How many librarians does it take to make a paper plane?

eagle.jpgIt started with a tweet. One of those throw-away tweets, stumbled across by accident, that then becomes all-important.

I wanted to make an F-15 fighter jet from paper. From one piece of paper.

I knew it would be a challenge, so I took the instructions (thanks Google) and paper, and headed to my lunch break. The library staff room is the kind of place where unusual things happen quite often, so to begin with, no-one took much notice. Until I started sighing, taking bites of my peanut butter roll and asking the instructions “what do you mean?” at ever decreasing intervals, that was.

Around the table, our Science & Technology Librarian, our Map Librarian and one of our Metadata Librarians all gradually got drawn in, and each took a turn, examining the by now over-folded paper and probing the instructions for any new information. Then people who weren’t at the table joined in.

An hour later all we had to show for our combined efforts was a consensus that the instructions weren’t clear enough, that maybe we had all done something fairly wrong at the beginning, and that there was a good reason none of us had pursued careers in aeronautical engineering.

So, why am I telling you about this? What relevance does it have to the work of the Enquiries team?

Well… [insert timey-wimey wobble screen here] once upon a time, in a seminar room far far away (in the Dennis Sciama Building), the Enquiries team had an away day. It’s theme was “Peer Support and Supervision”, and there were many pretty powerpoint presentations containing frogs, eggs and dragons. We explored the differences between support and supervision, and discussed practical ways of using both to improve our services as well as our team. While lots of libraries operate a supervision and training structure, we’re potentially quite novel in using peer support so heavily. “Peer” comes from the Latin par which means equal. When you are on par with someone, you are their peer. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a peer as “a person of the same age, status, or ability as another specified person”. So, peer support implies that each person has no more expertise as a supporter than the other, and that the relationship is one of equality, even though one may have more experience of a specific situation, task or role.

We identified two types of peer support which we use; peer coaching and peer mentoring. There are subtle differences which make each more appropriate for different situations. Peer coaching is a process through which two or more professional colleagues work together to reflect on current practices; expand, refine, and build new skills; share ideas; teach one another; conduct classroom research; or solve problems in the workplace. A peer mentor is an experienced person who provides information, advice, support, and encouragement to a less experienced person, often leading and guiding by example of his/her success in an area.

As a practical test of our peer support skills, we were challenged in pairs to build an origami jumping frog… in each pair, one person had the instructions, the other the paper. The frog could have been any animal, the origami any form of activity. The point was that we had to support each other with our designated roles to achieve the end result. There were, of course, many learning points, many ideas to take away from this. In actual fact, we turned out to be very good at it, very patient, very positive and exceedingly supportive. We were helpful without being bossy, encouraging without being patronising…

All of which went to prove the theory that employees tend to listen more carefully to other employees – after all, they see them all the time whereas they may see the manager only now and then. If our manager had led in meeting in which she told us how to make the frog, would we have achieved it as well? Another advantage is, apparently, the ‘stickability’ of the training. Training is associated in learners’ minds with the trainer. If the learner is in constant contact with the trainer, they are more likely to find the learning is constantly reinforced. Importantly in the current economic environment, peer support is a cost effective method of training.

We concluded that although you may be hesitant in showing people what they need to do from fear of insulting them,  if you make it clear why you are telling them, and ask them if they need to know, it is unlikely that anyone will feel patronised…

[timey-wimey wobble fade back to present day].

Later that afternoon, the Map Librarian presented me with a completed, perfectly folded F-15 jet, constructed from one piece of paper. The actual plane in the picture above. It’s now perched on my desk, a little reminder that teamwork, peer support and the collegial inter-team relationships which characterise our Library make almost anything do-able. In the same way as four librarians helped me make a jet, in our work each team supports the others, each bringing their skills and experience to support and enhance those of the others around it.

Individuals (even librarians, and students) like to solve problems. It makes them feel useful and gives a sense of achievement. I hope the Map Librarian felt a sense of usefulness and achievement!

I’ve learned that our Map Librarian is very good at origami, so today, I’m going to ask him to show me how he did it and peer support me while I make one!

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