The Problem with Either Or

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which people – librarians and others – seem to think in terms of either/or. For example:

  • We ask if teens like to read or not.
  • We ask if teens like digital books or physical books.
  • We ask if teens use Twitter or not
  • We ask if teens …..

But, I think that deep down we all know that these aren’t either or questions. It’s not that:

  • Teens like to read or don’t like to read. Sometimes they like to read some things and sometimes they don’t. They might like to read sports on the web but not the book that they have to read for school.
  • Teens like digital over physical (or visa versa) when it comes to books. Sometimes the digital is better and sometimes the physical is what fits a mood or need. For example, digital textbooks and non-fiction can provide lots of components that a physical book cannot.
  • Teens use Twitter or don’t use Twitter, it’s that teens use the tools that are useful to them at a particular time and for a particular reason. A teen might use Twitter for something that they have to do for school or to follow a favorite celebrity. But, maybe they don’t use it in a social context like some adults do.

In other words, what if we didn’t look to teens to tell us that something is in (or liked) or not but simply focused in on the range of possibilities and that some teens do and some don’t. Some teens do at times and some teens don’t at times. It’s not either or and it’s not black and white. Thinking in an either or way actually makes it easy to stick with the status quo because either or questions often validate what we already think we know. But, it’s not the status quo that we should stick with in library services for teens. (Or for any age group for that matter.)

This is really important as we look at new initiatives that we want to bring to teen services in a school or public library. Going beyond an either or construct can help in thinking about how to get new initiatives going with a beta (or pilot) state of mind. For example, say you are thinking about expanding your book discussion groups to incorporate e-books and some of the social capabilities of e-books. You might research the value and potential of the program by asking teens if they like to read e-books. Or, you might research the value and potential by asking teens if they would like to help you pilot a new digital project in order to find out how to expand your book discussions.

The first question asks teens if they like or don’t like something. While you might find that teens say they don’t like reading in e-formats, that might not be the information you really need. What you need to know is the answer to the second question, if teens are willing to help you pilot a new program. If they are, then you can find out through teen’s interaction in that program, when they have the opportunity for real experience with reading in digital form and connecting with others through digital outlets, much more than simply if teens like to read in the new format. You get to find out when teens like to read in e-formats and when they don’t. You get to find out what types of materials work for digital social book discussions and what don’t. You move from either or to what works and what doesn’t work and why.

It might be easier for us to think in the either or type of way. But, it’s not really the best way to find out what is going to work with teens in the library. Digging deeper than either or is required. And, actually, isn’t it the opportunity to dig deep and ask teens questions that get to the why that makes working with the age group so rewarding?

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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2 Comments

  1. This is, as you mentioned, applicable to any age group. I work at a college library and I see this same issue with my population. Great post.

  2. Thanks for this post. I think the recent articles in WSJ and the like are also this rather “either/or” thinking (or at the least reading with blinders on). We need to talk to kids and not ask questions that set up false dichotomies.

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