TEDucation: 5 TED Talks Librarians Should Watch (and Why)

Ever since I was introduced to TED talks, I’ve sought them out when a new batch is available. Last year I had the privilege of attending the TEDxNJLibraries at the Princeton Public Library. It was great to listen to a range of speakers on a wide range of topics and stories while also being able to talk with others about the presentations.

My attraction to these talks and the reason I am writing about them now is that I feel they are excellent perspectives from outside of the librarian echo chamber. Some have given me additional ideas for how to think and approach some of the issues that we as librarians face in the road ahead. I’ve linked some in my blog over the years but I wanted to highlight 5 TED talks that I think every librarian should watch.

So, without further ado. (I note the talk lengths in minutes, rounded up.)

1) Ken Robinson – Schools Kill Creativity (20m)

If you are going to watch any talk, make it this one. My takeaway from this talk is looking at how libraries as a whole approach their patrons. Are we nurturing the creativity of others? Are we looking at their interests and curiosities? Furthermore, are we creating our own hierarchy of literacies? Why do some treat book borrowers better than movie borrowers? Why does certain kind of internet use get more scrutiny than others (people on Facebook versus people writing school papers)?

For myself, I think about the idea of a dynamic intelligence and personal unique talents when I am conducting a reference interview. I work towards trying to figure out what is the best way that the person in front of me learns and try to match the materials to that style. It doesn’t always work, but I think it more effective than simply handing out a list of items without consideration to how they take in information.

2) William Kamkwamba: How I Harnessed the Wind (6m)

I know I’ve written about this one before, but I want to reiterate the lesson again: information access matters. In watching this presentation, William talks about how he made a windmill to provide electricity and pump water for his family in Malawi. He constructed it based on books he got from a school library which consisted of three sets of bookshelves. The ability for people to access information can make the difference in the inventions and innovations for the future. To me, it speaks also to the digital divide and the importance of narrowing that gap. Is the next great mind out there but lacking the resources to truly unlock their potential? My guess would be yes, but my thoughts are to work towards fixing that situation.

3) Malcolm Gladwell – What We Can Learn from Spaghetti Sauce (19m)

This talk is a great meditation that carries over to the user experience. As libraries have moved to emphasize our human interfaces and the face-to-face contact that we offer, there is still an undercurrent mindset of creating ‘one size fits all’ solutions to the customer experience. But, honestly, no one can say that every conversation that they’ve had with a patron (public, academic, school, otherwise) has been the same. But, in the same way that Malcolm describes grouping people’s preferences, we can look to group the kinds of interactions that we have and create experiences from them. It behooves us to think and move towards services and information solutions in the same manner. The world has shifted to the individual experience; libraries should look to provide the same wherever possible.

4) Mark Bezos – A Life Lesson from a Volunteer Firefighter (5m)

It’s very short but also to the point: don’t wait to get into the game. Everything counts. While librarians tend to gloss over interactions that don’t result in “real” librarian work (like placing books on hold or answering basic computer questions), these experiences do have an impact on the patron. It is not a life or death issue, but certainly a quality of life issue. While the cynical side to me says that someone will not be broken by not being able to put a reservation on the latest James Patterson or Nora Roberts (and would certainly they would not), it’s the small stuff that can have bearing on the larger picture. It’s important to the library because it is important to our patrons. It’s something to keep in mind.

5) JR – Use Art To Turn the World Inside Out (25m)

My reasons for including this are a bit more abstract than the other four talks, but I don’t think it is any less important. It is about perception, community, people, and of course art. For myself, it’s just about another way to look at the world. I found it moving and introspective in its range and scope for a French street artist to work towards creating bridges between communities that were in various states of conflict (either with others or their issues). I just think it’s an excellent not-to-be-missed TED talk.

Note: As I was putting this together, I realized there were a ton of other TED talks I wanted to include. I might just look to make this a blog series and I would encourage others to highlight videos (both from TED and other sources) that bring something new to the librarian world. 

42 thoughts on “TEDucation: 5 TED Talks Librarians Should Watch (and Why)

  1. Thank you for this. I would really appreciate further recommendations of videos/talks. #2 was especially meaningful, not only for its illustration of the information divide, but also William’s encouragement for us to believe in our dreams in the face of opposition. As a current library science student (where librarianship would be my first career) I wonder regularly if I should drop out of the librarian profession in the face of a bleak job market. William reminded me why I decided to go into it in the first place.

    (PS: #2 and #3 link to the same video.)

    • Thanks Chris, I fixed it. This is what happens when I have dozens of tabs open at once.

      To me, William’s story makes every reference interaction important. It makes me look for every solution possible for my patrons and not just settle on the easy/lazy ones.

  2. Oh thank you so much! Several of these I have not watched yet. The Gladwell one, I have to say, is one of my favorites ever; I reference it all the time.

    Great, inspirational way to start my day! Appreciated!

    • I originally was going to link to 10, but then I realized how much time that could end up being. So I went with 5 and thought that I could do installments on weekends. I’m looking for other videos to consider as well, not just simply TED ones.

  3. Just learned about TED talks recently, but I never thought about them from a librarian’s perspective! Very inspiring.

    • Glad you like it! I see it as a process of looking at these videos and thinking, “What does this mean to what I do?” Everything doesn’t have to relate back to the library, but it can relate back to my person.

  4. I want to recommend Sarah Kay’s TEDTalk on “If I Should Have a Daughter” shows the power of 1) public performance on a teenager’s life (she’s a spoken poet), and 2) the power of stories. If libraries could offer spaces to do what Sarah was able to do in NYC at a poetry club, what could that do for our communities?

    On another note, thanks for this post Andy. For those who hadn’t heard of TED talks until Andy’s post, I can’t emphasis enough how powerful they are, regardless of the topic. And, if you ever have a chance to attend a TEDx (local, independently organized) event, apply to. It will change your perspective on many levels (I know it did mine, at TEDxOKC last month).

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  7. Hey Andy, good list. I suggest taking a look at Jane McGonigal’s talk, too, about gaming. She’s running the big “inventing the future” game at NYPL, so in a way it ties directly into libraries, but I think there’s a lot more applicability there if we get a little creative.

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    • I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about other talks to include on the list. The list itself is not exhaustive in the slightest; even in the moments after posting it I was thinking, “Oh damn, I forgot to include X, Y, and Z talks that I really liked.” I am hoping that this list (and future lists) do a couple of things. First, it gets people thinking about a variety of topics. Second, that librarians can get some different perspectives and hear talks that can relate back to library science. Third, that they are fun and informative at the same time. I will look at that talk (I’m still catching up on the latest batch) and look at others for future lists.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  15. Is Ken Robinson trying to be a stand-up comic or trying to present his ideas? I spent more time wondering when he was going to get to the point than actually listening to his point. How is this speech the best of the five you recommended?

    • Did you watch the whole thing? I thought it was pretty evident what he was trying to say, so I’m wondering if you gave up on him.

      • I did listen to the whole thing, after gritting my teeth a little. I do think the example of the choreographer is pretty telling. I think I’m struggling with his style of presentation. I don’t think you have to be continuously funny when presenting a serious topic that you want people to remember. His message is lost in his jokes…at least for me.

  16. Great list Andy, I enjoyed all of them very much!

    One that spoke to me a lot a few years ago is Joachim De Posada’s Don’t Eat The Marshmellow Yet TED talk from 2009: http://www.ted.com/talks/joachim_de_posada_says_don_t_eat_the_marshmallow_yet.html

    Apart from being really funny, I think it speaks a lot to how many of our patrons want what they want now, whether it’s one-click search results or the latest best-selling ebook. Rather in line of what some of the comments on Ned Potter’s Alignment blog post suggest about what users want/expect and what we can and should give them.

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