A new normal – renaissance of the public library

“A new normal – renaissance of the public library.” Stelline Conference, Milan, Italy. Online.

Abstract: Librarians and the libraries they build and maintain must step up to save our communities.

Speech Text: See below

Script for the talk (typos and all):

Greetings all. First let me apologize that I am not in there in person. I can promise you that I am on the losing side of this equation.

Of course, we have become increasing used to this story. Projects started, moving online, slowly trying to regain normalcy and then back online. It seems all of our lives have become a series of waves, variants, and social distancing. Even as we look for the positives that have come out of the pandemic such as accelerated digitization of services and a shift in the work of librarians from maintaining spaces to content creation and community outreach, we must also acknowledge 4 million dead worldwide.

And it isn’t just the pandemic that is weighing upon us. COVID has certainly been a dramatic crisis, but we are also coming to terms with climate change. The world from Australia to Greece to the United State seems to be on fire or drowning in floods. Good lord I had to cancel a talk in the Canary Islands due to a volcano erupting and sending streams of lava across the land.

Add these acts of nature seem to parallel the disruption we see in our politics. Increasing polarization on issues of immigration, national borders, free trade and even public health are rekindling fears and demonstrations we haven’t seen in decades. All around us we see approaches to governance we thought left in the past. Insurrections in my own country and the rise of authoritarian leaders have shaken a belief that we were on a trajectory to sustained democratic and international unity.

It is all scarry and, frankly, overwhelming. It is no wonder that many of us feel fragile. Before any talk of a new normal, let us simply take a moment to recognize our struggles. Let us remind ourselves that our feelings of isolation and even dread are normal and real. Let us remind ourselves that vaccines alone will not erase the effects of the pandemic. That it will take time simply to feel hopeful. Let us recognize that gathering together – simply being I a room with a crowd is a hopeful act, a sign of confidence, but also unnerving for many.

Not, I admit, the most upbeat way to start a discussion of libraries leading in the new normal. These types of talks are supposed to begin with a call to action, and a sort of declaration of libraries as invaluable pieces of social infrastructure that will help pull our communities out of the depths of crisis. A call normally combined with an appeal to the virtuous nature of librarians and our seemingly innate desire to do good.

But we must acknowledge our own struggles. We must understand that our libraries are products and reflections of the communities we serve…the good, certainly, but also the bad. That is why it is so important to gather here today – in person and online. We are crossing borders to work together, to learn together. We must take this opportunity to see ourselves through the eyes of our neighbors. We must see how they are connecting and succeeding and struggling so that we can get better and stronger, and ultimately in a position to better serve – and I might say save – our own citizens.

We talk about a renaissance in public libraries and it’s true. We are building great new architectural pieces. In places like Oslo and Helsinki, the main library has become a new cathedral. It serves a community beyond the resources surrounded by walls. It is a statement about the opportunities of a city. It is an invitation for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Across the globe we see libraries shake off an image of sanctuary and repository for piazza and third place. In this pandemic we have seen libraries move from closed buildings to organizations holding a community together. Librarians have shifted from caretaking a collection to truly caretaking the community itself. In Toronto librarians called the elderly to ensure their well-being and provide a human connection. In the Netherlands librarians used bikes to deliver materials, and connection. In Germany and Italy, we saw librarians create online content and events that attracted hundreds of people locked down in their homes.

With vaccination we are once again opening up our physical doors. With this shift will come the inevitable discussions of visitors to our buildings and attempting to recover our budgets. But if all we achieve is greater funding and more people through the door, we have failed. Let me be clear. Libraries were not created to spend money or create traffic. That’s the job of shops and corporations. We were created to improve lives, ensure smarter communities prepared to govern themselves, and ultimately to help our neighbors find meaning.

The budgets and the traffic will come back, but only if we prove our value in service. And the greatest service we can provide now, in this time of seemingly unrelenting crisis and disruption, is the preservation of democratic ideals.

This is so much more than voting. This is creating an informed population. This is about creating and instilling trust between neighbors. This is about bringing together conflicting ideologies in a safe civic space to seek agreement and a way forward. This is about countering conspiracy and disinformation with knowledge.

This will take more than access to materials. It will take the newest core skill of a librarians: facilitation. Facilitation is the process of coming to agreement and sharing new perspectives. Studies have shown how believers of a false conspiracy will actually increase their mistaken belief when confronted with evidence. The key is in that word, confrontation. Our job as librarians is not to confront the public or worse simply ignore conspiracies and assume that good information will win out. No. Our job is to build a relationship and trust with all aspects of the community, and use that trust to change minds and seek agreement. That is hard work. That is work that takes years and goes well beyond printing a poster or starting a book club.

But – and I can’t stress this enough – libraries are one of the few civic institutions that can do this work across all aspects of a community. We can weave together improved education of the youth, with the training and research of the university, with the outreach of the non-profit, with the work of industry, with the policies of the government, with the experience of the retired to create a new fabric of society.

This is a grand view I admit. This is a large responsibility to put on librarians shaken by a pandemic. But these days of massive challenges – climate, health, political polarization – call out for grand views. And I ask you, is it any grander than ideas like preserving the cultural heritage of a nation? Is it any grander than spreading digital literacy to rural and urban populations alike?

Can we do this quickly, particularly when acknowledging that we are imperfect agents of change. Can we change the world when too often we can’t change our own organizations? I say yes. Because our organizations are simply platforms for and built by imperfect people. And by supporting each other, and being transparent in our work, we can not only work toward a brighter and more hopeful future, but become role models in taking on the hard work of improving ourselves.

So, what is our agenda moving forward? We must be advocates not only for our communities, but with our communities. We must fight for universal broadband and the digital literacies that go with that. We must expand democratic participation within our communities. We must ensure the health and well-being of our communities, not by becoming therapists, but by connecting public and mental health professionals to those in need. We must be loud voices helping to shape a technological landscape that increasingly relies on opaque algorithms to determine what people see online, and treats neighbors as data generators to be monetized.

It is through thinking big and beyond our own conditions that we can find a way back to a more hopeful society. It is in big inclusive ideas that we can forge a path forward. It is in being a part of building a new normal that we can begin to heal and return to our mission of strengthening our communities.

Thank you.