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.
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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.

Beyond the Bullet Points: When will the Mission Die?

I asked my doctor how I would die. Her answer was that If this treatment didn’t work we had more treatments after that and another treatment after that and still more tries after that. And if all that doesn’t work no one dies in pain. None of this, of course, answered my question which is how does one actually die from lymphoma. It was, however, the answer I expected. No one wants to accept failure. No one wants to be part of a loss of hope.

To be sure, my path with cancer has had its times of lost hope when, as my wife and I refer to it, “I go there.” However, this is not why I asked the question. I wasn’t giving up. I didn’t ask out of despair. I wanted to know. I needed to know. I needed to understand because, for me, I need to know what I am fighting against.

I tell you this story because I have been talking with a few people I really admire who are asking tough questions that could also be easily mistaken for despair. They are questioning professional choices. They are, in their words, becoming cynical. They are “going there” and beating themselves up for it. They seem to feel that people who fight for progress, who are pioneers, aren’t allowed to ask those questions. For some reason questioning a mission is a sin and an admission of defeat. It is not.

I wrote before about using cancer. Using it to re-prioritize, to take a break. While I had hoped that my using cancer days were done, I find myself again facing that re-prioritization. This chemo is tougher than the last. I find it harder to concentrate. I have less stamina. Where the last chemo regime resulted in keynotes and a MOOC, this one is focused on treatment and teaching. This is not a defeat. This is a chance for a professional break and a useful distance. Rather than pumping out the next keynote, I can listen. Rather than pushing out a paper I can read beyond libraries. This is a necessary pause. I have had them before after the closing of AskERIC and after virtual reference went from hot topic to standard service. But that time lead to participatory librarianship and the Atlas. It allowed me to look deeper.

A pioneer and a professional should have a mission and seek to change the world. They will also encounter resistance. They will question the mission and they will question themselves. They will go there. Do not despair. Do not punish yourself for doubt. Do not be afraid to ask how that mission or how that passion will die. Because here is the secret. A good mission and a solid passion will not die easily.

Do you want to know the answer to how this cancer will kill me? It will kill me if I do nothing. It will kill me if I ignore it or if I feel the price of the fight is greater than the price of death. It is not. Changing the world is hard. The cost of the mission is high. It is only reasonable to ask how high and you can only know that answer if you honestly assess the cost of failure. If that cost becomes too dear, then perhaps you were meant to change the world another way.

Beyond the Bullet Points: A New Year’s Wish

I have no more use of resolutions. Last year I resolved to keep the weight off that I had lost during my “mystery ailment” from the months before. I succeeded, but only because gaining weight is not a real problem during treatment for cancer. So for this year, instead of making a resolution I will instead make a wish for you. I wish for you to grow beautifully and gloriously old.

Cancer changes your perspective on old and aging. Some years I would dread my birthday. 35 seemed old. 40 was huge. Now I can’t wait to turn 44. Years like 50 and 60 sound like paradise: a goal to achieve, not a sign of inevitable decline or a label to avoid.

Stop dreading the coming aches and pains. Stop fixating on wrinkled skin and greying hair. To see another year, even if it is just one more year, is no curse, nor a milestone of decline. It is a victory. It is a license to stand proudly before the world and say “I am here. I remain. I matter.”

May we all grow old in the company of our family and friends. Let every ache be a testament to a life well lived. Let every wrinkle be a reminder that you survive and sustain.

Happy New Year.

Beyond the Bullet Points: For the Syracuse LIS Class of 2013

It’s four in the morning and I should be asleep. Commencement starts in 5 hours, but chemo is keeping me awake. I was planning on writing a general message to new LIS graduates, but it just kept feeling overblown and preachy. Instead I’d like to direct my comments to this year’s graduating class of library science students – now librarians – at Syracuse University’s iSchool.

First, know that you are special to me. You were the first class I was responsible for accepting while LIS director. I learned so much from you. I saw how you filled the holes in curriculum and hands on skills by organizing yourselves and building a network of support. That move changed the program, and the school. I saw how you quickly saw beyond buildings and books to communities and proactive service.

Let me, if I may, give you one final lesson – a thought as you head into what for many will be your first job in libraries: Don’t wait. It will be too easy to wait to share your voice and your vision. You will want to wait for some experience. You will want to wait for promotion, or a management position, or the next job…don’t. Your voice, and your fresh perspective are too valuable to wait. The field needs you, just as I needed to learn from you.

I am not asking you to alienate, and I am certainly not excusing you from the obligation of listening. What I am saying is that time is no automatic test of fitness. Good ideas come from new places, and old ideas may need to be retired. The field needs your passion and it needs it now.

I realize that many of you are in your 20s and 30s and see the expanse of your life before you. You have plans, and career tracks, and goals for tomorrow…don’t wait. Don’t wait because now is the time for big and bold ideas. Don’t wait, because you have been prepared as radical positive change agents. Don’t wait, because you never know when all that time you saw before you is taken by lay-offs, an unreasonable boss, or the knife of a biopsy.

You have a voice in this profession not because your newly minted degree entitles you to one, but because you have earned it. I have seen you earn it in the classroom, and beyond. I am proud of you. Change the world!