Greetings, and thank you for having me. I would like to thank Dr. Prado in particular, not only for the invitation, but also for being such a great collaborator over the years.
I see that the theme for today is “Libraries for a better world.” I have to tell you that after the past year, I could certainly use a better world right now. After this past year, a world without COVID would be nice. Without the isolation of the pandemic, without the loss, and the fear would be nice. A better world where public health is not intertwined with political ideologies. Where a mask is not a statement.
A better world where we don’t pit the economy against the environment and where the color of your skin or the place of your birth does not determine your future.
On January 22nd Publisher’s Weekly published on OpEd of mine in their Soapbox. It was based on a longer piece I wrote on Facebook. Here is the longer version.
On January 6th insurrectionists invade the Capital in Washington DC to attempt to subvert the will of the American people by attempting to overturn the presidential election. They did so after a morning, and indeed, months of instigation founded on misinformation, false grievance, and a climate that increasingly defines politics as a pursuit of power over the judicious use of power at the behest of the people.
It has taken me several days to begin to make sense of this, to get over my anger, and to affirm for myself a way forward. For me, as an information scientist; as a director of an academic program that prepares librarians and information professionals; as an author and speaker, the way forward is clear: we must rebuild the civic and educational structures that bring communities together.
This is not a shocking conclusion. One could even rightly say it is a self-serving one. After all, as a scholar, educator, and author I am invested in the success of these institutions. However, I am invested because I continue to see their value and positive transformational potential.
I am invested because I have seen when libraries break out of the artificial bounds of collections and neutrality, they become instruments of community cohesion. I have seen libraries host difficult conversations on race. I have seen libraries bring together a people on issues of immigration. I have seen libraries fight for the poor, and the incarcerated, and the all too forgotten in attempts to remove the alien nature of neighbors. From drag queen story hours, to human libraries, to simply providing a collection that captures the value and richness of the human experience, our public libraries must continue to weave together a fragmented social fabric one person, one neighborhood, one nation at a time.
I am invested because I have not only seen for myself, but read study after study on the power school librarians in the education of our youth. I have seen dedicated educators in out school’s largest and most inclusive classrooms, school libraries, make a safe space for the marginalized. I have seen school librarians go beyond the limits of testing to engage children in true inquiry and spark the passion for learning. I have seen school libraries with books and makerspaces, and hydroponic gardens, and talent shows, and whole programs give students status and meaning in an education system all too often focused on outcomes and curricular standards. And I have seen school librarians from the cities and the states again and again and again sound the alarm that literacy in this era must be more than reading and arithmetic but understanding and the ability to interrogate messages and claims in the media, on the net, and in the very conversations we have as a nation. Alas, I have also too often seen these heroes and their programs cut based on the false premise that the only learning that occurs in a school is tied to a textbook.
I am invested because I have seen academic libraries and archivists not simply preserve our cultural heritage, but make it accessible and meaningful to their universities, and the world at large. I have seen stewards of the record of our history, with a degree, or without, force us all to honestly acknowledge a past of racism, bigotry, exclusion, and authoritarianism that does not simply inform our present, but is part of our present mechanisms of systemic racism and political ideologies. I have seen medical librarians ensure that today’s front-line health workers are prepared to face the savage reality of COVID and the savage reality of non-critical thinkers that dismiss science for adherence to political messaging. I have seen academic librarians dedicate themselves to prepare college students of this nation to do actual research, embracing Google and social media, but also the scholarly record, and the foment of investigation.
I am invested because I have seen the power of the information professional, the IT worker, the social media strategist, the data scientist when they are prepared with the ethical skills to complement their technical ones. I have seen the IT manager and the business process analysts ensure that we never see our fellow citizens as simply consumers or dopamine triggered users, but rather as human beings. Human beings that at their core seek safety and certainty and meaning in their lives – and when an unjust society deprives them of means of engaging in the democracy and the economy, they have no choice but to turn to demagogues who mask narcissism in patriotism, and self-interest in twisted visions of greatness.
The future of this nation is not the sole property of a political party. The future of this nation is in the capabilities and education of its citizens. Again and again and again we see that when “enemies” come together in honest and civil conversations – when they are exposed to “the other”- they find commonality. It is too easy to hate through a screen, particularly when the person on the other end may not be a person at all.
My own work seeks to better understand the role of librarians in society. As part of that I have come to the conclusion that there is no neutrality in the work of information. All views are not equal, all visions for the future are not the same nor must they presented in an unbiased or equal fashion. A vision of the future where elections are overturned by the group most willing to tear down social norms and resort to violence is not as valid as a future where righteous protest over inequity are protected. A future where profit drives national narratives and is preferred over community forums of civic engagement is not the right future. A future where libraries and schools are restricted to providing only a prepackaged version of “objective belief,” must be rejected. In its place we must all embrace and prepare for a complex world where human desire for meaning must temper a baser desire for power and exclusion.
I am invested in the success of libraries, and schools, and academia because I believe they are the essential social infrastructure to move us past the dark actions of January 6th. I ask that we all invest in them and ensure our voices are heard and our democracy strengthened. I am not asking us all to magically agree, but to agree that it is through debate and seeking fair and equitable mechanisms (elections, governance, education) that we will be great. And I am asking us all to acknowledge that we are not there yet. I am asking us to invest not in a person or a party, but in our neighbors whatever their color, or whoever they love, or however they identify themselves.
I also acknowledge that I am making this request from a place of privilege and economic stability. I am making this request on lands taken from indigenous people, and I am asking for peaceful revision to a system that all too often used violent means to suppress people of color.
This country was founded with the following words:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
These words were a mission, not a statement of fact. It was the starting point…we did not form a perfect Union, we formed a government to seek one out. We, as a nation, a colonizing power, a slave owning nation, an imperfect collection of very fallible human beings, put in writing not some statement of success, but of aspiration. An aspiration that we MUST continue today. WE ARE NOT A PERFECT UNION. We will never be a perfect union because the definition of such a thing will change with the advent of new understandings of physics that can enlighten or build bombs; with new medical capabilities that both save lives and bankrupt those unable to pay for them; with new understandings of sexuality and gender that can both liberate and evoke fearful condemnation; and, yes, with new technology that can connect mankind and allow the worst of our human nature to seek out its peers.
I am invested in seeking out a more perfect union, and believe such a pursuit begins with equitable education, information, and conversation.
Each week The Skillset Podcast will feature conversations with librarians and other key players in the information world seeking to illuminate the complex issues facing libraries and other institutions in these unprecedented times. New episodes will post on Fridays and will be featured in Publishers Weekly’s Preview for Librarians e-newsletter
“This podcast began with a problem,” says podcast co-host R. David Lankes. “Here at the University of South Carolina School of Information Science we had just added a course on Community Engagement and Service to the core of our library science degree. And suddenly, in 2020, with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and a long overdue racial and social justice awakening, everything we thought we knew about the subject went out the window. These massive disruptions have shaken the library world to its core. Libraries have long rested on their virtue, and their connection to the community. And suddenly, libraries were separated from their communities as their physical buildings were forced to close. And as a profession, librarians are finally committing to addressing their own issues, including the legacy of systemic racism, vocational awe, and the safety and well-being of our workers.”
Season One of The Skillset Podcast will focus on libraries in the wake of protests and the pandemic, and will feature conversations with an array of library directors, activists, and educators exploring how libraries are changing to meet the needs of their communities amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement for social and racial justice. And each season will be aligned with the academic semester, giving listeners an opportunity to explore the issues and themes being addressed by library science students today.
“This podcast is an amazing opportunity for us to continue building those bridges between theory and practice,” says co-host Nicole A. Cooke. “It is an opportunity for us to connect with library professionals who are actually ‘walking the walk’ and using their expertise to educate our students about the true meaning of community literacy, and to expose new ideas and practices to a wider audience.”
Greetings and thank you for giving me time to talk about the importance of library and place at this unique point in time and moving forward. I have had the good fortune to observe and speak with librarians around the globe, including in Scotland, and see a very bright future ahead for public libraries if we invest now. Libraries have been and will continue to be vital social infrastructure for communities. They provide safe physical and digital spaces for citizens to explore dangerous ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an intimidating prospect thinking about the role of public libraries over the next 5 years. The world is changing, it seems, minute by minute. How do we forecast 5 years ahead? Well, there is good news. It turns out that in this pandemic, the process of evolution in libraries over the past decade have served us well. Today we know the library as a platform, physical and virtual, that helps communities make smarter decisions, and to help citizens find meaning in their lives.
There is a lot I could talk about, and advocate for, around the next 5 years of Scottish public libraries, but for today, let me limit my comments to the library as a place. A place online and on the ground that is part of a community crafting a new normal post pandemic. I start with a sample of how world-class public libraries have begun creating a new normal in communities globally.
In the suburbs of Oslo a branch library acts as a community living room hosting live music and an annual comicon. Meanwhile downtown the new central library has just opened with half the books as the previous main library to make room for meeting rooms, theaters, maker spaces and lecture halls to host community conversations. The role of library as convenors and facilitators of vital conversations comes from the fact that in Norway, as in Finland, the library law mandates public libraries support and promote conversations around democracy.
In Aarhus Denmark the central library has an enormous bell at its center that rings with the birth of every new child in the city. It is an auditory reminder that the library is connected to the citizens from the moment they are born. The librarians have such a strong relationship with their community that there are buildings they simply leave unlocked afterhours – allowing the community use of the library 24 hours a day. The library there is seen not as a place or a building, but as a movement where librarians work with local community organizations and businesses to advance the needs of the community.
Here in the states Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City have made public libraries the cornerstones of economic and urban revitalization plans.
In Charleston South Carolina the community is turning to the library to help lead the city in increasing diversity, addressing social justice issues, and facilitating a conversation on a more just and equitable future.
Before I go farther, there is a point I cannot overstate – though I will try – all of these places may have beautiful architecture, a fine collection of materials, but none of them would rate a mention without the people that staff them. Librarians, community organizers, volunteers, all are what make a library great.
If all you do in the next 5 years is install WiFi, and loos while adding a few dollars to the collection budget, it will be 5 years wasted. What Scotland needs is a network of connected professionals dedicated to not only serving local needs but connecting local expertise to national aspirations and impacts. We are in the middle of history. Yes, the pandemic, but also a point as a world of growing xenophobic nationalism, a growing wealth gap, racial awakening, and shifting international alliances. An inflection point where democracy being tested. Scotland deserves a public library service that tends to our damaged certainty in the world and one that will knit together a social fabric that uses the diverse brilliance of her citizens to lead the way to a better tomorrow.
That may seem like a tall order, but we know how to make it happen. First, I beg you, do not think of libraries as buildings or collections. Don’t even think of them as originations and institutions. Think of them as platforms.
In technological terms, a platform is a set of functions and systems that are not only integrated tightly together, but can be used to create new services. The internet, for example, is very much a platform. It dictates how data can be shipped around a network, and defines certain features like how much data can be funneled down wires, and how to find a given computer or phone. But on top of that infrastructure, all we think of and love – or hate – about the net is built by the community. Search, social media, video sharing, train ticketing are all services built by the internet community on top of the internet platform. If you get a platform right, you can never anticipate the future, but you make it easy for communities to innovate and meet their own needs.
Now think of the public library. It should be a platform that allows local communities to build a whole host of services and experiences – both digital and physical. From something very traditional like a book group that uses a collection and a physical meeting space; to supporting entrepreneurs with things like 3D printers for prototyping and video studios for marketing their inventions. The value of a library as a platform is not measured in things like books circulated, shelf space allocated, or gate counts, but in the success of the community it supports.
The library platform consists of spaces and online catalogs (which should absolutely be linked together) and services like training. Once again, given the limited time, let me focus on the physical aspects of the public library platform, particularly, as some may question the need for an investment in bricks and mortar in these days of Zoom calls and virtual conferences.
Right outside of Florence Italy is the town of Pistoia. As a bedroom community for a large city, it has grown, and eventually a picturesque renaissance city has become a modern suburb, with no central square or piazza to congregate in. To reconnect the cities residents the city built the San Georgio public library as the new piazza. It had a café, and a large indoor and outdoor space to gather. On the weekends the library sponsors 50 different programs from iron working, to movie discussions, to cooking demonstrations. These programs are not run by the librarians however. They are run by the true collection of any library: the community.
This is the new vital role for librarians: community management. Just as professional librarians maintain, organize, and advise on a collection of books – now they are organizing, advising and connecting the community together. Librarians ensure that people feel welcome in the space, but also challenged to learn and grow. Professional librarians facilitate learning of citizens and the community as a whole.
How librarians do this? By ensuring the library platform is responsive and is truly co-owned by the community. This can and should take very different forms that embrace what is unique about a local community.
The British Library, for example, realized that if the goal of the library in terms of supporting business, was to grow new business, it had to change its physical space. In place of stacks of business books and periodicals, it installed group workspaces. It provided a stage for speakers, and a social space for networking. It filled the space not with stuff, but with specially trained librarians with certifications in business development. It created a mentoring program. These services also extend beyond the physical space and continue even in the current pandemic online.
In Philadelphia a library wanting to support local music within the city sat down and asked musicians what they wanted in a library. The musicians didn’t say more music databases or loanable scores, but two grand pianos on a stage. Musicians seek to perform. While popular bands used the local pubs to network and play, there were no venues for those interested in classical and experimental music. Musicians wanted that venue to be the library.
The plan was to have musicians meet and collaborate and then perform original music at the library. The library then recorded the music and streamed it to the globe. Instead of going to the local library to hear the music of the world, the world could now come to a citizen’s local library to hear them. Libraries around the world are loaning out instruments, and then building recording studios to put the instruments to work. They are becoming publishers of the community sharing the talent of the local globally.
In other communities libraries are using their physical spaces to build community gardens. They are taking the harvests and building farmers markets where there were none, including in food desserts where inner city families don’t have ready access to healthy produce.
In rural areas librarians and the libraries they manage are loaning out fishing poles and working with town elders to create hyperlocal wifi hubs on walking trails to share the history of the region.
All over the globe library buildings are going from quiet buildings with a few loud rooms, to loud buildings with some quiet spaces to read. This isn’t instead of traditional missions in literacy, but to extend that mission. Children find joy and excitement in reading through shared story times. One library even started a yoga reading time for parents and their children. The library also had pop-up story times that weren’t scheduled, they just happened when a critical mass of kids were in the room. Rather than ask the community to conform to the schedule of the library, the library, as all libraries should, shaped itself to the community.
At my university we pack our undergraduate students and the school mascot into a bus and drive to the poorest schools in the state to do read alouds that show all children that reading is the path to a better life. In the Netherlands a maker bus drives from school to school bringing WiFi, 3d printers, laser etchers, and other technologies otherwise unavailable to the students.
The physical space of libraries also ensures the success of the digital. The ALMPub project out of Norway examined the role of physical cultural heritage institutions like libraries and museums in an increasingly digital age. They asked the question – do we still need the physical footprint as government and businesses alike are going all digital with their services. They examined citizen uses of public spaces in Norway, Germany, and as far as Hungry. What they found was that as so much of life, particularly public life, was digitized, people needed physical common spaces more. They needed a place not just for training and service, but to be a community. To be together.
You’ve no doubt felt this same need in these days of COVID. Stuck at home, interacting through screens, cut off from colleagues, we crave connection and time to simply be in the same place at the same time. Now imagine before or after the pandemic when it is not disease that keeps you away, but long hours at multiple jobs, or inadequate access to public transportation that leads to over long commutes, or simply no place to actually go. People don’t want to hang out at the police station, or the fire house, or city hall. What other civic institution is left that can serve all citizens regardless of their income, their race, their religion, or their age? And if you don’t see that place as a library, you expect far too little from your libraries.
Please understand that I am not advocating a laundry list of prescribed hardware, services and floor plans for every library in Scotland. I am proposing the exact opposite. Yoga story hours, music studios, and traveling makerspaces are not going to meet the needs of all communities. What you must do in this five year plan, is to set up what the platform is. Then, local needs and aspirations drive the services on top. Some services built by librarians, but an increasing number built by other community members.
The core of the library platform must be a shared mission. Local libraries are going to look and act very differently – they are going to look and act like the local community. It is the job of the librarians, with a shared mission, to gather the best ideas from across the country, and then contextualize and adapt them to local needs. And that shared mission? The mission of a librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Or put more simply – librarians and the libraries they build, make the world better by helping people learn.
How does that play out in real life? Well, take the horror that is this current pandemic. We know this virus has caused change, death and uncertainty throughout the globe. What are we doing to learn from it? Are our libraries gathering local stories, articles, oral histories? When I think about this challenge I think of Tilburg, a town in the Netherlands, that was once a thriving train town.
The citizens of Tilburg built and repaired trains for systems across Europe. Yet as manufacturing shifted to Asia, the train industry all but disappeared. Several years ago Tilburg’s economy was rebounding with a new emphasis on small business startups and education. They decided to turn an abandoned train maintenance warehouse into the new public library.
However, before they laid one new piece of steel, they had pop up events in the warehouse to try different layouts and different programs. They invited the community in. Around the warehouse they set up enormous touch screens with photos and videos showing the history of the train industry in the town. Retired rail workers would come in and tell librarians about where they worked and what they did. The librarians would guide these workers to the touch screens and help them record their story, adding to the history. The building, the place, became a memory palace that the community built and owned. Not just with their tax dollars, but with their life experience.
I will end my remarks today with one final story, and a bit of self-interest. A small community in New Zealand was building a new public library. It was in a neighborhood called Ironwood, named for the fact that 150 years earlier the trees of the region were cut down to run iron foundries. The community wanted to commemorate this past and so on a 3 story interior wall they placed stencils of trees. Then they built a scaffolding allowing the community to climb all three stories. On the scaffolding the library placed buckets of paint mixed with soil from the site. Community members would climb the scaffolding, dip their hands in the paint, and mark a handprint on the wall. When the library was complete the scaffolding and stencil come down and what was left was a mural of a forest made up of the hands of the community.
My family traces its roots back to the McDowalls of the lowlands and the reign of Kind David the first of Scotland. Some of the libraries you are building and planning are on the soil of my ancestors and nothing will make me prouder of my heritage than knowing that Scotland supports a thriving network of public libraries dedicated to learning, rooted deeply in the local community, and with a corps of professional librarians dedicated to healing a people and empowering citizens to dream.
Greetings Readers and users of the Atlas of New Librarianship, I need your thoughts. Next year is the 10th anniversary of its publishing. I’ve been talking with my editor at MIT Press and have a couple of options.
1. Ignore it. 2. Write a new foreword and perhaps a nice on the cover, or 3. Develop a second edition.
And here’s where I need your honest input.
A second edition would be a lot of work (it would have to be submitted by the end of the summer), but would it be useful, particularly with the New Librarianship Field Guide out there now? I know some of you use the Atlas for classes, so I am really interested in your opinion.
In August the University of South Carolina Columbia campus will welcome students back for the Fall semester. I will be there to welcome them. That is not an extraordinary sentence in most times, but, as we have all become sick of hearing, these are not most times.
You see, I have every reason not to be there. A new cancer diagnosis in 2017 led to a second bone marrow transplant in 2018. Two years may sound like a long time to recover, but unlike my first bone marrow transplant in 2014, this last one was a donor match and at this point in my recovery my oncologist estimates my immune system at about 25% of normal.
In early March when I asked him what would happen if I contracted the coronavirus his reply was succinct, “you would probably survive, but you would be very sick.” That was early days for this pandemic. His conclusion has not changed.
The university says I don’t have to be there. They have been clear that it is my choice to be on campus, just like it is the choice for students, staff, and faculty. I very much appreciate that choice. But, I will still be there.
The class I will be teaching is online. All of our graduate classes are, and our faculty teaching our undergraduate classes have plenty of experience teaching online. Looking at the teaching evaluations from this last semester, one might ask “what pandemic?” No scores were out of line with previous semesters. In the dozens of classes I looked at I found 4 mentions of moving online – and the only negative one was about how this student wished non-iSchool classes went as smoothly. My faculty doesn’t need me to help them in their classes. But I will still be there.
I love my job because of the people I work with. Staff and faculty left offices over spring break and haven’t been back since. However, not for one minute has the work of the school lagged or been derailed. GoToMeeting, emails, texts, and phone calls have demonstrated that my staff can do their work remotely and well. My staff doesn’t need me there to monitor them. But I will still be there.
I will be there wearing a mask. I will be there with hand sanitizer at the ready. I will wipe surfaces. I will stand 6 feet apart. I will be there because I am asking people I am responsible for to be there if they so choose. I will be there because I would never ask someone to do what I am unwilling to do.
This may seem like a lot of bluster for “so you’re going to do your job?” I get it. But the reason I write this is because we are at a very vulnerable point. A point of closing optimism.
I wrote on April 30 about a New Normal Agenda for Libraries in which I called upon all of us to help create an optimistic new normal for our communities. To ensure that a post-pandemic world was better than before – founded on correcting the fractures and disparities put on vivid display by this crisis: Truly bridging a digital divide where the internet is a utility for all. Working to reform a copyright system based on profit over knowledge creation. Expanding democratic participation, workforce preparation, and standing ready in times of crisis.
In literally the two weeks since I wrote that I have seen a rise of conspiracy theories and denying the very trauma we are living through. I have seen armed protestors defining liberty in the absence of personal and social responsibility. I have seen old political divisions intent on scoring points and raising poll numbers in the face of a generational wakeup call that screams for unity. I have seen times that try a world’s soul result not in calls for cooperation and equity, but in heated arguments on who can make who wear a God damned mask at Costco. Wear a God damned mask.
It has been a dark two weeks for me. And then I began to talk with librarians either opening their libraries or developing plans to do so. I have seen the Facebook posts and Tweets and petitions that libraries should just remain closed and there is no safe way to open. I get it. I would like to agree. To be clear I do agree that simply reopening libraries as they were in some sense of vocational awe or moral obligation is wrong. But that’s not what the librarians I have been talking to, watching, working with are doing. What these folks have shown me is that optimism without pragmatism is as empty as liberty without sacrifice. To get to that New Normal agenda, we have some hard and frankly frightening, and dangerous work to do. Not just in libraries or universities, but across the country.
The librarians I have been talking to are not only fully aware of the risks of opening, even for limited service, they are driven by it. The plans they have shared and put in place, often as a direct response to larger municipal and state mandates, are thoughtful, and, most importantly, collaboratively developed. They have been built on CDC guidelines. WHO guidelines. Guidance from universities. They have been reviewed, amended, and approved by unions, staff, and public health officials. They minimize contact between member and staff, between staff and staff, between staff and materials. They require social distancing, personal protective equipment, and security – like physical security for those who feel their right to infect others outweighs their responsibilities to wear a mask. They have circuit breaker provisions that close services and protect library workers in case of new outbreaks. They make provisions for high risk employees. And to a one, they include shared risk by all levels of an organization. All of them also continue to drive innovation and true community-centered virtual service that continues to demonstrate that libraries are about communities not just things we can loan out.
The reason I am writing this, sharing this, is because these conversations have shown me that my unique and privileged position requires me to be on the record. If those that I educate and collaborate with are required to state their position, then I am so obligated. Just as if I am going to support my university reopening the campus, I am obligated to risk my own health and be there (and work like hell to keep myself and everyone else healthy).
Here’s what we know. The virus is not going away. Sheltering at home flattened a curve and continuing evidence-based hygiene and social distancing precautions saves lives. We need massive, cheap, quick, and readily available testing now everywhere. Even when a vaccine is developed, it will have to overcome a number of obstacles, not the least of which is an anti-vaxxer movement that by all rights should simply disappear in the face of a global pandemic. We know that this pandemic and the resulting economic collapse has put our most vulnerable citizens, especially people of color and the poor at greatest risk. And we know that professionals dedicated to increasing societal knowledge and equity are vital not just online, but in the trenches. We also know that a second wave of infection is likely and we cannot be rash and undo the sacrifice of the past months.
But here’s what else I know. I know that the point of closing optimism must became the point of opening pragmatism or it became the moment of despair. I know that what frightens me more than the virus is a return to a nation divided, unresponsive to those in need, and all too often given to willful ignorance.
Some will criticize me for calling for a cautious reopening. I respect their opinion and continue to be open to conversation. If nothing else I hope this post shows my thinking and continued evolution on the topic. I know some may take these words as a sort of call for removing all restrictions or as a belief that everything is safe now – don’t. Such a reading is just dishonest at best. Let us all acknowledge the complexity of this situation and not be drawn into the trap of flattening narratives into right and wrong, good and bad, open and close. It was that thinking that got us here to begin with.
If you can stay home, for God’s sake stay home. If you have to go out to feed your family, to get medical treatment, to ensure our society still functions, please do so safely. If you don’t need that book, don’t do curbside pickup. If you learn well online, don’t come to campus. If you need to protest, wear a mask not a gun. But if you need a place to sleep or to get out of a dangerous home situation, or for your well-being you need to connect to people in md-August, I’ll be there to open the doors. If you need to connect to the internet to continue your education or keep your job or keep our government accountable, I’ll be there pushing for a new normal.
This week the scheduled Real Time sessions ended at librarian.SUPPORT. While it wasn’t intended to, the series of discussions and presentations really sparked some ideas for libraries moving forward. I suppose it was inevitable as we started with Matt Finch talking about scenario and foresight planning. On the Real Time session with Sari Feldman, Hallie Rich, and Galen Schuerlin we talked about advocacy and connecting to communities in a time of pandemic. As part of that we had a little discussion of the phrase “The New Normal.” It’s a phrase that’s right up there with “in trying times like these,” in the “speed to cliché.”
We were noting that it is almost always presented in a negative frame. That is the new normal is expressed as what we will lose – loss of jobs, loss of budget, loss of human contact, etc. But what if we looked at in the positive frame…what is it that we want to be normal after this pandemic? We all acknowledge that things are going to change, I feel an obligation and an urgency to shape that change.
What is our agenda as librarians and the libraries we run on behalf of our communities?
Before I list my proposed items for that agenda, I ask a favor: keep reading. I want to explain where these come from, but more importantly, why having an affirmative and proactive agenda for libraries is vital. This cannot be about trying to predict where things are going to shake out and then running to show our value in that world. It has to be about librarians fighting for social change based on our fundamental and enduring values. There is no doubt that the “how” of libraries will change. I feel now (prepare for another cliché) more than ever the “why cannot.”
I will also emphasize that this is an agenda for the impact libraries should seek collectively. That is, it is not an agenda for how we run or operate libraries (though there will be obvious impacts). This is an agenda for libraries to work toward for a new normal in our communities. How we get there (open access, improved working condition for library workers, new standards for library science education, etc.) is vital and important, but I feel separate.
As one example, we must lobby and work toward universal broadband. This comes from our enduring value of access to information. Yet the pandemic has shown us that the way libraries to this point have worked for universal access, that is by being internet points of connection with WiFi in our facilities or loaning out cellular hotspots is no longer enough. We have to leave our buildings and ensure real national resources and policy is in place so our provision of the internet in the library is completely irrelevant. A big change to how, but not to why.
So what do I see as an agenda for a New Normal that libraries must work toward?
Universal Broadband: Sheltering at home and closing schools and libraries has demonstrated that the internet must be a utility and available to all. The digital divide is wide, unjust, and the damage it is causing in this pandemic age is only highlighting the ongoing damage lack of access has caused for decades to rural and low income families and citizens. Some things to work toward:
Classify and regulate the internet as a utility
Build out rural access to broadband, including transforming libraries into Internet Service Providers
Remove data caps
Restore network neutrality
Workforce Development and Training: At no time in our history have so many people been out of work and the unemployment rate rivals the Great Depression. While we all hope that will change rapidly once lockdowns have been lifted (though that will take many months to complete) there is an acute need now to support people looking for jobs and re-skilling. Libraries must work with higher education, other government agencies, and the private sector to not only get people back to work, but help people find a place in a new knowledge economy.
Deploy adult education services like high school equivalency
Ensure certified school libraries in K-12 schools to ensure literacy skills needed for vocational education as well as college preparation
Team with higher education to support online learners in physical spaces
Provide single service access points to government workforce services
Provide permanent addresses and registration services for social welfare programs
Develop strong prison library services including transition to community connections
Expanding Voter Access to Democratic Participation: Voting is crucial to a well-functioning democracy but is insufficient for a healthy democracy (representative or direct). Eligible citizens must have access to the ballot and access to information on the issues and candidates they are voting on. They must also have transparency in the working of government at all levels to ensure it is the will of the people (all the people) being carried out. Libraries should be a safe place for contentious debate, and facilitators of a community dialog about the future and greater good.
Develop active voter registration and identification services
Host public forums on key community issues
Develop and maintain community strategic priorities
Ensure the Health and Well Being of Our Communities: In the immediate future, librarians must be key partners to public health in developing contact tracing efforts. The goal of contact tracing shouldn’t just be about surveillance, it must be about service. Librarians have not only a background in collecting and organizing information, they do so in a principled way that values privacy and is devoted to service. Librarians have a trusted relationship with their communities. When someone is sick, it is not just about finding out who they have been in contact with, it is keeping them home which means access to food and the outside world. Libraries cannot only track the infected but provide comfort and support.In a longer-term libraries need to form tight partnerships with mental and physical health agencies to guide community members to needed resources.
Provide service-oriented contact tracing services to town, county, and state health departments
Form partnerships with physical and mental health services and partners
Provide forums highlighting wellness programs and ensure such programs protect community privacy
Essential Crisis Response Capacity: In hurricanes, flooding, and civil unrest libraries have provided vital services to communities (academic, school, public, special, all types of libraries). The same must be true in this pandemic where our buildings cannot be a refuge. This pandemic has shown that the essential things in a crisis are food, water, medicine, and information.
Build in emergency provisions to the copyright law to allow for rapid research access to relevant scholarship on a crisis topic (virology for example) and continued education services to home bound citizens
Build citizen information services that not only disseminate trustworthy information on a crisis, but verifies the information and provides community feedback to decision makers
A few notes on these goals before we proceed. Libraries cannot achieve these goals alone. They all require strong alliances with government, industry, not for profits, and citizen participation. These may be part of our New Normal Library Agenda, but they are for the betterment of communities, not advancing libraries. While these are not ideological, they are political, and we should not pretend to be neutral in our goals. The right and the left can argue about how we achieve universal broadband (government policy like eRate or market forces and competition), but we must demand practical approaches to getting it done. The market has gone so far in say universal broadband, but as we saw with rural electrification in the Great Depression, government has to step forward. Lastly, these need to be done in alignment with our professional ethics – striving for diversity and inclusion first and foremost.
Librarians now must answer questions on tax preparation, the census, employment support, and a host of government services. All too often we stretch tight resources ever farther, and risk being a place to answer all questions…poorly. We must partner and advocate to fill these gaps. To build strong partnerships, we must be clear on what we value and what we contribute.
Effective librarianship means acknowledging our strengths and what we bring to the table. It also means advocating for the well-being of our communities beyond our doors and functions. Health information is not just the role of medical librarians, it is the role of the library to bring the health department with community health advocates. Why health and not just focus on “knowledge and learning?” Well, as is clear from Maslow’s hierarchy, people are not able to lean if they are scared, hungry, and sick. To ignore the need to keep people healthy, our mission on learning and community is hollow. Public libraries are not viable institutions if the community is unemployed and without taxes. We have seen this clearly in the English libraries where volunteer libraries have repeatedly demonstrated the need for professional librarians and real budgets. In effect to protect our self-interest, we must protect our communities.
Libraries can no longer pretend we are apart from the full spectrum of needs in the community, that we can remain neutral in the face of inequity that divides these communities, nor can we pretend that we can be the fabled savior acting alone to save communities…we are our communities. Librarians are citizens, voters are stewards of collections, experts are part of our true collection. To say we are about literacy and not partner with teachers means our dedication is to what we do, not what needs to be done from the perspective of the community. To say we are about community and only be a source of ebooks in a pandemic is hypocrisy. Yes, our fellow citizens need ebooks, but they need compassion, connection, and community dedicated to their full well-being.
A new normal is coming. Will this new normal be founded on what we lost, or what we seek to gain?
In the dark ages of European history, people lived literally in the ruins of the Roman Empire. Every day as they sought to survive disease, famine, and violence they were reminded of what they no longer had. It paralyzed societal development. It took a renaissance that respected and learned from the past, but confidently (and yes arrogantly at times) was dedicated to moving forward.
Will our new normal be libraries half empty by social distancing, or community hubs that extend beyond our socially distanced footprint to the kitchens and living rooms of every one of our community members? Will we tell of the time when we provided internet access in our buildings to over 90% of US citizens, or will we tell the tales of how we won with our allies universal access for all? Will we wait for a vaccine as our staff gets furloughed, cars park in our parking lots for WiFi, and we endanger our most valuable assets, our staff, in curb side drop offs? Or will we partner with departments of health, technology companies, and foundations to ensure disease is tracked and the sick are cared for?
We must fight for a new normal with our collections, our buildings, but mostly, with our expertise. Librarians by title, by education, or by spirit must bring about a new normal that pushes ahead society. It must minister to those seeking meaning. It must support better decision making in the wake of this pandemic and in preparation for the next crisis.