A Manifesto for Global Librarianship

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“A Manifesto for Global Librarianship” Next Library Conference. Berlin, Germany. (via video conference)

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Abstract: It is a time for thinking boldly about our profession, the role we play in society, and how we advance an agenda of smarter and more meaningful communities. Librarians must play a crucial role in their communities not as neutral providers of access to materials, but as advocates for the towns, universities, and communities we serve. We must connect to each other in new ways. We must fight for diversity, rationality, and against a society that increasingly preferences data and algorithms over people.

A Manifesto for Global Librarianship

[This is the script I used for my talk.]

Greetings from the University of South Carolina. I apologize that I cannot be there in person, but know that cancer and a bone marrow transplant is about the only thing that could keep me.

Today, I would like to talk about the new reality that we, librarians, find ourselves in. A new reality created by trends in national and international politics that has seen the rise of nationalism in response to globalization. A new reality created by mass migrations brought on by war, poverty, violence, and climate change. A new reality brought on by longer lifespans, a greater concentration of wealth, technological advancement, and, finally, a new reality in understanding the role of learning and information in people’s lives.

To be clear, this is not an argument that Facebook and Twitter have changed humanity, or that libraries need to be online, or build makerspaces. This is a recognition that the reason librarianship has existed in one form or another for 4 millennia is because it has changed to implement long held principles in changing realities of those that the library served just like today. It is also a belief that we live in extraordinary times with an extraordinary opportunity for having a positive effect in our communities, be those communities centered in townships, colleges, schools, governments, or companies.

I also want to be clear, that while I am calling for librarians to shape their services and institutions to the needs and trends of communities, I am not saying that librarianship is about simply accommodating what is. Rather I am saying that librarians must be constant advocates for what should be, taking into account what is. For example, as nationalism and isolationism seek to build walls between neighbors, the values of diversity and learning, core to librarianship, must constantly seek to break these walls down. Be they walls of policy, pay walls, or attitudes of ignorance that seek divide people based on their national origin, race, or religion. Even as nations seek to stem the flow of refugees through fear and family separation, librarians must be in the resettlement camps, and building services for new citizens while educating our communities on the benefits of diversity and immigration.

In order to do our work, we must acknowledge some important changes in how we think about our field. The first is that we must recognize that librarians are not neutral, that the institutions we build and run on the behalf of our communities are therefore not neutral, and that in order to meet our highest calling, we must go beyond simple concepts of access. Let me take these briefly in turn.

Librarians are not neutral. Librarians are not neutral, because human beings are not neutral. We are the sum of our experiences – where we were raised, who we interacted with, where we went to school, etc. Further, as a profession, we hold principles, values that we seek to use to shape our work. As librarians we believe the best decisions are made from the richest possible sources. This underlies calls against censorship, a call for intellectual freedom and such. A call against censorship is not a neutral position. A call for access for all, is not neutral. We, as librarians, take a stand. Simply acknowledging that you believe communities are better with libraries is a non-neutral position. Do you believe a more literate community governs itself better? That’s not neutral. Do you believe that pooling community resources to increase access to books and materials is good? That’s a bias.

I am here to tell you, that’s not only OK, that’s vital to the future of our profession. Librarians taking a stand on issues educational, social, and yes even political is vital for the future of our field, because it is about helping to create a future for the communities we serve.

I am also here to tell you, it has always been the case. But for too long we have hidden this reality behind the cloak of our institutions. We put forth policy documents, we set up rules, and committees, and only tell people what the “library” does. The library does nothing. The library is simply a container for the work, reputation, and collective impact of the librarians, staff, and community. The advent of the internet, and the ability to serve communities without massive physical collections has thrust the role of the librarian to the forefront. Anyone can search Google, or browse Wikipedia, but the library is one of the few places all people can go to interact with professionals. It is not enough to say that libraries are more than just books. Libraries are places where a corpse of professionals dedicated to the improvement of a community do their work with that community. We advocate for the community, we support that community, and ultimately, we assist in community members becoming their own activists for positive change. We make communities smarter, and the lives of community members more meaningful.

Next point, the institutions we build are not neutral either. Libraries exist in a real world. This is a great point that Emily DRABINSKI made in a recent President’s program at ALA MidWInter. On what shelf we put a book, on what hour we unlock the front doors, in what services we spend our time, in what neighborhoods we build buildings we are not neutral. All of these are affirmative decisions that have impacts. If you spend money teaching language classes to new citizens, that is money not available for pleasure reading materials. If you close your doors at 5 in the afternoon, that has an impact on people who work during the day. Librarians exist in a world of finite resources, so people, you, have to make decisions. And decisions are never neutral. They may be rooted in a process or set of data, but don’t confuse evidence based, with neutral.

So, my third point, in order to do our jobs as librarians, we must go well beyond simple concepts of access. To make this point I have to answer what exactly is “our job.” For me that answer is that the mission of a librarian is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in your community. Or put even more simply, you make the community a better place by helping community members learn.

The idea that the good of libraries comes from providing access to a collection is simplistic at best. Study after study after study shows us that simply providing access to materials is insufficient for impact.

In the United States there is a story, probably apocryphal, of a state law that would have redirected library funding to buy books for the homes of low income children. The proposed law was based on a study that children with more books in the home, did better in literacy tests. The legislation failed to understand that homes with books in them were tied to parents who valued reading, and probably as important, could afford the books, and probably better schooling and tutoring. Access to materials – books, online journals, the internet, movies – is important, but it is insufficient. For books or any other tools to do any good people have to be able to read. Furthermore, they have to feel safe and have a life where reading is of value.

In the United States some public libraries provide access to health care, including mental health services to the homeless. Some cities train librarians to deal with opioid addiction. Librarians choose to provide these services because they know one does not learn when one does not feel safe – physically, socially, or psychologically safe. Why offer classes in internet basics or makerspaces or even good old bibliographic instruction? Because we know that having a resource is useless unless you can get to that resource. Why do we build beautiful buildings? Because we know that working in a space, and being inspired by a space, are two different things. A library is a mandated facilitated space maintained by the community, stewarded by librarians, and dedicated to knowledge. And to be clear, knowledge is not a book, or a thing. Knowledge only exists in the mind. So, if we are in the knowledge business, we are in the people business first. The tools we use to facilitate learning have changed – from tablets to etched wood blocks to scrolls to chained manuscripts to books to computers – and will continue to change – to 3D printers to augmented reality to hosted dialogs among experts – but our mission remains the same.

And here is where these three ideas come together – librarians are not neutral, nor the institutions they maintain, and access is not enough. Librarians help communities get smarter and help community members find meaning in their lives. They do so through access to tools like books, but also in training, and providing safe and inspiring spaces. When librarians do this work, they make choices – who determines smarter? Who determines meaningful? And in doing so they are not neutral but advocates in a word characterized by change and inequity.

And so now we come to another important fact beautifully represented by this gathering of librarians from across the globe. If librarians are looking to forward their mission of smarter communities, we must model how such work requires a global approach. If we are going to counter xenophobia and nationalism, we as librarians must look to connect across borders. If we librarians are seeking to help our community members adapt to rapid technological change, a coarsening of online rhetoric, and a decline in interest in the public good, then we too must throw aside outmoded concepts of professional development, set the standard for frank, but inclusive dialog, and actively advocate for the public good.

As librarians for the past century we have built Daedalus’ maze. We have built a dizzying and confusing system of local, regional, national, and international associations that deliberate points past consensus, to unanimity of opinion over long periods. We have insisted on developing and standardizing best practices that rewards institutions wary of change to wait it out. We have sought to represent the interests of institutions called libraries over the interests, including the labor interests, or librarians. Over the 20th century and now well into the 21st, we have defined libraries as interconnected institutions and thought of connecting librarians at all levels of the organization as secondary. It is time for that to change.

The future of our profession will not be determined in council or by a federation’s declaration. It will be determined by a network of librarians and allies interconnected around a common pursuit to define and embed the necessary skills, values, and structures needed to advance the interests of our communities and ourselves. The future of the profession is in a global knowledge school of thought. A school of thought, not a network, or a committee, or association.

A school of thought like the Chicago School of Architecture that emerged in the late 1800s. After a great fire destroyed much of downtown Chicago in 1871. Architects and passionate citizens committed to bringing the city back converged on the Midwest city to rebuild. But they adopted the newest technology – steel construction and electric elevators – to rebuild. Steel workers, engineers, architects, community leaders, and the business community came together to reimagine the urban experience. Modernism emerged out of new materials. Phones and electric elevators allowed companies to concentrate workforces in the new skyscrapers that soared into the air. New infrastructure allowed urban philosophers to re-imagine how business worked and began the world’s largest migration of humanity from the rural countryside into urban centers– a migration that is still in full swing today.

This Chicago school as not a place or a formal institution, but a shared will and a place of dialog. That is what we need now, a Knowledge School where German librarians can interact with scholars from India, and philanthropists from Washington, and artists in the Netherlands, and consultants in Uganda to constantly reimagine how we fulfill our mission. Rather than wait for a country’s libraries to embrace a new librarianship we must network innovative librarians together to enact change – a sort of coalition of the willing. Library education needs to move beyond a single college degree to an ongoing peer mentoring service that seeks to experiment, document, and then disseminate results.

It is time for librarians to leave the safety of our stacks and hit the street. On the street with our books and our wireless hubs, we must educate the masses, and energize them into dialog, and action to advocate for better decisions. We must match every Smart City proposal with a Smart Citizen proposal that sees our communities not simply generators of data, but as people worthy of investment and endowed with rights and value. We must, you and I must define a new librarianship, a more proactive and muscular librarianship that no longer waits for the privileged to use us. Rather we must seek out all factions of the community, and actively bring them together in a safe space to seek consensus on a better tomorrow. A better tomorrow based in knowledge and rationalism and kindness for all.

Thank you.

4 responses on “A Manifesto for Global Librarianship

  1. cinzia iossa

    I was moved while reading the Manifesto. It is what I have always been dreaming. I share deeply all and I want to be part of this Knowledge School. I am ready, David!
    Just want you to know that last week I gave to the new administration my proposal to rebuilt the italian system of school libraries. As a result of last October 23th conference in Rome here in Ministry of Education, where you gave your key note. Thank you always.

  2. Gabriel Justino

    Aqui no Brasil nossas bibliotecas e nossa profissão são relegados ao descaso, vide o exemplo de nosso Museu Nacional que acabou em cinzas. Alguns colegas e eu tomamos a iniciativa de debater como mudar essa visão que nossa sociedade tem a respeito disso e lendo o seu manifesto, tive a certeza que estamos indo pelo caminho correto de transformar a biblioteconomia e os bibliotecários a ajudar a sociedade.

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