Libraries and the curse of knowledge

It is important to know what you know, so that you can avoid the curse of knowledge and communicate effectively.
Lorcan 7 min read
Libraries and the curse of knowledge
Reminded me of the Irish Salmon of Knowledge

The curse of knowledge

In his recent book on writing (The Sense of Style), Steven Pinker suggests that the economic concept of the curse of knowledge is the main cause of bad writing.

He explains it this way:

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. […] It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

Here is Wikipedia on the curse of knowledge:

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that leads better-informed parties to find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed parties.

And LifeHacker amplifies:

If we extrapolate these results to communication in general, it means that we think people understand what we’re saying a hell of a lot more often than they actually do—because we’re so used to knowing the things we know that we expect others to know it as well.

In summary it is very difficult to unknow something that you already know, and it can be difficult to imagine what it is like not to know it. This creates a potential communication gap. On the one side, the curse of knowledge may make it hard for somebody to understand why others simply do not get what they are talking about. On the other, an audience may miss the point entirely, because they do not share the context of the speaker. To communicate effectively we may have to step outside our own usual standpoint.

This phenomenon has well known practical consequences. For example, an expert or authority on a topic is not always the best person to explain it to a non-initiate audience. It also helps to explain the value of an editor, who can review a communication from a different standpoint than the author’s, recognizing, for example, where there needs to be further clarification of an issue.

Since reading about the curse of knowledge in Pinker’s book it has certainly prompted me to think about about my own communications behavior. Yes, I could often do more work to unpack what I am trying to say, or rely less on expressions which depend on some prior understanding or context. And I certainly know from followup conversation or questions at conferences that people can sometimes miss entirely what I thought was clear. (Yes, really.) I have become more alert to obvious preparation, learning more in advance about the composition of the audience for example.

Pinker has some general and straightforward advice for escaping the curse of knowledge. He recommends cutting out abstraction, watching for use of jargon, having materials checked by a third party, and so on.

The curse of knowledge and libraries

More broadly, I have been struck by how widely applicable the concept appears to be in a library context, in big and small ways. Here are some examples ….

Communicating as if for the first time

Libraries are now very aware of how they need to move beyond jargon in describing their services – in signage, in informational materials, or in user interfaces. The goal is to be clearly understood by those who do not already understand library structures or specialist terminology. To be clearly understood, one cannot presume that potential users already understand how the library works, or is structured, or what jargon is used to describe services.

One example here is discovery. In retrospect, the term OPAC was probably not very helpful? Or think how we expect users to understand the differences between catalog, articles, ejournals, databases, and so on.

Stories and concrete ideas communicate direction and value

In their popular book on communicating ideas successfully, Made to stick, Chip and Dan Heath label the curse of knowledge the “villain of the story,” the principal impediment to “making ideas stick.”

They suggest that concrete language and telling stories counter the curse of knowledge and make ideas and statements “stickier.”

This seems very relevant to communication between the library and its constituency.

One important recent example here is the discussion about library value. When talking about library value there is a danger of talking about value in terms that make sense to librarians, or which depends on prior understanding of library activities, rather than talking about value in terms of contribution to the goals of the organization which the library serves.

I was interested to see our new neighbor at Ohio State, Damon Jaggars, put it this way in a recent post:

… the Libraries must position itself as an active, engaged participant in solving university-level problems (Looking outside ourselves).

The library has to look outside itself (avoiding the curse of knowledge) and position itself in terms that the university values. And he explicitly talks about communication:

the Libraries must become more sophisticated in how it identifies and presents its stories of success and impact to external stakeholders (Success enables success).

The Columbus Metropolitan Library strategic plan for 2016 is also instructive. Look at the ‘strategies and outcomes’ page. Their focus is on “young minds”, “my library”, and “life skills”. They express their direction in terms of community goals.

All library users are not experts

In her book, Reflective teaching, effective learning : instructional literacy for library educators, Char Booth discusses the curse of knowledge in relation to library instruction, and makes some interesting general points.

Libraries are created for nerds by meta-nerds, so it is not surprising that library educators tend to suffer from an acute case of the “Curse of Knowledge” as we go about instruction. […] The problem with libraries is that the people who use them are usually not experts, yet we tend to orient ourselves towards expert users. […] I would estimate that, in any given library, four out of five people are on the path of least resistance, yet our learning objects, information products, and buildings are often directed towards the one self-directed learner – the one who most closely resemble us. [4]

She talks about challenging this issue in instruction by adopting a purposefully learner-focused stance. She describes the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) approach in relation to students: “Effective educators appeal to the self-interest of their learners by identifying and explicitly communicating this benefit in practical terms during instruction.”  [13]

The value of diversity

A diversity of opinion and background challenges the curse of knowledge. It makes us more aware of our own particular standpoint and can make us step outside it to be more clearly understood. In this way, diversity helps to generate non-routine or new approaches, avoiding group think (the curse of knowledge at group level?).

This is one potential advantage of the trend towards recruiting  outside the MLS, looking for different backgrounds in education, community knowledge, technology, legal, disciplinary knowledge, data management, languages, and so on.

However, it also highlights the centrality of diversity to library services, values and identity. The library is a community service, whose value depends on real connections to the community it serves – whether that community is a college or a neighborhood. Users, and, importantly, potential users, of the library should feel understood and recognized by library people and the service they provide. This in turn means that the library needs to work to understand the experiences and expectations of their communities. This can be a challenge, and is one reason why diversity of library people is so important.

This is a much bigger topic than this blog post is addressing. However, as noted above, diversity within the library challenges the curse of knowledge. And the diversity of library communities demands that the curse of knowledge be challenged.

In this context, I liked this comment by Isabel Gonzalez-Smith “Diversity matters because we all play a part in the messages we disseminate, regardless of how we identify.” She goes on to ask:  “What is the message that our collections, library staff representation, research, or programming gives to the communities we serve?”

Deliberately raising awareness here is important. For this reason, it is sensible to see dedicated recommendations about recruitment, education and retention called out in the recent Final Report of the ALA Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. [pdf]

Finally, libraries are also working hard to challenge the curse of knowledge among library users, who may have routine or outdated views of the library. I was interested in the connection made by Pho and Masland between stereotypes and diversity.

Changing user perceptions about librarians is a long process and isn’t solved with any quick answers. But having a diverse library workforce helps create an environment that is potentially more comfortable for a diverse community of patrons. The workforce shapes the leadership of the library, helps build a culture of inclusion, and educates our students on library research.

The library in the life of the user

Recently, I have been characterizing a major shift in libraries as a shift from thinking about the user in the life of the library to thinking about the library in the life of the user.

The former model involves thinking in terms of our collections, our systems, our buildings. The latter involves thinking more clearly about the communities we serve, and their changing needs. About how we get into the flow of users’ research and learning. It also means communicating value in terms which are readily understandable in the context of the problems our users and host institutions want to solve. It means solving university or community problems.

Overcoming habitual ways of thinking, professional jargon, and other elements of the curse of knowledge are an important part of this.

Note: updated, 6/19/2016

Picture: I took the feature picture in the City Hall at Buffalo. Marble carving on the wall. I am reminded of the salmon of knowledge.

Note: This entry has been cosmetically amended on 27 March 2021 to include feature picture and headings, and to adjust spacing.

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