A new normal – renaissance of the public library

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

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

Speech Text: See below

Script for the talk (typos and all):

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

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

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Come together: Librarians across borders for better communities

“Come together: Librarians across borders for better communities.” Next Library Festival 2021. Online.

Abstract: The great success of librarians in transforming libraries around their communities must be matched by a reinvention of library networks. These networks must be agile peer-to-peer connections of people.

Speech Text: See below

Script for the talk (typos and all):

Here’s the Too long; Didn’t Read version of my talk: The systemic change of libraries being shaped around their communities must be matched with a systemic change in the community of librarians themselves. Hierarchy and structure must give way to agile networks of people-not institutions.

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Libraries Leading the New Normal

“Libraries Leading the New Normal.” Computers in Libraries 2021. Online.

Abstract: Insurrection, pandemic, racial awakening, climate crisis, a looming wealth gap. Libraries of all types are functioning in a time unlike any in history. What role can librarians play in times such as these? The answer must be to rebuild trust and reaffirm the foundations of our very democratic ideals one community at a time. Librarians must join with those we serve in forging a new normal that embraces diversity over division, collaboration over ideology, and seeks a unified equitable future. Doing so requires us to build a pragmatic agenda for a new normal based on a foundation beyond collections and access.

Slides: Slides in PDF

Librarians Building the New Normal

“Librarians Building the New Normal.” Brazilian Federation of Associations of Librarians, Information Scientists and Institutions Keynote. Via Video

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script or in Portuguese

Abstract: If librarians wish a better world, they have to make it better, not wait for it to happen.

Alternative Video: Use this link to watch the video with Portuguese captions plus listed the the questions and answers.

Audio:

Librarians Building the New Normal from R. David Lankes on Vimeo.

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

Greetings, and thank you for having me. I would like to thank Dr. Prado in particular, not only for the invitation, but also for being such a great collaborator over the years.

I see that the theme for today is “Libraries for a better world.” I have to tell you that after the past year, I could certainly use a better world right now. After this past year, a world without COVID would be nice. Without the isolation of the pandemic, without the loss, and the fear would be nice. A better world where public health is not intertwined with political ideologies. Where a mask is not a statement.

A better world where we don’t pit the economy against the environment and where the color of your skin or the place of your birth does not determine your future.

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What is a Librarian

“What is a Librarian?” Newcomer Project Meeting. Video Conference for the Erasmus+ NEWCOMER Project.

Abstract: What skills are needed by a librarian is set by how you define a librarian.

Library as Place: Comments to Advisory Group for the National Strategy for Public Libraries in Scotland

Welcome to Scotland Sign

“Library as Place.” Advisory Group for the National Strategy for Public Libraries in Scotland. via Video.

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script

Abstract: Where Scotland’s public libraries need to go over the next 5 years in terms of places to support the aspirations of communities.

Audio:

[This is the script I used for my talk. I’ve also taken the opportunity to add some foot notes and links.]

Greetings and thank you for giving me time to talk about the importance of library and place at this unique point in time and moving forward. I have had the good fortune to observe and speak with librarians around the globe, including in Scotland, and see a very bright future ahead for public libraries if we invest now. Libraries have been and will continue to be vital social infrastructure for communities. They provide safe physical and digital spaces for citizens to explore dangerous ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an intimidating prospect thinking about the role of public libraries over the next 5 years. The world is changing, it seems, minute by minute. How do we forecast 5 years ahead? Well, there is good news. It turns out that in this pandemic, the process of evolution in libraries over the past decade have served us well. Today we know the library as a platform, physical and virtual, that helps communities make smarter decisions, and to help citizens find meaning in their lives.

There is a lot I could talk about, and advocate for, around the next 5 years of Scottish public libraries, but for today, let me limit my comments to the library as a place. A place online and on the ground that is part of a community crafting a new normal post pandemic. I start with a sample of how world-class public libraries have begun creating a new normal in communities globally.

In the suburbs of Oslo a branch library acts as a community living room hosting live music and an annual comicon. Meanwhile downtown the new central library has just opened with half the books as the previous main library to make room for meeting rooms, theaters, maker spaces and lecture halls to host community conversations. The role of library as convenors and facilitators of vital conversations comes from the fact that in Norway, as in Finland, the library law mandates public libraries support and promote conversations around democracy.

In Aarhus Denmark the central library has an enormous bell at its center that rings with the birth of every new child in the city. It is an auditory reminder that the library is connected to the citizens from the moment they are born. The librarians have such a strong relationship with their community that there are buildings they simply leave unlocked afterhours – allowing the community use of the library 24 hours a day. The library there is seen not as a place or a building, but as a movement where librarians work with local community organizations and businesses to advance the needs of the community.

Here in the states Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City have made public libraries the cornerstones of economic and urban revitalization plans.

In Charleston South Carolina the community is turning to the library to help lead the city in increasing diversity, addressing social justice issues, and facilitating a conversation on a more just and equitable future.

Before I go farther, there is a point I cannot overstate – though I will try – all of these places may have beautiful architecture, a fine collection of materials, but none of them would rate a mention without the people that staff them. Librarians, community organizers, volunteers, all are what make a library great.

If all you do in the next 5 years is install WiFi, and loos while adding a few dollars to the collection budget, it will be 5 years wasted. What Scotland needs is a network of connected professionals dedicated to not only serving local needs but connecting local expertise to national aspirations and impacts. We are in the middle of history. Yes, the pandemic, but also a point as a world of growing xenophobic nationalism, a growing wealth gap, racial awakening, and shifting international alliances. An inflection point where democracy being tested. Scotland deserves a public library service that tends to our damaged certainty in the world and one that will knit together a social fabric that uses the diverse brilliance of her citizens to lead the way to a better tomorrow.

That may seem like a tall order, but we know how to make it happen. First, I beg you, do not think of libraries as buildings or collections. Don’t even think of them as originations and institutions. Think of them as platforms.

In technological terms, a platform is a set of functions and systems that are not only integrated tightly together, but can be used to create new services. The internet, for example, is very much a platform. It dictates how data can be shipped around a network, and defines certain features like how much data can be funneled down wires, and how to find a given computer or phone. But on top of that infrastructure, all we think of and love – or hate – about the net is built by the community. Search, social media, video sharing, train ticketing are all services built by the internet community on top of the internet platform. If you get a platform right, you can never anticipate the future, but you make it easy for communities to innovate and meet their own needs.

Now think of the public library. It should be a platform that allows local communities to build a whole host of services and experiences – both digital and physical. From something very traditional like a book group that uses a collection and a physical meeting space; to supporting entrepreneurs with things like 3D printers for prototyping and video studios for marketing their inventions. The value of a library as a platform is not measured in things like books circulated, shelf space allocated, or gate counts, but in the success of the community it supports.

The library platform consists of spaces and online catalogs (which should absolutely be linked together) and services like training. Once again, given the limited time, let me focus on the physical aspects of the public library platform, particularly, as some may question the need for an investment in bricks and mortar in these days of Zoom calls and virtual conferences.

Right outside of Florence Italy is the town of Pistoia. As a bedroom community for a large city, it has grown, and eventually a picturesque renaissance city has become a modern suburb, with no central square or piazza to congregate in. To reconnect the cities residents the city built the San Georgio public library as the new piazza. It had a café, and a large indoor and outdoor space to gather. On the weekends the library sponsors 50 different programs from iron working, to movie discussions, to cooking demonstrations. These programs are not run by the librarians however. They are run by the true collection of any library: the community.

This is the new vital role for librarians: community management. Just as professional librarians maintain, organize, and advise on a collection of books – now they are organizing, advising and connecting the community together. Librarians ensure that people feel welcome in the space, but also challenged to learn and grow. Professional librarians facilitate learning of citizens and the community as a whole.

How librarians do this? By ensuring the library platform is responsive and is truly co-owned by the community. This can and should take very different forms that embrace what is unique about a local community.

The British Library, for example, realized that if the goal of the library in terms of supporting business, was to grow new business, it had to change its physical space. In place of stacks of business books and periodicals, it installed group workspaces. It provided a stage for speakers, and a social space for networking. It filled the space not with stuff, but with specially trained librarians with certifications in business development. It created a mentoring program. These services also extend beyond the physical space and continue even in the current pandemic online.

In Philadelphia a library wanting to support local music within the city sat down and asked musicians what they wanted in a library. The musicians didn’t say more music databases or loanable scores, but two grand pianos on a stage. Musicians seek to perform. While popular bands used the local pubs to network and play, there were no venues for those interested in classical and experimental music. Musicians wanted that venue to be the library.

The plan was to have musicians meet and collaborate and then perform original music at the library. The library then recorded the music and streamed it to the globe. Instead of going to the local library to hear the music of the world, the world could now come to a citizen’s local library to hear them. Libraries around the world are loaning out instruments, and then building recording studios to put the instruments to work. They are becoming publishers of the community sharing the talent of the local globally.

In other communities libraries are using their physical spaces to build community gardens. They are taking the harvests and building farmers markets where there were none, including in food desserts where inner city families don’t have ready access to healthy produce.

In rural areas librarians and the libraries they manage are loaning out fishing poles and working with town elders to create hyperlocal wifi hubs on walking trails to share the history of the region.

All over the globe library buildings are going from quiet buildings with a few loud rooms, to loud buildings with some quiet spaces to read. This isn’t instead of traditional missions in literacy, but to extend that mission. Children find joy and excitement in reading through shared story times. One library even started a yoga reading time for parents and their children. The library also had pop-up story times that weren’t scheduled, they just happened when a critical mass of kids were in the room. Rather than ask the community to conform to the schedule of the library, the library, as all libraries should, shaped itself to the community.

At my university we pack our undergraduate students and the school mascot into a bus and drive to the poorest schools in the state to do read alouds that show all children that reading is the path to a better life. In the Netherlands a maker bus drives from school to school bringing WiFi, 3d printers, laser etchers, and other technologies otherwise unavailable to the students.

The physical space of libraries also ensures the success of the digital. The ALMPub project out of Norway examined the role of physical cultural heritage institutions like libraries and museums in an increasingly digital age. They asked the question – do we still need the physical footprint as government and businesses alike are going all digital with their services. They examined citizen uses of public spaces in Norway, Germany, and as far as Hungry. What they found was that as so much of life, particularly public life, was digitized, people needed physical common spaces more. They needed a place not just for training and service, but to be a community. To be together.

You’ve no doubt felt this same need in these days of COVID. Stuck at home, interacting through screens, cut off from colleagues, we crave connection and time to simply be in the same place at the same time. Now imagine before or after the pandemic when it is not disease that keeps you away, but long hours at multiple jobs, or inadequate access to public transportation that leads to over long commutes, or simply no place to actually go. People don’t want to hang out at the police station, or the fire house, or city hall. What other civic institution is left that can serve all citizens regardless of their income, their race, their religion, or their age? And if you don’t see that place as a library, you expect far too little from your libraries.

Please understand that I am not advocating a laundry list of prescribed hardware, services and floor plans for every library in Scotland. I am proposing the exact opposite. Yoga story hours, music studios, and traveling makerspaces are not going to meet the needs of all communities. What you must do in this five year plan, is to set up what the platform is. Then, local needs and aspirations drive the services on top. Some services built by librarians, but an increasing number built by other community members.

The core of the library platform must be a shared mission. Local libraries are going to look and act very differently – they are going to look and act like the local community. It is the job of the librarians, with a shared mission, to gather the best ideas from across the country, and then contextualize and adapt them to local needs. And that shared mission? The mission of a librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Or put more simply – librarians and the libraries they build, make the world better by helping people learn.

How does that play out in real life? Well, take the horror that is this current pandemic. We know this virus has caused change, death and uncertainty throughout the globe. What are we doing to learn from it? Are our libraries gathering local stories, articles, oral histories? When I think about this challenge I think of Tilburg, a town in the Netherlands, that was once a thriving train town.

The citizens of Tilburg built and repaired trains for systems across Europe. Yet as manufacturing shifted to Asia, the train industry all but disappeared. Several years ago Tilburg’s economy was rebounding with a new emphasis on small business startups and education. They decided to turn an abandoned train maintenance warehouse into the new public library.

However, before they laid one new piece of steel, they had pop up events in the warehouse to try different layouts and different programs. They invited the community in. Around the warehouse they set up enormous touch screens with photos and videos showing the history of the train industry in the town. Retired rail workers would come in and tell librarians about where they worked and what they did. The librarians would guide these workers to the touch screens and help them record their story, adding to the history. The building, the place, became a memory palace that the community built and owned. Not just with their tax dollars, but with their life experience.

I will end my remarks today with one final story, and a bit of self-interest. A small community in New Zealand was building a new public library. It was in a neighborhood called Ironwood, named for the fact that 150 years earlier the trees of the region were cut down to run iron foundries. The community wanted to commemorate this past and so on a 3 story interior wall they placed stencils of trees. Then they built a scaffolding allowing the community to climb all three stories. On the scaffolding the library placed buckets of paint mixed with soil from the site. Community members would climb the scaffolding, dip their hands in the paint, and mark a handprint on the wall. When the library was complete the scaffolding and stencil come down and what was left was a mural of a forest made up of the hands of the community.

My family traces its roots back to the McDowalls of the lowlands and the reign of Kind David the first of Scotland. Some of the libraries you are building and planning are on the soil of my ancestors and nothing will make me prouder of my heritage than knowing that Scotland supports a thriving network of public libraries dedicated to learning, rooted deeply in the local community, and with a corps of professional librarians dedicated to healing a people and empowering citizens to dream.

Thank you.

Never Neutral, Never Alone

“Never Neutral, Never Alone.” Transforming LIS education for professionals in a global information world: digital inclusion, social inclusion and lifelong learning IFLA Satellite Conference. Vatican City (via video).

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script

Abstract: Library science is getting harder to teach. The variety in libraries of all types is increasing as more and more mold themselves to their communities rather than field-wide norms. How can library science education change to meet the new variety, and the variety in a post-neutrality world.

Audio:

[This is the script I used for my talk. I’ve also taken the opportunity to add some foot notes and links.]

Never Neutral, Never Alone

August 22, 2019

It is time to have a frank conversation about LIS education. The problems with how we prepare librarians are often phrased as a gap between theory and practice. The argument goes that library schools are not producing graduates with a real-world practical skills; instead focusing on generalities and theory. This is a perennial argument, and if there was a library school in ancient Greece, I’m sure Dewey’s Socratic equivalent would be criticized for not preparing students to argue effectively in a marble building as opposed to a brick one.

This theory/practice gap, however, is not the real problem. The real problem is that no one knows what new librarians need in the second year of their career, much less their 25th. There is no common entry point, because there are fewer and fewer commonalities between libraries. As libraries of all types are organizing themselves around the local needs of a community – be it a town or a university or a school or a hospital, the differences in working environments for librarians is changing not only quickly, but diversely. What once was applying a standard set of reference skills to an owned set of databases, or applying cataloging skills to local classes and codes, is now about community outreach librarians knowing the unique culture of a city, or a user-experience librarian learning the realities of undergraduates in a particular school at a particular time.

The libraries that we hold out as global exemplars like Dokk1 in Aarhus, or LocHal in Tilberg, or San Giorgio in Pistoia, or the libraries at University of Michigan or there at the Vatican with its petabyte data center and global digitization initiatives are as diverse as they are impressive. No one school can prepare all starting librarians for all libraries. This doesn’t even consider the inclusion of archives, special collections and research services that are not even connected to traditional library institutions.

The standards and competencies we develop will continue to become more general, and more focused on lifelong learning and community engagement areas. Where once we could define cataloging skills down to the standard, we now must recognize that information organization can take the form of MARC, RDA, FRBR, Dublin Core, or just general concepts of the semantic web. Theories of classification still apply, and still must be taught, but the specific skills that accompany these skills are now purely illustrative. Where once we taught reference as a series of genres like atlases, and encyclopedias, today we teach learning theory and pedagogy. These are important areas to teach, but they will never meet the mark of first year practical skill.

Before I jump into thoughts on addressing this situation, let me say these are good problems to have. The reason there is no canon of skills is that librarianship is a vital and dynamic profession. The reason there is so much diversity in the field is because the need for librarianship is growing. The communities we seek to serve are becoming more diverse and varied because we are at least attempting to go beyond real barriers of class and race. If all we were doing was preparing spare parts for a handful of libraries that hadn’t changed in decades, our stable and satisfying curriculum would be the surest sign of the impending death of libraries.

No, the answer is not to try and develop a single standard for all, but to create continuous systems of learning that are agile, connected, and embedded. The library education of tomorrow, and increasingly, today, must smash the divide between the “real world” and the “academic.” It must also break the idea that one degree at the outset of a career is sufficient preparation for an entire lifetime of serving a community. Lastly, it must also fully embrace that we are preparing librarians, not library workers. And accept that librarians are not neutral, and must develop skills that are as much about resilience and self-examination as they are about how to run an organization.

Let me take these ideas in turn. I’ll begin with agility. What is an agile system of library education? It is one that is constantly seeking out not only best practices in librarianship, but innovative ones. It develops a curriculum and means of delivering that curriculum that are flexible and can be deployed quickly. One example of this is in Norway where the Akershus University College of Applied Science’s Department of Archivistics, Library and Information Science holds a biannual conference for its alumni and other librarians. It is a chance to not only bring in the latest thinking from the field, but to connect and listen to graduates and what they need.

At the University of South Carolina, we are pairing every library science degree with a specialized certificate that documents areas of focus such as data science, health information and so on. However, we have structured the certificate so that the specialties can change from year to year. We see students getting certificates in artificial intelligence and librarianship, library construction and design, and service to refugee populations. The list of specialties will be long and change year to year, student to student, as the world these librarians seek to serve changes.

Which brings me to my second new “standard” for library science education – connected. I would love to say my faculty represented hundreds of specialists all expert in the latest develops in the field. They do not. They are scholars with specialties and a broad view of the field, with an ability to connect practice with larger concepts. However, our alumni and the institutions they work for, and that we partner with, do represent hundreds of specialists developing and deploying innovative services in communities across the globe. Library schools must be a part of creating a network of libraries directly engaged in the education of new librarians. 

This goes well beyond a set of adjuncts who teach a few classes, or internships, or field trips. We must develop a network of libraries that share both in the responsibilities of education and the funding of such systems. The library science school of tomorrow is truly a hub that delivers a core of library concepts and research skills, and then connects students with developing innovations in the field. Your faculty may be on the tenure track or working the reference desk. Your mentor may have the tile of professor, or librarian, or archivist, or programmer. The hub ensures rigor in the learning, but more importantly ensures cohesion in a student’s degree.

The dynamism in the library profession can be clearly seen in the enormous offerings of professional development. A librarian could spend a week just sitting in webinars and online workshops in just about any aspect of the library profession. Our library associations, our vendors, our universities, our publishers, our libraries are in the midst of an amazing creative rush of developing online education. However, there are no real attempts to coordinate and link all of these together into a coherent understanding of the field. Faculty in the library school of the future will spend as much, if not more time evaluating portfolios of these diverse online resources as they do teaching classes. The days when the expertise of a field was contained within a single library school are gone. The days when the totality of library expertise could be represented in a single faculty are gone. 

We must look to other models of how we prepare professionals, hence, “embedded.” That network of libraries and expertise we build must also be seen as places for residencies where we embed students for direct, contextualized learning. The advent of online education has made place irrelevant in many of our programs. You no longer have to move to Columbia to get our degree. However, in making this shift, we have also lost the power of place. We must now join the power of place with the flexibility of online. 

Students will no longer move to Columbia because that’s where the faculty are, they will move to Aarhus, and the Hague, and Taiwan, and Charleston because that’s where innovative practices are being formed. Taking a page from the medical residence, we are turning our network of partners into residency opportunities for our students. Libraries can use these residencies to attract the best new librarians to job openings, and the students gain authentic specialized knowledge on top of the core we provide. And hosting these residencies is an opportunity to expand the learning of the students to the learning of the whole organization.

In Charleston South Carolina, the local school district pays for 10 in-classroom teachers to get their master’s degrees and become school librarians. The funds for these cohorts are then re-invested in the school district. The tuition of the students pays for national speakers, onsite workshops, even open course development that are provided to the entire district. This creates a sustainable means of continuous library education well beyond the granting of a degree. By enrolling 10 teachers, the district enrolls the whole district in library school.

And what are these students learning in their residencies and in the network? They are learning to be librarians. Not people who work in a library, but a set of values, research skills, and a mission they will take with them to jobs in libraries, or the technology sector, or the banking sector, or government. They will be going into these libraries, and businesses and governments a point of view. They are not neutral deployers of skills, they are professionals on a quest to improve communities through learning. They will go not as parts of a system, but as advocates for inclusion, privacy, access, and openness.

In order to prepare these librarians, we must develop a curriculum of self-reflection and analysis. We must address, in the curriculum, self-care, vocational awe, resiliency, and self-awareness. These are not soft skills, but techniques that allow our librarians to assess, engage, and adapt to community needs and realities. It is no longer acceptable that we send out librarians into communities prepared to answer reference questions, but unable to process the poverty they may find there. It is no longer acceptable to train academic librarians to recognize gaps in the collection, but not to recognize student homelessness. It is no longer acceptable to train archivists who do not understand the politics inherent in controlling the memory of a community.

Analysis cannot be limited to the individual and introspection, however. Methods of analysis – of research- are necessary. No matter the environment our new librarians find themselves, they will need to know how to understand a community, how to assess services, how to collect, analyze, and protect data. Participation is a goal, and we shall never know how well we are matching that goal without instruction in research methods – instruction that is embedded in real communities with real questions, and contextualized methodologies. 

And so these are my new metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of a library science program:

Agility – what ongoing methods are in place to identify, evaluate, and prepare students for developments in a rapidly changing profession?

Connectedness – who are the partners networked with the program and its faculty to ensure direct connection of the classroom to the field?

Embeddedness – what are the program’s ability to deliver authentic field experiences to students that allow them to contextualize theory and research methods?

Resiliency – how prepared are librarians to face, understand- that is analyze-and solve the problems in a community in line with the professional mission and values of librarianship?

Today the librarians we prepare are building makerspaces, they are crunching masses of data in civic redevelopment projects, they are saving tweets for posterity, and housing masses of research data. Our graduates are delivering knowledge and food to rural communities left behind in an information economy. They are supporting the research of Nobel laureates and citizen scientists fighting for clean drinking water. They are fighting for access to the world’s knowledge in developing economies and bring dignity to marginalized communities. They need a strong platform to prepare them for this work and then support them throughout that work. Library science programs can be that foundation, but not alone. We must connect the innovative librarian stifled in a large bureaucratic library with an innovative librarian revolutionizing a small town a continent away. And connect them both to scholars and the means for continuous learning.

Library schools are a vital part of the reinvigorated library profession. Yet, just as we have seen the road to success for libraries is in adapting to and including the community, so too must our schools become open platforms orchestrating participation and adapting to the community of our alumni.

Thank you.