leaves me equipped to see patterns in disparate things and bring lessons to bear from outside my field. I’m passionate about learning things that can apply to libraries from outside the field’s professional literature.

The library benefits tremendously when it has generalists on staff. Service to library users will be better from somebody capable of applying creativity and patterns from a variety of knowledge areas to a given problem. Most research questions are on the wicked side, not the kind side! And the internal benefit to the organization will be much stronger. Instead of cultivating library workers who specialize in one subject or function, the library should prioritize strong thinkers with expertise across subject matter. The result will be workers suited to thought leadership and the optimization of the organization as a whole. Many library workers already have the tools; all that’s needed to unlock that potential is the opportunity to bring a set of expertise in one area into other fields.

John Connolly is a librarian with over ten years of experience in the field, including technical, administrative, and supervisory roles in a variety of library settings. He blogs on librarianship, leadership, and management topics and also hosts our Vertical Files podcast.