Customers, Members, and Users oh my!

Stephen Bell wrote a column for Library Journal[1]that has folks talking. I have known Stephen and respect his work and appreciate how he makes me think. I very much disagree with his conclusion, that academic librarians should call folks customers, and that not doing so is somehow a product of elitism. Clearly from social media I am not alone. I, however, don’t believe that challenging ideas means challenging the person with ad hominem attacks. We need to have conflicting ideas to seek out the best ones. If we attack those that share ideas we disagree with, we create a climate of silence.

Because of the topic, I made some posts on Facebook, and folks have pointed to them. However, not everyone is on Facebook, so I’ve expanded them here.

OK, it’s time to talk about them again. Them as in the folks we serve. This is an important and ongoing conversation that bounces back and forth around terms like users, patrons, customers, members, and the like. To some this may seem like a trivial conversation. To me, however, words matter. Our use of them is framed in social and cultural norms. When we use a term, we evoke not only a single definition, but a web of associated meanings and contexts. For example, why not use the word comrades? Or sisters?

Before I jump into my thoughts on those who use the library as customers a few caveats.

The terms we use to interact with the community and the term we use within the profession to talk them can be, even should be different. The term used in our daily interactions in our libraries, be they public, school, academic, or special should be a term negotiated with that community. It should reflect not only how a library interacts with those who seek out our services, but how we are situated in a local context.

Next, I’m going to focus on the predominant terms I hear from this conversation – patron, user, customer- that we can use across the profession from academic to school to public, to law, and so on. So while I love citizen, student, faculty they don’t work in all settings. This is important, because, when I use the word community, it isn’t just referring to a town or place we live, but a group of people who share resources and some means of allocating them. A university is a community. A school is a community, etc.

Lastly, our terminology keeps changing, as it should, since our profession and the institutions we create, are changing. Librarians are pushing our libraries to be more participatory. Libraries are evolving from collections of materials, to service centers, to community hubs, to, as Marie Østergaard says, a movement[2]. The boundaries of those who serve and those who receive service (I refuse to say are serviced) are being broken down. It is the same boundaries that are breaking down between consumers and producers in markets.

So why do I hate the use of customer in the context of librarianship? Why do I think that that using “customer” is so wrong that I fear my head will explode? Ultimately because I believe it leads to transactional thinking where value is defined solely by satisfaction. Folks are our neighbors, fellow citizens, peers, members out of communities, but they are never simply customers. This is true in libraries, and education in general.  Students, for example, don’t buy an education. They partner with faculty to explore the world and a discipline. It’s why classes are meant to be rigorous[3]. Also, in education, it is a very slippery slope from seeing students as customers, to seeing them as products. It is also a slippery slope for all types of libraries to see the rest of the community as products.

For example, in these days of monetizing personal data, higher education, primary & secondary education, and government have all either contemplated revenue generation through data aggregation, or have done it. Google knows about our children through school issued Chromebooks. Universities buy data to target recruitment and set up WIFI tracking of freshmen to target behavioral services. Public libraries have adopted third-party services where the third party has targeted ads as part of its business model[4]. To be clear, this adoption of monetized data for revenue isn’t because of the use of customer as a term– it is because of the mindset that thinks of a community as a body of customers.

The problem with viewing our communities as customers is not that we see ourselves as superior, it is that we see them as separate from us and that we have no agency. Librarians must and do shape a community they are in because they are part of the community. 

In a public setting folks served are not a buying public, but citizens with rights and responsibilities. If they don’t like the service they receive from their government they can’t shop around for a better one. They must engage in a democratic process for improvement. I get the need to implement techniques and concepts from “customer service,” but a customer/business relationship is NOT the answer. Having all parties feeling a mutual responsibility to improve their community is.

So, if not customer, what do we call them? 

Patron? Still a widely used, and frankly useful term. I tend not to use it because it comes from the days when those with resources would support the library, especially to help the library support folks without means. It came from a time of clear class structures that today we are seeking to break down (even though we are failing at this).

User? I don’t like this term because it too has an implication of transactions over relationships, particularly peer relationships. The term comes from computing and has the gloss of technology. However, these days we are more aware than ever how technology comes at a cost. After all we aren’t really the only users of Facebook. Facebook uses us to generate revenue. Nobody wants to be used. 

I have to say, after my conversation with Marie in Aarhus[5], I’m starting to come around on user a bit. But only if you use it to describe librarians as part of the community doing the using. In her thinking on the library as movement, the community – citizens, librarians, businesses – are users of the library as a place and set of capabilities. She talked about how architects worked with the term users. In this context, it makes sense. Architects are building a facility that is to be used.

So, I keep coming back to the term member. It was Joan Frye Williams that won me over to this term. It is short for community member. It denotes a sense of ownership and belonging. Some, rightly point out that member can also be seen as exclusionary. To have members, implies there are folks who are not part of the club. Except, of course, there are. People who use a public library that live elsewhere often have to buy membership. Either you are a member of the university community, or you are not.

For me it all comes back to how we think about the communities we serve and our relationship with them. During this most recent discussion I have heard the phrase owner and client. We will probably never have the perfect word, because we are seeking to encapsulate such a broad set of circumstances. Further, at the end of the day, so long as we are working with the community, and we are seeking to make our communities better we are doing it right.



[3]An interesting historical note. Since about the Renaissance, students were very much customers. They paid faculty members directly for lessons and classes. This led to an obvious conflict of interest. It wasn’t until the 19thcentury that most colleges moved to a tuition model removing, at least the most obvious, conflict. This was particularly problematic in medical training, as becoming a doctor could be as much about wealth as knowledge. Check out John Barry’s The Great Influenza for more…also it is one of my favorite books, so check it out anyway.



The Library as a Movement

A conversation between Marie Østergaard, Library Director Aarhus Public Libraries in Denmark and R. David Lankes, Director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science on the idea that the library is a movement of communities members, librarians, politicians, partners and more.

If you would rather just listen, here’s an MP3 version.

Audio only of the conversation

On Twitter, Movers & Shakers, and Library Heroes

[I’ve edited this post to remove a pointer to the tweet that set me off. It was pointed out correctly that the way my thread was a response to a person instead of making the point generally was unfair to the original person who tweeted].

So today I kind of went Twitter crazy and I thought it would be useful to share my thoughts for folks who are not on Twitter. Particularly for those who have left Twitter because it seems to a place where negativity rules in library land.

It started with a tweet about people who were recognized as Movers & Shakers by Library Journal. There has always been a love hate relationship with this list. The primary complaint is that there are plenty of folks who innovate and do fantastic work in librarianship not recognized on that list.

Here’s my reply to one of those posts (with a little editing for typos):

Know several who are still doing good work. I’ve never understood the need to tear down folks who get recognized in the profession. Just because they get called out doesn’t depreciate the great work everyone else does.

You don’t like the project, fine. The person makes bad professional choices, call them on it (as many have done with me with very legit issues). But we are a profession that is supposed to be about service and community support.

Some of these folks have been my students. Some my colleagues. Some friends, and many I don’t know. Still they are people trying to do good work…like we all are.

I love the question, have they burned out. Not because I hope they have, but because it begs the question how can we as a profession ensure folks don’t.

If we make recognition, no matter how dubious we may feel the source, a factor in burning out, what does that say about us as librarians?

On that list are there folks that seek out recognition? Sure. Are there people who flaunted the award? Sure. There is also a cancer survivor who risked her job to fight for labor rights. A school librarian who every day supports the most vulnerable students.

A professor who lost her home in a hurricane and still everyday advocated for broadband in too often forgotten rural populations.

A librarian in the deep south bring a community together to have a serious conversation on race.

We talk about libraries transforming and becoming community hubs. As a profession we too are a community. That means we have issues that need to be addressed frankly like race and inclusion.

That only happens if we feel safe in talking. Confront me when I screw up. Many folks have. It hurts, but when I deserve it, it should hurt. But don’t confront someone because someone else pays them respect.

I’ve talked to some of those Movers and Shakers after the award and many feel it’s like a scarlet letter. That makes me sad. We as a profession that proclaims improving society should feel joy for the recognition of others.

The elevation of one should be the elevation of us all. I’m tired of flinching every time I open Twitter. I want it to be a place that I learn from. Even if that is learning from my mistakes. It shouldn’t be a place we run from fearing our backs.

To be clear Twitter can be a powerful force in librarianship. It has called out the profession on powerful issues like race, hate speech, neutrality, fair labor practices, and vocational awe. It has been a place where serious topics like the philosophy underlying the field have been discussed. It has and can act as a sort of shared LibGuide on important topics. It is also a place where ad hominin attacks happen.

If we seek to facilitate knowledge in our communities – giving voice to a community with equity, we need to practice this among ourselves. This isn’t a call for civility in the sense of suppressing negative views or serious disagreement. It is a call for using platforms to invite fierce and powerful conversation that doesn’t punish people for sharing their ideas.

Then I decided to share some of the librarians and supporters of librarians that have been so vital in my career using the hashtag #MyLibraryHeros (yes, I now realize I misspelled heroes). As I said in a tweet “This list is only a start, and if I’ve misspelled a name or not listed you (yet), know that you matter.”

#MyLibraryHeros Just a few of the folks who I admire and learn from in library land. Most librarians, several “librarians by spirit.” 

Nicolette Sosulski, Todd Marshall, Angela Usha Ramnarine-Rieks, Heather Margaret Highfield, Jessica R. O’Toole, Xiaoou Cheng

#MyLibraryHeros Jocelyn Clark, Amy Edick, Elizabeth Gall, Nancy Lara-Grimaldi, Michael Luther, Kelly Menzel, Andrea Phelps, Jennifer Recht, Sarah Schmidt, and William Zayac, Scott Nicholson, Justin Henke, Meg Backus, Sari Feldman, Gina Millsap

#MyLibraryHeros Joanne Silverstein, Blane Dessy, Keith Stubbs, Linda Johnson, Sandra Horrocks, Jeff Penka, Susan McGlamery, Paula Rumbaugh, Gabrielle Gosselin, Agnes Imecs, Melanie Huggins

#MyLibraryHeros Kathryn Deis, Mary Ellen Davis, Jenny Levine, Anne Craig, Gwen Harris, Mike Eisenberg, Chuck McClure, Ray vonDran, Joe Janes, Eli Neiburger, Jill Hurst-Wahl, Mary Ghikas, George Needham, Joe Ryan, Megan Oakleaf, Blythe Bennet, Buffy Hamilton.

#MyLibraryHeros Marie Radford, Joann Wasik, Pauline Shostack, Holly Sammons, Rivkah Sass, Stephen Bell, Stephen Francoeur, Donna Dinberg, Franceen Gaudet, Karen Schneider, Joan Stahl, John Collins, Linda Arrett, Nancy Morgan, Melanie Gardner, Buff Hirko

#MyLibraryHeros Caleb Tucker-Raymond, Nancy Huling, Jane Janis, Joyce Ray, Bob Martin, Tasha Cooper, Mary Chute, Kathleen Kerns, Mary Fran Floreck, Kate McCaffrey, Lorri Mon, Marie Østergaard, Neil MacInnes, Erna Winters, Erik Boekesteijn, Ton van Vlimmeren, Ilona Kish

#MyLibraryHeros Chris Bourg, Emily Drabinski, Nicole Cooke, Emily Knox, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Kelvin Watson, Lynn Connaway, Sally Pewhairangi, Jereon de Boer, Jorge do Prado, Anna Maria Tammaro, Sue Kowalski, Jan Holmquist, Andromedia Yelton, Liz McGettigan, Jessamyn West

#MyLibraryHeros Mia Breitkopf, Chelsea Neary, Loranne Nasir, Emma Montgomery, Lauren Britton, Sue Considine, Beck Tench, Cheryl Gould, Kimberly Silk, Wendy Newman, Lane Wilkinson, the entire South Carolina SLIS faculty and staff, Tamara King, Patrice Green, Jack Bryan

#MyLibraryHeros Ron Stafford, Robert Wedgeworth, Stuart Sutton, Courtney Young, Barbara Stripling, Carla Hayden, Peter Bromberg, Scott Walter, Sara Kelly Johns, Dave Tyckoson, Branwen Rhiannon, Cecilia Preston, CLiff Lynch, Dan Barron

#MyLibraryHeros Jim DelRosso, Mary Chute, Brian Dawson, Char Booth, John Chrastka, Patrick Sweeney, Heather Braum, Dustin Fife

#MyLibraryHeros Sarah Houghton, Ned Potter, Megan Oakleaf, Roberto Delgaillo, Rolf Hapel, Sarah Inoue, Bonny Ryan, Vickery Bowles, Miguel Figueroa, James Neal, Sandra Toro, Sandy Hirsch, Micheal Stephens, Andrew Bullen, Linda Smith, Liz Liddy, Kate Marek, Karen Snow, Hassan Zamir

#MyLibraryHeros OK, a partial list at best, but I need to take a shower and get on a phone call. Who are your library heroes?

Thank you all for shaping my view of the world. This is only a partial list. Please take it as an opportunity to share your list, however partial it might be.

Librarianship is a Technical Profession…That is All About People

[This is an edited version of the script I used for my talk. However, it is not a word for word transcript. Aside from added comments during the talk, I have edited and expanded the notes here to make them more readable. You can see a screencast of the actual presentation here.]

When I was invited to give this talk, Kim Tallerås told me that I could address:

  • What technological expertise should librarians have?
  • What should we leave to other professions?
  • Generalist vs specialist?
  • What does knowledge organization mean in 2017?

A simple list, right? I particularly like the “etc” just in case I might have some extra time.

So where to begin? I could start with my opinion. I could start with the curriculum that we are developing at the University of South Carolina. I could, of course, pretend to answer the questions by “framing the debate,” where I list some international competencies, throw in a bit of criticism, but really leave the questions unresolved.

Instead, let me start with a question that isn’t on this list: are there right and wrong answers to these to begin with? Is there some foundation that we can test our opinions? Because it turns out what looks like topics for debate, are in fact answerable, but only if we start from a firm foundation.
Continue reading “Librarianship is a Technical Profession…That is All About People”

An Assured Path to Irrelevance or An Outright Impeachment of Our Basic Principles

In a previous post I talked about a potential path of disaster for public libraries. The TL;DR version is that if public librarians and their libraries seek to be all things to all people they will ultimately be stretched too thin and become the poster children for ineffective government. This is particularly true in light of shrinking services by government agencies. Within that argument (or rather the solution provided) are the seeds of a massive disruption in public services in general. In this post I’m going to expand on those seeds. I am going to start this discussion of public services in the obvious place: collections.

The past 6 decades have seen an unprecedented change in how librarians view collections. Libraries, by and large, have been fixated on documents (or more broadly “document like objects”). The documents were physical, fixed, and owned. If a library wanted to add something to a collection they bought it, they described it, and they placed it.

Libraries then began to expand from documents to other media (to be precise there have always been libraries that collected varying media – I’m talking about the majority) like films, audio recordings, and eventually tapes, CDs and such. Still, the model was of objects owned, described, and placed.

A massive shift in how we conceptualized library collections occurred with the advent of databases. While at first CD’s were little more than digital version of paper reference resources databases quickly represented a massive change in collection content and library business models. In terms of content with the advent of journal databases libraries made available huge quantities of materials that librarians had only a cursory knowledge of. Librarians were now advanced searchers, often discovering what they library “held” right alongside our members.

Electronic databases, CDs, then online databases, also represented a massive departure in the business model of libraries. Where once the majority of resources in the collection were owned, now the vast majority of items (counting articles as items) were rented through fixed term licenses. We are only now feeling the full repercussions of this shift as these licenses have become increasingly expensive; swallowing the collection budgets and more of many institutions.

The Internet was (is) the next major expansion of the concept of collection in libraries. Now anything anyone could put on a page or attach to a URL was part of the collection. That actually wasn’t the biggest conceptual shift though (after all by this point librarians were into discovering resources without previous knowledge of them). No, the biggest shift was that the Internet was not populated with just document like objects, but with services, software, and capabilities. Our collections went from documents, to documents and media, to documents and Facebook, and Google, and Twitter, and real-time video.

While librarians have not fully adjusted to these changes, nor integrated them together (and major issues of preservation still remain a huge challenge), for the most part libraries have successfully transformed to encompass the idea of a library collection as dynamic, open, and important. With each change came stress and discord. Each step turned into a flurry of experimentation and eventual standardization. But on the whole, what once looked like a change that would end libraries is now seen as beneficial. Librarians have not only changed how they see the collection but we have brought our communities along with us. People expect to access databases, and the Internet as well as physical collections. No one really questions any more the use of Google at the reference desk. No one bats an eye when public access computing incorporates gaming alongside Lexus/Nexus.

So we all deserve a big pat on the back. It has been an astounding half-century plus of change, but we did it. We are a different profession because of it, and we are relevant. Yea! No one should underestimate the scale of this disruptive change. But I have bad news…it is time to do it again – massive disruptive change that is.

As our collections have changed, we have added services to our communities (schools, universities, towns, firm, etc.). Where once we provided faster more efficient access to physical items, we added question answering, eventually question answering both at a desk, embedded in teams, and online. We added instruction; first about the library (bibliographic instruction), but eventually around information literacy. We added readers’ advisory, story time, and more recently maker spaces, fishing pole lending, and so on. Once could say that our public services have seen massive change – but I disagree.

As our collections changed, being in a profession primarily concerned with collections, we’ve expanded and shifted our services. However, we have not fundamentally changed them. You see for all of these new services we still cling to a very simplistic service model…us and them: librarians and patron; library and community. We still see the role of the library to serve a community, and in that, to be slightly apart from it. That is problematic because it leads right back into an assured path to irrelevance or an outright impeachment of our basic principles.

Irrelevance? This was my argument in my previous post on the death of public libraries. If librarians continue to see their role as serving a community, and attempting to meet their shifting needs, librarians will be stretched too thin. Librarians will have to become expert searchers, researchers, makers, tax experts, employment advisors, social workers, tutors, and so on. This has lead to many libraries co-locating services such as in a commons model that brings access to librarians, technologists, and learning specialists. We have seen libraries hire social workers, anthropologists and so on. However, if librarianship doesn’t expand to incorporate these services at a fundamental level, we end up with stovepipes of services that sit in an organization or physical space, but gain little from the colocation. In essence, we treat tutors, and anthropologists, and such as just another expansion of the collection.

The other problem is the collocation of services without a radically different service model leads to a diffuse definition of what a library is. We can lose the support of our communities as they struggle to figure out our unique value. Worse still, by adopting new services and offerings based solely on the demands of a community, we can easily fall into a “customer perspective” where we scramble to meet the desires of a community regardless of how they align with core values such as openness, privacy, intellectual freedom, and such. Libraries go from safe, principled spaces of learning to simple gateways to subsidized services…easily disrupted, and easily replaced or discarded.

Librarians want to answer questions or solve problems put to them. In the days of virtual reference we coined the phrase “the greedy librarian problem.” It was observed in service after service, institution after institution, that librarians would receive a reference question, and do their best to answer that query – even if they could pass the question off to someone else (another librarian or an expert) who was better qualified to answer it, or could answer it faster. This came from both a STRONG service ethic, and professional preparation that taught the idea of a generalist librarian.

We are again facing the greedy librarian problem, but now it is in the form of a librarian as social worker, a librarian as maker, a librarian as business expert. If it is offered under the egis of the library, than a librarian must master the content first, then offer the program. This is bad. Bad not in that librarians can become experts in things other than librarianship, but bad in that they may feel that librarianship is expertise in all other areas.

The disruptive change we need now is in removing boundaries between library and community. I have often said, “the community is the collection.” That is more than a rhetorical slogan meant to focus people on “user services.” I mean it literally. If all libraries do is talk to their communities to add new services, or adopt social media to broadcast library events, or become more responsive at a desk, they have not engaged in the necessary and fundamental change needed.

What we need is a merger of collection and community. This is the disruptive, fundamental, and radical shift. In the community you serve, people consume, sure. However, they ALL create, even if they are only creating knowledge within themselves. The power of a new necessary model for public service is to see people in your community as creators who are willing to share their expertise, their understandings, and their resources (like tax dollars, or tuition dollars, or budget lines AND their books). People within your community are willing to teach, and develop programs, and tutor, and the like.

The key massive shift in public services need to make this change? For those familiar with my work, you may find my solution a bit out of character: collection development. Yup. The same skill that has gone through such dramatic changes from documents to media to databases to the Internet, to services. Except, it is development of the community and its conversations.

An example may be in order. A man comes into the library and through conversing with the librarian offers to teach sessions on self-publishing. Now, the first thing that must change is how the librarian responds to the idea of a self-publishing program. Gone is the idea that the librarian will go learn everything there is to know about self-publishing and then start offering programs around the topic. The community member says they already have that knowledge, so they should teach it. Ah, but you say, how do I know they are any good. Do they know about self-publishing? Have they done it? Can they teach? Will they present in a way that upholds the principles of librarianship (intellectual honesty, transparency, and so on)? This is the role of the librarian. This is collection development.

Maybe they can’t teach – great, either the librarian can get them some experience in it (like linking them up with another community member who can act as a mentor) or suggest they put together a libguide, or a curated collection of resources to share. Maybe they only have experience with one platform, can the librarian hook them up with someone with other experiences, or set up complementary programming. Collection development.

In this approach the wall of service between library and community disappears. The librarian is directly working with the community to expose expertise and offer service through the community not to the community. Librarians don’t have to know all the community knows, but they must be able to weave it together and link it. The library becomes a platform not for resource sharing, but for community building and connections.

This then is the next hurdle and challenge: making the community our collection. We have many of the pieces in place. We have an expanded view of collection and the distributed tools that come with it. We have a new definition of librarianship not linked to any particular institution, but focused on knowledge and community. We have some examples of this happening from general approaches like patron driven acquisitions to specific institutions like Chattanooga, Ferguson, and Fayetteville Free. We have the love of our communities. We have spaces to gather. We have an army of professionals and aligned staff in nearly every community in North America.

Now is the time. We can change the world not by informing a community, or serving it, but by unleashing it. We will advance our communities, our nations, and society not by waiting to serve, not by pushing from behind, nor invisibly advocating issues of social justice. We will move forward society by standing side by side with the teacher and the student, the cop and the community, the philosopher and the blacksmith. Librarians, and the institutions they build with their communities, libraries, will, with radical zeal, interweave human capability for greatness. Let’s get to it.

Last Man Standing: How to Kill Public Libraries

IMG_0056I don’t normally talk about library types. For me all libraries (really librarians in all contexts) serve a community, be that a community of citizens, students, faculty, lawyers or what have you. There is more that binds librarians together than separates them. That said, I have heard of a special set of concerns surrounding public libraries recently and it got me thinking. The conclusions I’ve come to, I believe, relate to libraries and librarians in just about every setting. But let me start with public libraries.

The two big concerns I’ve heard about are “what happens when public libraries are the last civic service agency standing,” and “as libraries expand services to include everything from tax help to maker spaces, how am I supposed to know it all?!” These two concerns are related.

To save money, government agency after government agency are closing local offices and moving “services” to the web. The quotes are there because while agencies often post documents online, they rarely provide sufficient human help to support functions. If I have a question about filling out a form, simply having access to the form online is not helping. Librarians realized this a long time ago (a collection of stuff is insufficient to educate or serve…we need librarians). However, the net effect from receding governmental services is that librarians are often left holding the bag in terms of support.

In today’s America, the public library is left standing virtually alone in the civic sphere. People don’t hang out in the police station. Parents are only welcome in the schools after they go through security and sign in. Social services and DMVs hardly create a sense of community.

In many ways this retreat of mediated social and civic services has pushed public libraries to reach out to their communities. It has, for the time being, provided an opportunity for libraries to re-center themselves in communities and become a more vital service to citizens. Where libraries could once confine their mission to literacy and assume a wider social safety net existed to handle issues of homelessness, democratic participation, education, even food support and adult literacy this is no longer the case.

While some of the publically funded safety net has been replaced by volunteer and religious organizations, the mission and functions of the library are being expanded. This is a good thing – the library has the opportunity to become more central in the lives of citizens. However, an expansion of services without a matching expansion of resources (budget, personnel, authority, training) is a recipe for disaster.

The apocalyptic vision for tomorrow’s public libraries is not obsolescence, but rather an over expanded shell doing a million things poorly. Like a balloon, libraries expand in mandates without support, creating an ever thinning membrane and an empty core. Rather than working to shore up the democratic process, libraries become the latest target of a citizenry looking for examples of failure in government. The question shall become not why we have libraries, but why my tax dollars support substandard service. It could feed directly into the ideological narrative that government can’t do anything right.

So how do librarians avoid this expansion to irrelevance? Some call for a retrenchment. Get back to core literacy (reading), refocus on collections, and sell the value of libraries as safe havens from the nasty world of ideology. I think this is an equally bad formula for failure. Rather than inviting claims of too little service in too many areas, we get cast as too narrow to be of use (if all we want is access to books, we’ll pay for city-wide/state-wide/country-wide access to Amazon). No, we need a plan to take hold of this opportunity and grow to meet the needs of our communities.

This plan for a new civic reality requires two major efforts. The first is obvious and many have started down this road: advocacy for more resources. We must mobilize citizens and government to resource the public library as the public face of the community – a market place of ideas and services where the private and public seamlessly intermingle. It is working in Chattanooga, Cuyahoga County, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and other places. It is the raison d’être for ALA’s push towards communities, and much of my own work.

However, and I need to be very clear here, it is not enough. If all libraries do is elect themselves the next great bureaucracy, we will lose as well. Librarians will lose their special status as the library is forced to hire more and more folks from other domains like social services, education, and the like. If the expansion of public libraries becomes simply a public service bucket where services exist as strove pipes side by side, we fail. Instead we must prepare librarians to do it all…sort of (please read the next paragraphs before you fire off that angry email).

There is a very real and legitimate worry that librarians of all stripes are being called to do too much. Can any one professional really be librarian, programmer, maker, social worker, and employment consultant? No. Librarians can’t do it all…but librarians can help a community do it all.

This ideal was put beautifully by a talented group of librarians behind the Robot Test Kitchen. Librarians have to move from sitting across the desk from their communities, to sitting beside them. Rather than looking at every new service/program offered by a library as a new set of skills that must be learned by a librarian, think of it as an opportunity for a librarian to empower a community member. With all due respect to Steve Thomas, we need to change his tag line from:

“Librarians don’t know everything. They just know how to find out everything.”


“Librarians don’t know everything, but they can empower everyone to share what they know.”

Admittedly this is not as catchy (don’t change the T-Shirts Steve), but it begins to encompass the most important change librarians need to make. From storing and organizing things for a community, to facilitating a community in sharing expertise and ideas.

You see, that is the big change and opportunity in librarianship. Stop looking at those who walk into your buildings or those who visit your web services as consumers and users who require help from an all-knowing bookworm. We gave up the idea that after Desk Set. It’s ok, we thought, the collection can still be comprehensive. But if we leave it to the collection then we are making the same mistake those government agencies are making…retreating to the town hall leaving pamphlets and forms to fill the void when people want service and opportunity.

Librarians have the ability (with resources) to form teams of experts on the payroll, but especially in the community, to educate, and improve that community. Librarians value in this equation is a little of the tools we bring (spaces, standards, collections), and A LOT in the expertise we bring. Librarians can help truly define community needs and gaps. Librarians can identify experts, and work with them to provide expertise to everyone (in lectures, hands-on skills, consulting, production, new publishing efforts). All the while knitting together the community in a tight fabric of knowing…that is the value of the librarian. Do librarians need to know everything? No! They need to know how to unlock the knowledge of the community and set it free while imbuing the entire community with the values of learning, openness, intellectual honesty, and intellectual safety.

So that’s that right…a public library problem. Except, of course, it isn’t. Faculty need research and support, students need motivation and to be valued. Lawyers need in trial support, doctors, oh God help me, doctors need the humanity of librarians working with people in crisis. Do librarians become doctors, lawyers, and faculty? In some special cases, yes. However, more generally, we become, as Stuart Sutton would put it, the connective tissue that binds the community together. Librarians become engineers in the social infrastructure of greatness that could be our communities.

This is our opportunity and challenge. The potential reward is not in dollars or square feet, but in better communities and improved lives. This is a vision worth fighting for, and that others will join. Right now, today, your communities are looking around to see which institution of democratic participation, which institution of learning, which principled corps of professionals can see them through a particularly scary moment in history. For all the promise of progress seen in every new iPhone there is the crippling poverty spreading like a cancer to fill the wage inequity of the land. For every new medical miracle cure there is an ebola shining the reality that nature is not simply controlled. For every fair and free election there is a brutal Islamic State showing us that freedom and participation is not in our genes, but in our constant mortal struggle to rise above our animal nature.

Our communities need us. In colleges and universities they need us to span the vaulted towers of disciplines. In schools they need us to shatter the isolating walls of the classroom to bring students and teachers into the light of inquiry. In our states and our towns they need librarians to provide safe shelter for the bodies and the minds of the frightened – we must embolden them with the armor of knowledge and the defense of their neighbors. If libraries are to be the last civic institution standing, then we shall stand tall, and together, locked arm in arm with our patrons, and students, and faculty, and principles, and congressmen, and all those who value the society we live in. We will not be so arrogant as to believe we can know it all, or that any one person, regardless of rank or title, can be alone in all the knowledge they ever need.

I’m Better…Now What?

[TL;DR version: I’m fine, but we all need to be better]

I'm a SurvivorMy good friend and colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl asked me to write a bit about my current state of health. I think she is tired of letting folks know I’m fine now, have been doing some travel, and not stuck in a bubble. I feel like I have said this, but have probably not put it in one succinct post. So…

I’m fine. I had a cancer free PET scan in June, and then another clean one in September. In three months I’ll have another scan, and then more after that as my oncologist follows-up. While there is no guarantee that the next scan will be clean, or that the one after that will be and so on; no one is promised a day on this earth, so I will take the bliss of cancer free for whatever period I’m given before a scan. For those keeping track 50% of transplant patients remain cancer free for 5 years.

I am not, in fact, living in a bubble. Yes, I am immune compromised and will be so for a few years. This is in part because I have a brand new immune system and partly because I have yet to get re-vaccinated for things like polio, and whooping cough (that re-vaccination happens in an accelerated fashion after 1 year). However, I have a working immune system that apparently does well with viral infections, but is more vulnerable to pneumonias (imagine how pleased I am to follow the recent news with Ebola and the Enterovirus).

I also have to be very careful with food born illnesses. Anyone would have problems with things like Salmonella and Listeria, but I would have a VERY hard time with them. So food needs to be served well done and hot. I also have to avoid buffets and food that has been sitting under heat lamps. Really folks, we should all avoid those…have you seen what people do at salad bars?

I also have, in fact, done a bit of traveling. I’ve done a few trips to Albany, to Fairfield Connecticut, and later this month I’m actually flying to Springfield Illinois to join my tribe at ILEAD USA. My doctors have given me the go ahead to get on planes as long as I wear a mask and douse myself in hand sanitizer. I think this is to freak out my fellow passengers so they give me more space.

I’ve been limiting my travel to mostly places I can drive to. This is really out of an avoidance of getting back in planes (those damn things shake in the air) than health issues. However, I am thrilled to announce that I have accepted speaking gigs in Liverpool (UK), Australia, and New Zealand. I’m also working on putting together a speaking tour through Italy in the summer (hey…want to host an academic in Italy this summer? Let me know). I’m also working on an idea to get me to ALA Midwinter in January.

Which brings me to a very weird spot. It would be very easy to fall back into a life of the traveling professor. I am teaching an amazing class of LIS students. I have offers to speak. I have a lot more to say on the future of librarianship. In essence, I have the incredible good fortune of being able to pick up my life where I left it before cancer.

So should I? As I have been recovering these past months I have seen a community I love, librarians, both profess noble principles (diversity, respect, concern for the well being of their communities, a call for greater service) and engage in the worst kind of pettiness, to the point of lawsuits and character assassinations. Do I really want to give more keynotes when the speaking contract seems to come with a target for my back?

When I had cancer I became part of an unfortunate club – cancer patients. It is an amazing club because it is amazingly diverse. Mothers get cancer, celebrities get cancer, children get cancers, black, white, yellow, old, tall, male, female all get cancer. Some of us blog, some us write books, some of us speak, and some of us become YouTube sensations. And no one-no one-talks about shiny cancer patients, or rock star victims. Because in that community, we are all rock stars, we are all shiny, and we are all deserving.

I have read your posts and your Tweets, and there are some great ideals expressed. Those with more attention, or more opportunities have a responsibility to bring along those around them. Yes. Those who live with cancer, who survive, teach. They teach their parents, and their kids, and their friends, and their co-workers. They teach because every cancer survivor knows they are alive because of the work and suffering of those who came before. My bone marrow transplant was a success because of literally thousands of people who died before me, hundreds who were willing to be a lab rat for new treatments, and doctors, researchers and nurses, who refused to stand by and allow more death. We teach, we write, we appear hairless on magazine covers because we have learned that every day without nausea or pain is a gift, and one that we must share for those who will come after us and need hope.

In the cancer club a 9 year old becomes famous…he or she inspires blood drives, and scholarship funds, and the building of new cancer centers. They are famous not because they “did cancer the best,” but because they can inspire others to action. Every rock star with cancer is reminded every day they are there, they are worthy, they are important not by autographs requested, but by platelets donated. Every cancer patient knows that in their veins course the immune system of others, their cells breathe due to red blood cells from across the nation.

I am shiny, I am a rockstar librarian, and people invite me to give keynotes…and when they do, I am keenly aware that I am there because of the work of mentors like Mike Eisenberg and Chuck McClure. I am there with the support of people like Liz Liddy, Corinne Hill and the wisdom I have drawn from Meg Backus. I am speaking because Lane Wilkinson took the time to argue epistemology with me; because Jill Hurst-Wahl lets me snark over lunch. I am there because of Mike Nilan, and Andy Dillon, and Kathryn Deiss, Scott Nicholson, Megan Oakleaf, Kim Silk, Wendy Newman, Nicolette Sosulski, Joe Janes, Barb Stripling, Ruth Small, Jeff Katzer, Todd Marshall, Anne Craig, Gwen Harrison, Joe Natale, Mick Jacobsen, Andy Bullen, Steve Thomas, Buffy Hamilton, Joyce Valenza, Joe Ryan, Bill Moen, Joanne Silverstein and an entire nation of genius. I am there because of Melvil Dewey, Ranganathan, Wilson, Buckland, Pask, and Taylor. I am there because my wife took the effort over two decades to beat out of me the misogyny that the Jesuits in high school used to push me forward. I am there because every year I get a sea of fresh faces of LIS students who push me further. I am there because of Mia, and Lauren, and Carl, and Bob. I am there because the librarians of Ferguson and Alexandria did their jobs in the face of uprisings, and the librarians of Fayetteville took a risk of 3D printers. And when I am at a conference, at work, on the Internet, or frankly anywhere, I behave with respect for myself and others because of those I represent.

I don’t think we need to get rid of Movers & Shakers. I don’t think we should get rid of Think Tanks, or Emerging Leaders or any awards that give librarians an opportunity to showcase how great librarianship is to the world around us. Do you think those awards are for librarians? Do you think these awards should be about self-congratulations or creation of a class system, or pushing one above the many? Do you think we place folks on pedestals for us to admire them? If that is the case, then tear them down. We must use all of these pouts of distinction as ways to scream to those that we serve that we are here, we are important, and we only succeed in the success of those we serve.

So be shiny and a rockstar and a leader. 3,000 years of librarianship are here to push you forward. But shine to your members, rock the worlds of your communities, lead the world to better days. That’s what I’m going to do with my gift of life…what about you?

Radical Librarians in Ferguson and Beyond

A militarized police force – clad in body armor, helmets, and camouflage – shot rubber bullets and tear gas at the protestors. Children huddled in their houses, unable to sleep as their parents took turns watching the front doors for trouble, their father sitting next to a baseball bat just in case. The government called up the State police and National Guard, announced curfews, and closed governmental institutions.

This has been the majority of reporting in Ferguson. It is disturbing to be sure. Disturbing because this is not happening overseas, but in the suburbs of Saint Louis. Issues of justice, race, and economic disadvantage have been taken from an unspoken “issue” to the front of America’s consciousness. Yet in the images of protestors doused in gas, and armored police transports another story has emerged: the children of Ferguson are out of school.

Even though the nights are getting quieter the schools remain closed. This is not just a matter of a delayed school year, but for many of the low-income families this is a matter of food. A large percentage of Ferguson’s youth receive food assistance through the schools. If the schools are closed, these children go hungry. Hungry and trapped in their homes with the sounds of shots and riots outside.

The Florissant Valley Branch of the Saint Louis County Library and the local Ferguson Public Library stepped up to help. Yesterday I wrote about the Ferguson Public Library, but less has been said about The Florissant Valley Branch. Both libraries share coverage of the Ferguson-Florissant School District. Both have shown bravery and both show that librarians can be radical positive change agents.

Jennifer Ilardi, a student of mine, came into the Florissant Valley Branch Wednesday and decided to bring a variety of art supplies into the library’s auditorium so that parents could have some activities, get out of the house, socialize, and create. She also decided to order pizza. During a TV interview, She was prompted with “So you saw a need in the community. You saw a void.” She responded with “This is what libraries do. We supplement our educational system regularly with after school programs and summer programs. We provided free lunches all summer long through a collaboration with Operation Food Search because we recognize that a large portion of our community qualifies for free and reduced price lunches.”

The librarians plan on continuing this program all week long. Operation Food Search has agreed to continue the lunch program even though their original agreement had it ending on August 15th. The Magic House, a local children’s museum, has offered to bring in free interactive educational activities for students. Local artists have volunteered their services, as well, offering free magic shows and performances. Some of this collaboration was the library reaching out and part of it was others wanting to get involved. The important thing if that the library establish these relationships continuously which made easy to organize a response.

When I tweeted out some of this yesterday one librarian responded “a library always makes the difference!” While I love the activist spirit behind the tweet (the active voice that libraries MAKE a difference), I have to disagree with the comment for two reasons. One is a continuous rant of mine. Libraries are organizations or buildings, and can do nothing but exert gravity and shield you from the rain. It is librarians, and more broadly library staff that make the difference. It was a decision that Jennifer and her colleagues made to do something beyond being open. It was a choice to be there and help.

The other comment I have on this tweet is that sadly not all libraries do make a difference. Some librarians see an adherence to policy, or not taking sides, as a reason to step back from issues and outright breakdowns in the social order. Still others limit their views by asking, “how can a collection and reading address a problem of civil unrest?” Librarians and their libraries can make a difference, but to do so, they must hold a radical view of their profession and their communities.

Too many see the idea of a radical librarianship as a sort of extreme political partisanship. That is wrong. Radical librarians see librarianship as a chance to make a positive difference in their community. They see their mission to not simply promote reading, or to inform a community. Instead radical librarians, the kind we need, see their mission as the improvement of society. They see their role and the instruments of their institutions as engaging a community and addressing the issues that have exploded in Ferguson. Addressing these issues not with tear gas and rubber bullets, but through pizza, magic shows, and learning.

Some may see summer programs and juice boxes as distractions, or as weak tools in comparison to body armor, but they are wrong. An engaged community, a library dedicated to learning, and making a difference is a powerful deterrent to violence. The deterrent is not a threat of force, but the promise of opportunity and a better tomorrow.

I ask you to support the work and librarians of both Ferguson Public Library and the Florissant Valley Branch. Help through donating time, money, food, books, but also with your voice. Let them know that this is librarianship.

Ferguson Library

I have never been to Ferguson. I have never been to the Ferguson Library. I love the Ferguson Library.

Go look at this page:

Now read this:

I read these right after re-reading my book Expect More for an upcoming project that starts with the Arab Spring and the modern Library of Alexandria being protected, and in essence reclaimed by protestors:

After the uprising had subsided, when President Mubarak had stepped down and the protestors were celebrating their victory around the country, not a window of the library had been broken, not a rock thrown against its walls. Why, in the midst of tearing down the regime, did the people of the nation protect the library?

My answer was that over the years the librarians had been a service to the community and become part of the community-not simply a service of a government that was seen as disconnected and corrupt. I go on to say the reason the library was not harmed was not because the librarians inside were exceptional, but rather that they did their job. Let me be clear, they were brave and brilliant, but to call them exceptional is to expect too little of every librarian. This was the bar, I argued, that librarians should strive towards.

When I tell this story to audiences and new students I often see some fear…”would I be expected to support a revolution or function in an uprising?” I make some passing joke and dismiss the problem.

Then the town of Ferguson exploded with a population at odds with a militarized police force. Then the schools were closed down. Then the right of assembly was suspended.

Then, the librarians of Ferguson did their job.

Then, as in Egypt, the librarians proved once again that a library is not a collection or a building, but a vital member of the community. Or, as the librarians of Ferguson put it much more eloquently: a library is family.

Librarians of Ferguson, thank you.

Beyond the Bullet Points: PET Scans and Water

I tell you the following story of what happened to me today to:

  1. To amuse the twisted and snarky
  2. As a cautionary tale for those who seek to serve
  3. To let those following my health know about the results of my PET scan

Normally when you get a medical test, you get a result. Often times, these are nice and definitive. For example, this morning I had blood taken and I found out that my platelets were 17. That’s good, because two days before they were 7. You see what I mean about definitive. “Hey Dave, how are those platelets coming?”

“17, thanks for asking.”

Well, PET Scans aren’t always so nice. They require professional interpretation. A radiologist looks at them and says things like “appears normal.” Or “some indication of abnormality in the mesentery region.” This can be very unnerving. “Hey Dave, how’s that mesentery region?”

“Ah, you know, showing signs of abnormality.”

It is with this background that I can start my story. This morning I went to see my oncologist. As is normal, the first doctor to see you is not your doctor, but one of a seeming endless mass of fellows. It turns out this fellow I had seen before. She is the one that a year ago (almost to the day) told me that I had lymphoma and then kicked my wife out to do a bone marrow biopsy before the pathology lab closed. This was remarkably like “Hi, your husband is probably dying of cancer, now please wait in the lounge as I drill his hipbone with a very large steel needle.”

Anywho, “Bringer of Doom,” as my wife and I now refer to her, came in today, asked how I was feeling, and then stated that the PET results showed uptake in the abdomen, meaning that the chemo wasn’t working. Worse still, as my wife pointed out, it seems to have spread since the last PET scan didn’t show anything in the gut.

I will pause here for my more excitable readers to point out that this story does, as far as it can, have a happy ending…just wait for it.

“Last PET scan? Was that in May” asked Bringer of Doom.

“No it would have been October.” I responded attempting not to notice my wife’s tears welling up and a low refrain of “oh shit oh shit oh shit.”

“Was it here?” asked Bringer of Doom.

“No, it was at Brittonfield.”

“Oh, I’ll have to look at that in the external record. I only went back to November and I didn’t see anything. In any case, your doctor will be in soon,” and Bringer of Doom felt for my lymph nodes, listened to my lungs and left.

Now I would like to describe to you the immense awkward feeling you have when in a small examine room with your wife when you are told that your “salvage treatment” (actual medical terminology) is not working. You can’t lose it, or your wife will, and you have to be brave and not wanting to wail like a little girl amongst nurses you have come to know and like. I would like to describe that for you, but before I could figure it out there was a knock on the door. I had to have a social worker do an assessment of me for my insurance. By the way, best question asked? How do you cope with stress…answer shrug. N case the social worker is reading this, I would like to change my answer – sarcastic social media postings.

So the social worker leaves, and in walks my doctor, a new nurse and, of course, Bringer of Doom.

“So I’ve looked at the PET scan results and actually they look pretty good to me” says my doctor.

“Glurp?!” is what I am guessing I said…just imagine Scooby confused at something profound Shaggy just said and you’ll get the picture.

“Well, reading from October’s PET scan it is clear that all of cancer in the neck and chest, where it was growing, is now gone.” Said the angel wearing a lab coat. “What’s more, I’ll have to talk to the radiologist this afternoon, but PET scans always find junk in the mesentery region.”

“What is the mesentery region” asked my wife who was clearly now paying very close attention.

“It is the tissue and such that interlace the bowels. The PET scan could be picking up bowel activity, or inflammation. I’ll know more when I talk to the radiologist. The point is that I see this as very positive. The chemo is working. The question is now whether to do one more round of chemo to be sure, or move into the harvest and transplant.”

Now I put quotes around that last part like it is what the doctor said. Truth be told I know that was the gist of it, but a mix of relief and rage made the dictation a bit difficult. Relief that things were now looking up, and rage that we didn’t start at that point.

So I’m going to finish this story up in two ways:

  1. Where I am for my treatment and transplant, and
  2. Why this is a cautionary tale for those who seek to serve.

So, for my treatment, the doctor is consulting with the radiologist to look at the current and previous scan. If they are convinced that chemo has been effective, and the mesentery stuff is just ghosts, then we proceed to harvesting my stem cells and the actual transplant. It may be delayed by a week until my platelet count recovers over 50. If the docs are still undecided about the scan, or feel there is some cancer traces left in the gut, then another round of ICE, then the harvest.

So, good news? Yes. Clearest best possible news? No, but those are frankly pretty hard to come by in medicine of any complexity.

Also, be assured that we brought up Bringer of Doom’s delivery issues and were assured it was a problem that would be dealt with.

Which bring us to those who seek to serve: we (librarians, teachers, professors, doctors) often like to talk about “informing” as if it was a verb that means something. The assumption we make is that by providing more information faster, we can help people make better decisions. What’s more, there is an unstated assumption that information is like water. Bad information can simply be flushed away with good information. This is wrong.

It is wrong because no matter how much water you use to flush something it leaves a mark; it leaves an imprint that will color all the information to follow. I now have more doubts about PET scans, my treatment, even the current state of my health and prognosis because that was where I started.

But the view of informing and canceling out is wrong because it represents a detached, and clinical view of people. To inform sounds objective. It sounds like we present the facts, or some nuggets of data that is entirely up to those receiving it to interpret. Too often we hide behind this idea to somehow distance ourselves from the troubles of those we seek to serve. I am not saying this from one bad day with one doctor with bad people skills. Research shows us that how we get information and in what order matters.

Instead of informing users, we must see our job as helping a person to learn. Doctor, professor, teacher, librarian all can no longer believe that simply pushing information at someone and if necessary fixing it later is acceptable. When I learn, when I am “informed” it is more than my memory and reason you effect. It is my emotion, my needs, my image of self.

There is a responsibility for those in the professional services to see beyond a question, or a task, or an interaction, and into the person they seek to serve. This is why we do not have customers who can simply return an item they do not like. Nor consumers who vacuum up our output. Nor do we have users that might as well be reading off a glowing screen. We have students, and patients, and faculty, and members, and people who come to us with what seem like questions, but are really needs, aspirations, and dreams.

I can already see many of my librarian colleagues dismissing their importance. Cancer and PET scans are one thing, but all you have are hold requests, or finding books, or figuring out the right website for a class project. Look deeper. Is that book about changing their life, or their cancer, or escaping an abusive relationship? Does that web site represent the start of a new career, or is about a hobby an awkward teen sees as part of their self-worth?

I recall Betsy Kennedy, the director of the Cazenovia Public Library, talk about a program to give new books to poor kids. She talked about how one child upon receiving the book began to tear up. “It’s the first new thing that I’ve ever owned,” said the child. That was not just a book, but worth, meaning, hope to that child, and Betsy knew it and used it to create programs to help other needy families. When the families came for books for their kids, she and the other librarians and volunteers recognized the need for educational opportunities for the parents as well. She helped create GED programs located in food pantries for the needy of her region. She doesn’t serve readers, or patrons, she lifts up whole communities.

If all you do is stand behind the desk (real or metaphorical) and answer questions or inform – If all you do is lecture – If all you do is listen to a list of symptoms and prescribe drugs, then you are not doing your real job. Patients have better outcomes when they are part of treatment decisions. Students have better outcomes when they shape their learning. Members have better experiences when a librarian takes the time to get beyond the question to the real need. What we know may make us experts, but whom we serve makes us noble. It is not in your insight and expertise we find the true measure of worth for a librarian, lawyer, doctor, or teacher. It is in the success of the communities we serve.

If you know you can impact someone’s life, take care and take the time to know when and how to teach. And if you don’t think you can have that kind of impact? Then please understand that you may well be the Bringer of Doom and not even know it.

Follow Up: Had a talk with my oncologist and after consulting with the radiologist, she feels the PET scan is clean (if not clear) and we are going to proceed with harvest and transplantation…more on that on my Caring Bridge site soon.