“Claiming Victory and Moving On” Rutgers University Beta Phi Mu Fall Speaker. New Brunswick, NJ.
Abstract: The rise of information as an idea and discipline since World War II has been driven by the belief that information underlies, and can change, just about every other discipline and industry. Library science scholars, and information scientists have sought to not only understand the nature of information, but to use technology to shape how work is done, and how we see the world. A worldview around information took shape and succeeded to the point that it is hard to identify an industry that is not, at least in part, an information industry. Manufacturing has become computer supported and built upon global logistical networks. Health has become a product of data mining from patient predicted outcomes, to pharmaceutical development, to personal monitoring devices. Journalism, law, even the arts has begun to adopt digital humanities. However, when every industry is an information industry – that is where industries and disciplines have adopted concepts from the information domain and made them their own – what is left in library and information science? What is core to our field that is not part of computer science, or communications, or psychology? Lankes will layout a new emerging world view based not on data, or information, but knowledge and meaning. He will talk about the necessity to shift the narrative in libraries and iSchools and propose an agenda focused on communities and the common good.
Slides: Slides in PDF
“The Future is About Knowledge Not Information” Bibliotheksmetamorphosen 2: Bibliothek 4.0. Winterthur, Switzerland.
Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Abstract: The role of the public library as a place to collect and distribute information seems like an obvious success strategy for an increasingly connected and digital world. Yet there are many players doing this well beyond the capability of libraries. Could it be that the future is not about what libraries collect and distribute, but in how they help people learn from the torrent of information about them? This talk will look at how a shift away from containers and information to learning and knowledge not only situate public libraries for the future, but is the key to any successful industry of tomorrow.
[This is an edited version of the script I used for my talk. However, it is not a word for word transcript. I believe portions were also recorded, and if so I will point to that when available.]
I was asked to prepare my remarks ahead of time for translation. This means I need to read them. Watching me read things is boring, so I have provided some more interesting pictures to look at.
For my talks in Europe I have been challenging myself to try and summarize my talks in a tweet – that appears to be the way of American diplomacy these days, so:
Values only practiced in buildings are like great stores – Limited to those who can afford it, find it, or those that already feel welcome
The organizers of this conference have asked us “what is the future of libraries in the digitized and networked society?”
Now you can just enjoy the pictures.
This is a dangerous question for a geek professor from the states. First it almost begs me to dream in flying cars and futuristic scenarios where we all interact with devices implanted in our brains. What’s worse, this talk is being presented in Switzerland, and from a United States perspective I feel somehow obliged to be amazingly scholarly and reserved.
However, the topic of librarianship truly calls out for something altogether different. It calls for a blunt conversation motivated by passion. Because that’s what libraries are ultimately about – helping communities harness their passion and dreams to create a better tomorrow. Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, once said
“You don’t need to predict the future. Just choose a future — a good future, a useful future — and make the kind of prediction that will alter human emotions and reactions in such a way that the future you predicted will be brought about. Better to make a good future than predict a bad one.”
This quote fits beautifully with my personal philosophy on the future, summed up nicely by Alan Kaye:
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
What I will talk about today are my guiding principles to bring about Asimov’s “good future.” A future where the boundless passions and capabilities of our communities are unleashed by librarians. This is not about maker spaces, or flying cars, or augmented reality in the stacks. All those things may well be a part of tomorrow’s library. However, they should only be there if they match our ultimate mission.
The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in our communities.
Or put more simply, we help communities make smarter decisions, and those decisions in turn lead to a better tomorrow.
How do librarians do this? Well, in many cases we build and maintain libraries. Libraries are community owned platforms, mandated by that community, and curated by library professionals on their behalf. Libraries may be buildings, and may be books, and may have maker spaces. None of these services define the future, however. The future is defined by the dreams of the community.
For us to ensure great libraries for our communities we must, as librarians, become a missionary force. A profession of facilitators that go deep into the uniqueness of our communities, enabling that diversity to foster all sorts of innovation.
In order for us to invent a good future, I believe there are three principles that must guide our work:
The future of libraries is about knowledge, not data
The future of libraries is not neutral
The future of libraries is local and networked
I will takes these in turn.
Let me start out with the required provocative statement: I believe that information will kill librarianship.
I am not talking about the amount of information. Librarianship will not breathe it’s last because of too much information. We no longer talk about information overload. Why, because the mass of digital information that was once seen as overwhelming, has been tamed with the use of smart devices and the development of content filters, often self-imposed, that restrict our views to relevant information. We will come back to the consequences of that filtering in a bit.
I am also not talking about new forms of information access that will be the death of librarianship. This will not be a talk about how Google, or Apple, or Amazon will put libraries out of business. They haven’t and they won’t.
Will fake news and the fragmentation of the information landscape kill librarianship? Ah, now we are getting closer. But it is not fake news or fragmentation themselves that threaten the future of librarianship, rather it is understanding how librarians play a role in responding to these things.
What I am talking about is that information as an organizing philosophy and core concept of the field is the threat. Let me explain with a little history.
All living disciplines change and respond to changes in a larger culture or society. Farmers, for example, may have been around for millennia, but a farmer today no longer functions on the same core beliefs as his or her predecessor. Where once farmers waited for the seasons to dictate crop yields, today’s farmer is proactive picking crops based on forecasts, market forces, and the availability of fertilizers. Where once farmers slowly bred new varieties of plants, today’s farmer is intertwined into complex genetic experimentation and the design of new crops. Technology has transformed farming from a labor-intensive activity of small farms to an industrialized sector with global reach.
As it is with farming, so too is it with librarianship. Today’s librarians share a lot with those who had the title over the past 4 millennia. However, we have changed the underlying concepts that guide us. Libraries as closed stacks curated by scholars gave rise to a new populism that saw libraries as a way to educate the masses. Public libraries grew out of social movements aligned with a growth in democracy and an expansion of rights to the general population.
Much of how we think about libraries today was crafted at the end of the 19th century when industrialization thrust concepts of efficiency and standardization into our consciousness. This new industrialization was met with changes in technology, specifically the dramatic decrease in the costs of printing, to put in place concepts of book palaces. Growth in guilds and labor movements saw the professionalization of the librarian.
Most libraries of today have adopted a new perspective grounded in technology, data, and information. This is not surprising given the amazing advances in the field of information science, telecommunications, and computing. Librarians have come to see their jobs as informing users and serving customers. We all too often forget that our job is not to inform a customer, but to improve the life of a person.
We cannot, as an example, confuse access for impact. Giving an article to a person who cannot read, or providing internet access to someone who is computer illiterate is an act of access with no impact. No impact, other than making the person feel inadequate.
Informing as an act of access, or informing as a means of collecting and analyzing data does not meet our mission. Seeing people as users collapses complex human beings down to an information processor in relation to a system. They use a computer, they use a library. To meet our mission and to bring about our good future, we need to know more than what or how they use something, we must see people as makers of meaning.
In Madison County New York, the librarians of the Cazenovia Public Library sought to improve the life of families in poverty. They set up reading programs in a local food pantry. At the end of several weeks the director, Betsy Kennedy, gave each child a new book. As Betsy handed a book to one small girl, the girl began to cry. When asked what was the matter the girl said this book was the first new thing she had ever owned.
That program was not about giving information in book form to the girl. The program was not about informing the girl. It was about improving the girl’s life. They had done so not only in their outreach, but in showing the girl she was worthy of a new book. She was worthy.
They later expanded the program to provide education and training the parents who came to the food shelter. They then expanded the program throughout the county in food pantries, libraries, and churches. These families were not users, nor customers, but neighbors. The librarians sought to not only inform their neighbors but to demonstrate that these people had worth, and facilitate these families in making meaning of their lives. The library was not a source for access, but a platform to create a future.
In Cuyahoga County Ohio, the public library runs many branch libraries. One of these branches is in a prison. Behind bars librarians provide training and materials. When an inmate is due to be released the librarians set up appointments with a local branch librarian. There the former prisoner can not only check out books, but enroll in job training. It is not the goal of a librarian to provide prisoners with information, it is to provide them with hope and a sense of personal worth. In doing so they seek to decrease recidivism rate, and future incarceration. They are helping that person, and they are helping the community as a whole, and they are helping themselves because the librarians are demonstrating their value and improving a community of which they are a part.
A focus on library as information provider is both an abdication of the role a library plays in our communities and puts us in competition with tool makers. A focus on books circulated, pages transmitted, people in a building are easy counts that miss the larger goal. In our good future, we must traffic in the improvement of lives, not the caretaking of information.
Google, Amazon, Apple, all of these are excellent tools to help us do our jobs. Just as books, buildings, computers, and 3d printers are tools to help us do our job. The goal is not the tools. We are not caretakers of tools, but advocates of our communities. All too often we have adopted an information perspective that merges data with knowledge, books for knowing, and bits for thoughts.
We see this in how some approach the question of information literacy. The problem of fake news and the role of foreign powers in using social media to influence elections is important. However, in our discussion of solutions we give too much power to information and data, and indeed to those who seek to manipulate us. The real problem with fake news is not intentional misrepresentation of news for political or financial gain. That has been with us forever. The real problem is a fracturing of commonly held beliefs and values within our communities.
People are more likely to believe and seek out conspiracy theories and false narratives in the absence of a community held narrative. Nationalism and xenophobia grow when we allow communities to mistrust each other. The solution to rising extremism is not better identification of dates and authors, but bringing diverse community members together to learn and respect one another. In essence, information literacy needs to be less about sources and more about conversation. Less about data and more about trust. Knowledge is information with a social mission and action.
This leads me into my second principle: The future of libraries is not neutral.
And here is where we face the obvious. If you are going to talk about a good future, you have to define what good means. In doing so, you cannot be neutral. If you think a good future is one that uses tax dollars to support libraries? You have a point of view. If you feel more people should read? That too is a bias. Further, do you see the importance of literacy as a function of democratic participation and/or workforce readiness? Those are points of view, and not neutral.
During the recent refugee crisis in the European Union we saw librarians taking in displaced peoples. We saw librarians go out to refugee camps and offer services. When they did so, they were not neutral. Elements of EU communities very much objected as part of the rise of nationalism and xenophobia. These same forces of xenophobia and nationalism are seen in the US where libraries provide library cards to undocumented peoples, and where public libraries provide food support to any comer much to the irritation of nationalists. The librarians are acting out of a bias towards inclusion and service, and that will only become more uncomfortable in our increasingly polarized communities.
I want to be clear, I am talking about libraries being principled, not ideological. For me the good future for libraries involves an organization staffed by principled professionals working in the best interest of their communities and fighting for a vibrant public sphere. Librarians must counter discrimination in all its form. Discrimination based-upon race, gender, sexual preference, and religion (among others) stands in direct conflict with the underlying values of librarianship. We seek to provide physical and intellectual safety to our communities. We seek to become safe places to explore dangerous ideas. We believe that different views must coexist in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
There are those who feel that libraries must be passive, public servants bowing to the will of the people. This is not the role of a professional, nor should it be the role of any member of the community. Librarians should seek to shape the narratives and values of the community just as we expect all sectors of society to do so.
There are those that feel libraries, particularly public libraries, are incapable of shaping communities. That libraries are agents of a larger system of neo-liberal corporate and political interests and thus unable to bring about change. I say this is the worst form of pessimism, and ignores the impact of libraries and librarians throughout history.
In the 1800’s in the US there were many articles and editorials attacking libraries as including seditions and salacious materials. The thing they were worried about? The media that would have young girls thinking beyond their station, and farm boys beyond the farm? The materials that appealed to fallen ladies and denizens of the night? The literary novel.
Today we take for granted that fiction and literary novels are part of library collections. We take it as an assumption that literacy and story-telling are what librarians do. Yet that only happened because librarians chose to stock the materials, and defend them. How we view the public library of today is not an accident, or solely a result of outside influence. Librarians and library staff have continuously honed a vision of librarianship around diversity and narratives for centuries.
And we must continue to do so. We must recognize that while libraries should be a safe place to explore dangerous ideas, they will only be so if we make it happen. Our ideals trapped in a building are as useful as food stocked in a store. If we limit our services to those who can afford it, find it, or those that already feel welcome, we will leave parts of our communities to starve.
In Topeka Kansas, the librarians partnered with schools, and charities to ensure all children were ready for school. As they planned events, tutoring, and programs it became apparent that the neediest members of the community would never benefit from such efforts in the library. These communities were trapped in economic isolation with little to no transpiration to get to the library (or jobs or services). These primarily minority communities were trapped in neighborhoods with little nutritious foods, few jobs, and little ability to escape.
So the librarians approached busing companies, and sought to find means of transportation. When that wasn’t enough they trained their librarians and community volunteers in literacy and sent them out of the building and into the streets of need.
In my own state of South Carolina and in the northern reaches of the Netherlands, librarians have equipped busses with maker spaces, materials, and experts to go to the people in need. They do this not out of a sense of neutrality, but out of a sense of idealism and activism.
The problems our communities face are too important and too entrenched to solve as neutral servants within a building. The needs and suffering of our communities require empathy and passion. What we are bringing to these people is not information or materials, but hope and self-worth. Librarianship is a promise to communities that they are worthy, that learning is a key to happiness, and that all people, no matter their color, or wealth, or politics deserve support.
And this then brings me to my third principle on how we do this: The future of libraries is local and networked.
Switzerland is not the United States of America. It is not Kenya, or Tokyo. The cities and villages of this country are unique. A key part of the passionate caring good future of libraries is in embracing this uniqueness. Some communities aspire to growth, others to economic well-being, still others to a rural lifestyle, or quality of life issues. For some education is a barrier, for others an asset. Our libraries must look and act like these communities.
I do a fair amount of international traveling. I am often fortunate enough to spend some time sightseeing and being in these communities. Some folks in this situation seek out museums, or monuments. I seek out grocery stores. I realize this is odd. Why grocery stores, aside from a clear problem with buying sweets? Because I have found no faster way to discover the similarities and differences in culture.
For example, just about every country’s stores will have bottled water, bread, and cereal. However, when I walked into a grocery store in Beijing, I found a seafood section that to my American eyes looked more like an aquarium. Live shrimp flipping out of bowls, blowfish, and a huge number of living fish I couldn’t begin to identify. In the UK, the milk is warm. In Sweden, most of the candy comes in the form of gummies. I find it fascinating.
Then I walk into the libraries. Big reference desks, stacks of books, some reading space. Certainly, the architecture varies, from renaissance rooms in Italy, to shining steel and glass atriums in Scandinavia. However, how different are they really?
The future library needs to look like its community. Not only in the architecture, but the collection (if there is one) and the services it offers. In the tribal lands of Kenya, libraries keep a collection of tribal robes. These robes are not for display, but use. In the river country of Wisconsin, librarians loan out fishing rods. In Fayetteville, NY an educated community can check out electronics and telescopes. Their collections are shaped by the learning of the communities.
We must also take this localization a step further. We must realize that the community is the collection. In Pistoia, Italy the San Giorgio Library has become the new piazza, or central square for the city. Each week they host dozens of programs where members of the community share what they know. Social workers and iron smiths demonstrate their expertise. Citizens gather for movies and talk about the daily occurrences in a café. In Tilburg, the new library is being built in an old train repair factory – helping to transform the historic industry of the city’s past into an economic engine for the future. The library sits beside, and sometimes within, incubator space for new companies.
Our libraries and their offerings must be as diverse and unique as the communities we serve. We must think very locally. What is considered good, and knowledge, and aspirations must be tied to the ground, not imposed from an international discipline.
In order for this to succeed, however, no library is an island. These very local libraries must be networked. Here I am not talking just about data, and fiber, and the internet. I mean you. It is your job as librarians to seek out the best idea from other libraries, industries, other cultures, and other domains, and contextualize them for your community. Not every library needs a maker space. Those that do may consist of 3d printers, or sewing machines, or recoding studies. It your job to adapt not simply adopt, good ideas for the good of your people.
There is an old joke in technology, that IT never says no, they just how three letter acronyms at you until you stop asking. I am convinced there is a library equivalent. Librarians never say something is a bad idea, just that it is a good idea for someone else. Too often this leads us to compartmentalize the field. I’m not a librarian, I’m a public librarian. I’m not a public librarian, I’m a public services librarian, and so on and so on.
We must realize that we are all librarians and we can learn from each other. I should take a moment to say I have a rather broad definition of librarian. If you were hit by a bus and the library can’t function…you’re a librarian.
So there are my three principles for inventing our “good future” for libraries. Focus on knowledge and impact, not information and data. Be an agent for positive change, and don’t hide behind illusions of neutrality. And build locally while connecting globally.
How does this look in your library, in your community? That’s very much a conversation you have with your public. Will this future involve technology? Yes. Do librarians need to be well versed in internet tools and even data mining? Yes…not all, but some.
I end my remarks with an invitation. An invitation to join a new school of thought in the field, what many of us are calling the Knowledge School. This is not an academic unit in a college, or a place. It is not an association. Rather it is a movement. It is a movement around progressive librarians committed to improving society. It is a network of experts, scholars, practitioners, and allies. The Knowledge School seeks to link together change agents in libraries, government, and industry. It seeks to lay out an agenda to ensure librarianship remains relevant, and our communities vibrant.
The Knowledge School exists at the University of South Carolina and the Frysk Lab of the Netherlands. It is in the work of the Fayetteville Free Library and Chattanooga Public Library. The Knowledge School is in the streets of Toronto where librarians park Wi-Fi enables cars to provide service to neighborhoods. It is in the mountains of Switzerland and the marshes of Thailand. The school consists of librarians in large and small libraries, urban and rural.
The Knowledge School prepares librarians, information specialist, number crunchers, business leaders, and community educators. We send them to libraries and schools, fortune 500s, think tanks, & startups. We put information into action. We change the world. We are a movement. We are the knowledge school.
[This is an edited version of the script I used for my talk. However, it is not a word for word transcript.]
I do not normally speak from a script, but these are important topics and it is worth taking care to ensure language issues do not get in the way of a vital conversation. It also useful for jetlag.
I have taken to summing up my presentations in a tweet in case a certain US President is listening in. Here is my tweet for this one:
Librarians transform communities by weaving together the brilliance of its people. The result is called a library.
Let me begin with thanking the conference organizers for having me. I have fallen in love with Italy. This is my first visit to Umbria, and any chance I get to explore more of this wonderful country is most appreciated.
Part of the reason I love my time in Italy is well represented in today’s agenda. Culture, health, innovation, economic development – you see these forces in work in the streets of Italy’s cities, both new and ancient. Within minutes I can walk from 15th century reading rooms to water-cooled data centers. On trains, I watch the country side flash by olive groves and super-car manufacturing. It is a nation in constant evolution, where history and future are always in conversation.
As a visitor, a tourist really, I can’t begin to fully appreciate the daily fabric of your lives, but I believe I can offer something unique – a fresh perspective. New eyes on your communities and a background in how other cultures and countries have sought to use local resources to advance an agenda of growth and smarter communities.
Today I want to talk about libraries, and more importantly, librarians. I want to talk about libraries in a new way – not as institutions, or collections, but as a platform for weaving communities together, and proactively working to define and then fulfill community aspirations.
I have seen libraries serve as engines of economic development – fostering communities of entrepreneurs and small business. I have seen libraries embrace the neediest members of a community and act as a social safety net integrating the refugee, the homeless, and the poor back into a larger, kinder community. I have seen libraries serve as universities of the people, increasingly literacy rates, improving workforce development for industry, and supporting students online. I have seen libraries crack open treasure troves of cultural heritage and history to a new generation; inspiring the arts and science alike. I have seen libraries step forward and become the only truly functional local government amongst partisan bickering.
All of these libraries had something in common. First is a dedicated core of professionals that proactively engaged their communities. The second is a proactive agenda, where they worked across all sectors of a community to develop a common narrative, and a common mission for the community. All of these libraries that made a difference shared an underlying philosophy based on knowledge and people making meaning in their lives, not information, or books, or a focus on the tools of learning. Lastly, all see the library not as a place, or a collection, but as a platform – a system of systems – that knitted together community expertise. In essence, these librarians understand that the true collection of a library is the community served, not the books and tools that were used in that service.
Let me take these in turn. I begin with that dedicated core of professionals: librarians.
Too many people define a librarian as a person who works in a library. I do not. I see libraries as the things created and maintained by librarians. Now I have a very broad definition of a librarian. Librarians are defined by their mission, their methods, and their values.
The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. It is not to house and hoard books – though they may build collections in the realization of their mission. It is not to catalog – though they certainly have skills in classification and metadata. No, the first important part of defining a library is to realize that it is not what a librarian does that defines them. Rather it is WHY they do.
What you need in your communities, your villages, your towns, your cities, is not a worker, but a missionary – literally, a person on a mission. A missionary that is focused on helping their communities make smarter decision through knowledge creation. Let me simplify that – through learning. The mission of a librarian is to help communities make smarter decisions.
And what do these librarian missionaries do? How do they facilitate learning? That is the second necessary part of defining a librarian. They facilitate learning. Not in a classroom, and not restricted to any grade level, but they help people learn. They help people learn through books and online. They facilitate learning through non-fiction and fiction. They provide the motivation, access, knowledge, and environment to members of a community that seek to make meaning of their lives and improve their station in life.
The last component to define a librarian is the values they live by in their work. Librarians facilitate learning in an open way. They seek to create safe places to explore dangerous ideas. They value and respect diversity – diversity in race, creed, and viewpoints. They believe in intellectual honesty and rationalism. They seek to support decisions with evidence.
So, the first ingredient for bringing our communities together and pushing them forward is in acknowledging that any work done by a library, or any other institution, is done by people. People with skills, but also with values and a strong social mission. The future for a prosperous, interconnected Umbria lies in seeing librarians as proactive change agents.
The second thing held in common by libraries as agents of positive change is a community-held agenda. A library, no matter how capable the librarians that run it, cannot improve a community alone. Librarians must seek to bring together communities to develop a common agenda and plan. Libraries, hospitals, town halls, police, schools, business must come together and set priorities and goals. Is your town a healthy town? An historic place? A center of business?
In Columbia South Carolina, the Richland Library took well over a year to develop their strategic plan. It took that long, because it wasn’t a conversation just of the library staff. They met with mayors, police, school teachers, and community elders. They didn’t ask what the library should do, but rather what the community as a whole wanted to accomplish. The final plan has things you might guess, ways to improve services, ways to improve the staff. However, an entire section of the plan is devoted to community goals.
The Richland Library had as part of their strategic plan:
Help create a strong and resilient economy.
Strengthen community cohesion.
Transform educational outcomes for youth.
Help break the cycle of poverty.
Note, the library wasn’t going to achieve these goals alone – they were going to do it with schools, and police, and community welfare organizations. What is the Umbria strategic plan? What is your towns?
In Topeka Kansas, the public library teamed with charities on their plans that included having all children ready for school. They put together literacy efforts, tutoring, and a host of services. When they discovered that the neediest children couldn’t physically get to the library, they worked with bus companies to provide transportation. When that wasn’t enough they trained first their own librarians, and then a host of community volunteers to leave the library and go into the homes of families.
In Cazenovia New York librarians went into food shelters to deliver services. They worked with parents to finish secondary school and get them into jobs. During the graduation ceremony of their program the director of the library, Betsy Kennedy, was giving out books to the children. When she handed a book to a small 8-year-old girl, the child began to cry. When Betsy asked what was wrong the child responded that this was the first new thing she had ever owned. What Betsy realized is that the library, teaming with the food charity had provide more than a book or education – they had provided self-worth.
That then is the second ingredient to preparing transformational libraries – libraries that can transform communities and individuals – is a proactive agenda. More than just an agenda, it is a plan based on the aspirations and dreams of your community. Stop focusing on the deficits of your communities. Stop defining people by their short comings and needs, and start seeing communities as dreams and possibilities. Betsy Kennedy didn’t go into that food shelter because people were hungry and couldn’t read. She went in because she knew that citizens who were fed and could read could be powerful contributors to society.
The third component to transformational libraries is seeing the core of librarianship as focused on knowledge, not information or books.
While not as concrete as the training of librarians, or the development of community-wide strategic plans, changing the core concepts around information is essential. How you see the foundations of your work changes what you measure, what you value, and ultimately what you do.
We see this in public health. A focus on disease when replaced by a focus on health has dramatically changed public policy. Payments for treatments become investments in wellness visits, vaccination replaces acute care, stopping people smoking becomes a priority over expanding cancer treatment programs.
The same kind of fundamental changes can be seen in education. Replacing an industrial model of standardized education gives way to experiential learning, independent education, and development of critical thinking skills.
One fundamental concept has had dramatics changes on health, education, libraries, and indeed just about every sector of the economy has been a focus on information. In political science, we no longer talk about power bases, but instead information processing. In commerce, we have shifted from marketing to data analysis. The rise of big data and analytics in all aspects of our lives has fundamentally changed how we see and interact with each other. It has led to governments seeing people as customers versus citizens. We see communities as graphs, and hope for predicative algorithms to optimize services.
To be sure information technology and information science has had amazing benefits in our lives. However, an information view has a tendency to focus on things that are quantifiable, see people only in relation to their use of systems, and flatten rich concepts of impact and meaning to simple concepts of access.
Take a simple example. Few would argue that access to the internet is increasingly important for citizens. Yet, this is often only defined as getting citizens online. We look to provide broadband and fiber connections to rural populations. In our cities, we look to smartphones and wireless networks to connect people. How many of these projects assume that access to the internet is the same as being able to improve one’s life through connection? Do citizens have the training to use the Internet? Can they create their own presence on the net? Or have we merely provided them a way to consume more information in the walled gardens of companies that make money on the privacy of our communities?
I live in a rural state. The state government has been connecting small towns, and schools throughout the countryside. The thought is that once students can access the internet they will improve their learning and prospects for the future. This connectivity has been met with a push for moving government services online. This includes providing text books and learning materials. Many students are now required to do school work online. However, too many students don’t have access at home. So now some school districts are transforming school busses to mobile hotspots so that students can do their work on the bus. A bus ride that in some cases takes hours to get the child from home to school and back again.
This student has access now. But has the government improved the opportunities for that child? Has that child been trained in using the internet to not only study, but create and communicate? Has that child been informed that access on smartphones and tablets, the technologies deployed in these schools, can’t be used to create new apps and software? Has anyone taken into account that we are training students to give up socialization for consuming things online, and not preparing them to be authors of their own futures?
This same belief that access is impact and that learning is the same as “informing,” will hold back your libraries from realizing the true potential of their communities. If you are satisfied that your libraries give access to books and documents from others, then you are limiting their potential. Libraries are about knowledge – not information. They are about creation and engagement, not consumption and distribution.
If you want your libraries to be agents of positive transformation in Umbria they need to be populated not just with books, but with musical instruments, classes, tools, and tools for creation. The world of tomorrow belongs to the economy that creates and invents, not consumes and repackages. Tomorrow’s Apples, and Googles, and Amazons will come from the minds of creative learner, not the informed consumer.
We are human, and so we find our meaning and place in this world through knowledge and learning. That learning happens in engaged conversations with our peers, experts, but most importantly, with ourselves. If you want a heathier community you invest in building peer pressure around healthy habits. Having a spouse who doesn’t smoke is infinitely more effective than a poster or brochure on the dangers of tobacco. Your libraries in hospitals, in government, in the public, in universities, must be focused on connection development over collection development.
On my first trip to Italy, a librarian told me the differences between public libraries in the US versus in Italy. In the US, he said, you collect cook books. In Italy, your mother teaches you how to cook. Then, I say, make your mother part of the library. In Pistoia, the library is filled not just with books, but with community members sharing what they know. You can read a book, but you can also sit down with a blacksmith. In libraries across Europe you can check out books, and engineers, and bankers, and professors.
Our 3rd ingredient for transformational libraries is then an attitude. It is a worldview that says we will use information as tools to our real aim – a better life. We will never mistake data analysis for insight, or books for knowledge. Knowledge and learning, are passionate human things. The Renaissance centuries ago was about the birth of humanism and the power of the individual in the universe. Let us not make our legacy the replacing of the human with the algorithm or the decimal point. Data science is a set of amazingly powerful tools, as are books, but they are still jut tools to our ultimate goal, not a replacement.
And so, we come to our last ingredient. This one is really the result of the first 3. It is building and running a library as a platform: a system of systems.
Many think of the library as a single function: collection building. However, libraries have always been a set of function. Even in the most traditional view of libraries they collected, organized, circulated, and found materials. However, these functions rarely made their appearance outside of a single place or organization. What transformational libraries see is that a library is a platform, a system of systems, for the community to determine their own outcomes and do their own work.
Librarians, and the libraries they build and maintain, collect. They aggregate money from taxes, or tuition, or overhead, and purchase shared resources. Those can be books, but in Ann Arbor Michigan it is musical instruments that citizens can use to learn and produce their own music. Libraries can lease databases, or pool real-estate and provide entrepreneurs with co-working space. Libraries can collect the writing of the community and publish them to the world.
Libraries organize materials, but they can also organize events, workshops, professional development, and whole curricula.
Libraries circulate fishing rods to sportsmen to support local economies. Libraries provide massive bandwidth to software engineers that want to telecommute to work.
Libraries have partnered with local news outlets to create archives, and organize citizen journalists. They have also used their organizational skills to coordinate teams of citizen scientists in genetics and zoological research.
Transformational libraries take millennia of skills and experience and now provide those as services to the whole community. They team with hospitals to create community health answering services. They team with emergency management to provide trusted and safe places in times of tragedy. They do these things because they are based on core skills of librarianship and, as important, because it is part of their mission.
At this point let me make one thing clear. I have been using examples from the United States. However, I could easily pull examples from throughout Europe to Africa, to Asia. I could talk about the Frysk Lab in the Netherlands bringing coding and making skills to students in rural schools. Or I could talk about community outreach in Liverpool or Cologne, as I have done in Pistoia.
So, there are my four ingredients to transformational libraries:
• A dedicated core of professionals
• A proactive agenda of community improvement
• A foundation in learning and knowledge
• A view of a library as a platform.
But what is missing is the big question. Why a library in the first place? Couldn’t a school play this role? Don’t many of the ministries represented here today already serve these roles? The answer is that schools and ministries, and business, and churches, and charities all play an important role in the vision of the engaged community. However, in many places the library is the last institution that stretches to all boundaries of a community.
Public libraries stretch from early literacy activities to end of life decisions. Academic libraries serve classics departments and physics programs. What’s more, libraries are the institutions that interact with these diverse communities in knowledge. Police certainly serve the whole community and seek to improve society, but it’s not necessarily where we want our teenagers hanging out. Likewise, our schools are for children, our universities for scholars. Libraries connect them all. They provide the last piazza, community square. Libraries can be the place that connects ministries and schools, and commerce, and faith systems together to people seeking to make meaning in their lives.
In his excellent book Sapiens historian Yuval Harari talks about the origins of the scientific revolution and the ascendency of western Europe in global history. He points out that the key to moving forward was actually a wide-scale acceptance of ignorance. Up until the renaissance, and later the Enlightenment, there was a common belief that all that needed to be known was known. If it wasn’t in a holy text, or understood by an elder, then it didn’t matter. This led to a wide scale belief that the best of days was actually behind us.
This idea was brought home to me as I toured the Roman ruins of Rome. Here were people during the so-called dark ages living literally in the shadow of former accomplishment. Harari says that until society accepted that there were things that were not known, and more importantly, that learning these things could benefit society. Cells, atoms, planetary systems, gravity, algebra were not in the bible, but could advance man’s understanding of the universe. Medicine, electronics, industry came when we saw the past not as a place for emulation or lost greatness, but as a foundation to move forward. To be sure the results are not always good or humane or equitable. But it has engendered within our cultures an optimism and aspiration.
I am asking you to unleash your libraries and librarians. I am asking you to both equip and obligate librarians with living up to their full potential. Free the librarians from the stacks, Set them loose throughout Umbria with a mission to connect our communities and institutions. Set them on the path of uncovering the aspirations of every citizen and refugee and connecting those to your resources and capabilities. Tell librarians you want your libraries filled with students, and blacksmiths, and entrepreneurs, and doctors, and teachers not to consume, but to invent the future of the state, the country, the continent, and indeed the world.
“A New Librarianship” Georgia Libraries Conference. Columbus, GA.
Abstract: Repeat after me: “Access does not equal impact or knowledge or improvement.”…unless you are also talking about access to education, economic opportunity, good schools, good nutrition, transportation, and resources. Yes, libraries are part of a whole network where we meet our communities’ needs, but we cannot simply assume all these needs are being met. We must be part of a proactive system that seeks to ensure them. We are not simply doing collection development with books and databases, but with schools, faith communities, philanthropies, social services, and the government. We must seek to connect the vast and diverse players toward equitable access across our communities.
Slides: Slides in PDF
“Forget the Future: Our Time is Now” RUSA President’s Program, American Library Association Annual Conference. Chicago, IL.
Slides: Slides in PDF
Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Abstract: Our communities-our colleges, our towns, our schools, our businesses-need us. As those we serve face growing tensions of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, extremist politics, and social media sites that seems better at building filter bubbles than societies there is a need for a community of professional dedicated to the common good and founded on knowledge. However, our communities don’t need us to gate keep a collection, offer up workshops, or staff a building. They need us adding value to their lives with them in their homes, classrooms, offices, and devices. This talk will explore how reference and user services not only remain relevant, but mobilize to addresses the real challenges of today’s community.
“A Carolina School of Librarianship” Metrolina Annual Conference. Charlotte, SC.
Abstract: In academic and disciplinary circles there is a rare occurrence when a school, an organizational unit, transforms into a school of thought. This kind of school of thought galvanizes thinking between scholars and practitioners to change how we think about something. Classic examples include the Chicago School of Architecture where new building technologies lead to a way of designing city buildings that eventually defined modernism, the modern skyscraper, and changed the look of cities forever. There was also the Chicago school of economics and social science. These influential communities of thinkers and doers can change the whole world.
I think we are ripe for a Carolina School of Librarianship. In North and South Carolina we have a concentration of outstanding scholars and libraries. We have library leaders in public, academic, school, and special libraries. If we can come together to think together, to develop common impacts, to share we can forge an agenda and way of thinking about the field that would have global influence. In this talk I would like to outline some aspects of that school that I think can serve as a foundation for this and talk about the outsized influence the people in the room can have across the globe.
Slides: Slides in PDF
[Please note that this presentation is only half of the full session. The second half included a discussion with Nicole Cooke of the University of Illinois, Miguel Figueroa of ALA’s Center for the Future, and Scott Walter the University Librarian of DePaul University. Unfortunately I was not set up to record their insightful remarks.]
“The Social Responsibility of the Library and the Librarian in a Post-Factual World” Dominican University School of Information Studies Annual Follett Lecture. Chicago, IL.
Abstract: Introduction to a panel discussion on neutrality and objectivity in librarianship.
Slides: Slides in PDF
[This is not an actual transcript of my talk, but rather speaking notes I used to prepare and captures the main points. Excuse the typos and lack of copy edits]
I believe that we have an amazing opportunity before us. An opportunity not only to increase the impact and reputation of the school, not only to advance the cause of school librarianship within the state, but to set the agenda for library and information science nationally and globally.