Multiple Intelligence – Part I

I’m a firm believer in the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In part, it comes from my father, who spent his life as an educator; in particular, he specialized in the history and philosophy of education. But my own experiences bear out the general truth of it – different people are intelligent in different ways. The world can make perfect sense to one person in a way that makes no sense at all to someone else. This doesn’t make either person wrong, and it doesn’t mean that either sense of things is invalid. Our traditional understanding of intelligence recognizes only a very narrow scope of potential human intelligence that has been historically valued by one particular culture.

This fact lies at the heart of almost everything I’ve ever done. I’ve worked an incredible variety of jobs in my life and all of them required some understanding of how other people (co-workers, customers, etc.) see the world.

As a librarian, I’m especially aware of this reality. Our job is to help people access and use information. Success in this endeavor is entirely dependent on being able to relate information to an individual’s personal paradigm – or, in some cases, helping someone to open their mind to other paradigms entirely.

This is Part One of my project to explore different examples of multiple intelligence that I’ve encountered and how these incidences affected my approach to everything from customer service to working with colleagues.


One day, for a project in grad school, I sat in at the reference desk at my local library branch. A lady came into the library to get a book. She knew exactly which book she wanted and went right to the shelf to get it. While she was in the stacks, she had a brainstorm and decided to browse for titles in a related subject. Being related, she assumed that these titles would be shelved near the book she’d originally come in to get. But as she browsed the shelves in that area, she didn’t see any of the sorts of titles that she was looking for. She went to the catalog and did a subject search – and the titles that came up in the results weren’t the sort of books she wanted.

It was at this point that she came to the reference desk for help.

The problem was simply this: the way she subject cataloged in her head didn’t match the way this library did it. Moreover, the way she envisioned the relationships between subjects didn’t match the subject relationships established by the Library of Congress. It’s not that she was wrong or mistaken – her internal system made perfect sense (indeed, you could organize a library according to her personal schema and it would work just fine), it just didn’t match the organizational system of the library.

My job was to figure out the way her brain worked, how things made sense to her, and map that onto the library’s schema so we could locate the titles she really wanted. It was only by accepting the validity of her sense of things, and respecting the value of it without trying to impose my more traditional library-informed sensibility, that I was able to connect her to the information she wanted.

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