A Final Message for the Newcomer Project

The Newcomer Project, an EU funded effort to bring together librarians across borders to discuss support of community and particularly older adults, had its last meeting. I was unable to join in person, and so prepared these remarks. Text of the speech is below the video.

Video Script:

I’m just going to say it. I’m jealous.

For me this will be the project that could have been.

When we started, I wasn’t going to be an occasional video or Zoom, but be there, in person, becoming part of a community of librarians dedicated to their communities and their profession across borders. I’m jealous because that is exactly what I see there now. Every one part of that community.

Through our rough start in lockdowns, and the move to Zoom, and then the trips and dinners and meetings, you have built a new community. One that I don’t think will stop after this meeting.

We have seen examples of great librarianship. Been challenged with new ideas, and found common ground. But more important, we have seen the value of what we don’t hold in common and how that is the strength of diversity.

For too long our profession has been focused on replication and adoption. Under the name of best practice or toolkit, for too long folks have seen libraries as variations on a theme. For too long through the 21st century we have fought about what is the ideal blueprint of a library. Associations, standards committees, and yes library scholars, have looked to be efficient and universal.

This quest for universality has had unexpected and often negative effects. Far from finding one library to serve all, we have seen attempts at standardized libraries leading to a disconnect from those we seek to serve. We have created book palaces with specialized terminology that acts as a barrier to partnerships with other organizations. We have moved from an aspiration of the people to learn and improve and govern, to a service for the people focused not on need, but on those in the public that seek us out.

To be clear, I say this has hampered the mission of public libraries around the world, but hardly prevented amazing efforts around literacy and providing a valuable social safety net. But, let’s be honest – we strive for so much more.

In a profession that sees our mission as reaching out to all parts of a community and providing high quality information and literacy, of welcoming newcomers and long-standing citizens, in fighting disinformation and equipping a democratic state to govern itself, can we truly say that the world today is as we would plan it? Is it success when we see growing wealth disparities, a rise of authoritarianism, war, focused bot networks meant to divide a populace, a rise of technological determinism that believes poverty can be solved with an app, and declining education attainment as success of the public library system?

I know, I know. We can hardly lay the blame of all of societies woes at the feet of the public library. Those in this very room have plenty of real stories to tell of facing these problems.

No, I’m not asking you to either take the blame or solve everything. Why I bring up this disconnect between the ideal that pushes us forward, and the shape of our communities, is that one thing has become clear. The power of change, the power to face these issues is VERY local.

Great schools are needed for education, yes. But education flourishes when the parent, and the neighbor, and the local restaurant owner, all value education and create a culture of success. The successful integration of the refuge is not accomplished through national quotas, nor a border policy, but by a welcoming community that includes a welcoming library that says it is open for all, accessible for all, and dedicated to the success of all.

We have seen throughout this project what works, and it is always about people. People drive multilingual collections. People drive open events, language tutoring, linkage to jobs and social services. People. Librarians and business people, and legislators, and homemakers. And that action happens in a place and a time.

This is the foundation of our commitment – our new covenant with our communities. We are here, and we are a part of you. The library is not a service for you – it is you. We will strive to look like you. We will strive to not only meet the needs of this town, but be a foundation for its aspirations and dreams.

On to this local foundation we add the work started here. We come together across boundaries. And here is how we need to be different than we were before. When we librarians come together, we don’t do so in a policy environment that seeks to normalize things between our two diverse communities. We don’t create common standards that seek the common denominator. Instead, we come as curious and creative colleagues.

We, the librarians and library staff, we connect and serve as the commonality. Then we take this common professional vision, and we seek new ideas for our communities, all while sharing our successes and failures. As a curious professional we constantly ask if a new idea or program will fit the unique world of the local publics we serve. And then we seek to adapt – not just adopt, but change to meet the unique local situation.

Our networks, our associations, our meetings, our cross- border projects become peer to peer networks. They become focused not on building standards, or finding single solutions, but they are peer learning networks. We come together to build a playground of ideas and opportunities. We fill this playground with stories. And then we take these stories and these ideas and we invite our local neighbors to play and share as well.

And this diversity in the profession that makes these amazing playgrounds of public service act as beacons attracting in business, and government, and not for profits, and philanthropists and architects to play as well. We welcome in these folks and invite them to share as well, and to live up to the values of our field.

We demonstrate in the most striking way that by promoting intellectual freedom, intellectual honesty, diversity, and openness all parts of a society can work together to heal our nations. That we can all do both good and do well.

And I know we can do it.

In the face of absolute horrors through the last century libraries survived. Libraries preserved cultural heritage through bombings and extremism. Librarians marshalled their skills to support allies. Librarians supported science and a massive expansion of literacy and technological achievement. And to do all of this, libraries changed to meet the moment. We went from bastions of the elites to home for all. We transformed the collection of literature from a questionable use of resources to the heart of our mission in literacy. We become access points with the emergence of the internet. With the fall of empires the public library for the masses was born.

I know this sounds grand, but what I have seen in you and this project and in the world you are building, I see grand plans. But grand plans not for a universal library, but for a local institution dedicated to a better society, that links to other institutions across borders dedicated to a better society. There is not one future for libraries, instead there are as many futures as there are libraries. And that is exciting.

I leave you with a musical metaphor, as music has played a part in our meetings. As Semisonic said in Closing Time, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” We are at the end of Newcomer, but let us make this a new beginning for a more connected profession. A more empathetic and diverse profession. Let us make this the next step to our better society starting at home, but forged in partners with peers.

I think you for letting me, even in a limited way, be a part of the new beginning.

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