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.

The Knowledge School: or Why Teaching Library Science is Getting Harder

“The Knowledge School: or Why Teaching Library Science is Getting Harder.” École de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l’information, Université de Montréal. Montreal, Canada.

Abstract: A school of thought represents a shared set of approaches, beliefs and values shared by a diverse set of players. A prime example is the Chicago School in architecture that wasn’t a department, but a shared vision of architects, engineers, and city planners. In this presentation, Lankes discusses the merging knowledge school and how it is shaping the field globally.

Slides: Slides in PDF

The Library as a Movement

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

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

Audio only of the conversation

Expect More: From Change Agent to Advocate

“Expect More: From Change Agent to Advocate.” Congrès des professionnels et professionnelles de l’information. Montreal, Canada. (via video conference)

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Abstract: Society needs librarians who are non-neutral, proactive change agents.

With French Subtitles

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

Bonjour, je m’appelle David Lankes … and with that I will stop abusing your beautiful language.

Today I’m here to talk about being a change agent. I am also with you today to celebrate the translation of Expect More, a book I developed with libraries across North America to help change agents move our libraries and librarianship forward. I will refer to some ideas today that are explored in greater depth in Expect More and I hope you will become part of the conversations around the book and the field moving forward.

So what can I say about change agents? I could talk about things like the power of narratives. I could talk about the difference between innovation and invention. I could put up models of change, show the famous Everett Rogers Diffusion of Innovation distribution of early adopters to laggards. I could talk tactics like building a coalition of the willing and how to get the resistant on your side.

I could, and may, talk about those, but to begin I would like to tell you a joke, and then ask you a question. Here’s the joke:

An old professor of mine used to tell me Change is like Heaven…everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but no one wants to go first.

And this leads to my question. If you are preparing to be a change agent, what change are you preparing for? Many of folks who resist change are not stubborn or chronically cynical – they are unsure. We who seek change often have passion and enthusiasm, but sometimes lack the specifics needed for folks to evaluate and accept the change.

You see, that’s the problem with change. Many of us assume it is a positive thing. We talk about technological advances, not technological randomness – even though all of those advances at once can lead to extraordinary disruptions in our lives and communities. Yes, I can now transmit pictures of my lunch instantly to my friends, but at the same time thousands of people can now know where I am eating. I can email folks in the middle of the night with my great idea, but at the same time I can have a boss asking me how we are coming along on that great idea first thing the next morning.

And it is hardly just technology. Not even 5 year ago in the United States we were celebrating a Supreme Court decision that made gay marriage legal. Now we have a federal Department of Justice and Education saying that firing someone for being gay is legal, and trans students in schools have no protection.

Every year in South Carolina we graduate our new librarians in Rutledge Chapel. Rutledge was the first building that housed the South Carolina College – now the University of South Carolina. During the US Civil War, the building was used as a hospital for confederate soldiers. After the war it was opened up as a Normal School where professors of all colors trained freed slaves to be teachers.

However, once union troops withdrew and a new governor was elected he shut down the normal school and the college and re-opened it a year later for only white male students. It would be another 83 years until the university accepted another black student. I tell this story to our graduates to make the point that no change, not even a something so vital as a civil right is ever permanently won.

So, I assume that we are all here because we seek positive change in the library field. We want our communities, be they towns, or colleges, or businesses, to be well served.

But of course, that is not enough to enact change. What does well served mean?

I am here to tell you that we can no longer answer that in the way that we used to. We must expect more out of ourselves, our institutions, and our communities. And in order to do that – we must let go of long held notions of the field.

The first idea we must move past is that librarians and the institutions we build and maintain are neutral. If we talk about positive change, if we talk about smarter communities, if we talk about improved service – we have a point of view. Even if we talk about quality – we must acknowledge that high quality is different from low quality, and that takes a judge or arbiter.

We have seen the narratives of libraries change over the past decade. No longer do we talk about libraries as collections, or libraries as access points. Today we talk about libraries as transformational; we talk about a library’s mission as center of a community, or even necessary to promote democratic participation. We point to studies of libraries as investments returning so many dollars for every number of cents invested.

This line of reasoning is not neutral. Democratic participation is seen as good – community building as a proper use of dollars, and return on investment as a useful metric. Decisions all.

After we acknowledge that we are not neutral – that we seek to do good, to make positive change in communities – we must know there is a difference between providing a community with what it wants and providing them with what it needs.

Now, this has always been the case and it has reinforced some of the worst parts of society when seen in retrospect. Carnegie built libraries because, in his opinion, the workers could not choose what was best for them. We segregated libraries in the United States to prevent civil discord. We kept fiction out of public libraries because it was not seen as educational. Libraries are products of their society’s failures as much as their successes. Even so, libraries must quest to constantly do better.

So today, libraries do not seek to become Amazon because we believe in the importance of privacy and the need to serve all in a community – not just those who can afford it. We fight against racism and intolerance because diversity and learning are core to our mission, and the richest learning occurs in the presence of the most diverse views. These values of transparency, diversity, and learning don’t just stop at the library door – they must become part of our mission to instill them in the community itself. To be a true change agent is not to serve a member of the community, but to empower that person to advocate for their own needs and aspirations. And when some sector of our community is unable to advocate for themselves – then we must be their activist.

An activist not just for literacy, or library funding, but for equity of access to opportunities and throughout the community. Activists for new citizens. We must not simply be a service to a community, but a voice for the power of equity and leaning within that community. I wrote in Expect More “The difference between equal and equitable? The same (equal) versus fair (equitable). Equal service to a community almost always means ideal service to a sub-group, and variable usefulness to every other segment of that community. For example, letting anyone in a community borrow books is equality. Providing Braille books to the blind is equitable. Book borrowing, equal, home delivery to the housebound, equitable.”

When the Topeka public library in Kansas identified readiness for school as a priority of the community, they sought to increase literacy in 4 and 5 year olds. When they found that the lowest literacy rates were in one urban neighborhood – a neighborhood of poverty – they worked to build a bus route to bring people to the library for free. When the community couldn’t make it to the library because of the demands of multiple jobs, the librarians went in into the community. When there was more need than the librarians could provide they trained community volunteers to take up the slack.

When the Cuyahoga County library in Ohio identified the horrible reality of prisoners being released without resources – leading to a huge rate of re-incarceration, they acted. They went into the prisons to provide job skills and education. When they found no prison libraries, they worked with partners to bring in tablets loaded with materials and learning software. Then they set up appointments for released prisoners to meet with their local neighborhood librarians who helped them with housing and job skills. When they identified that ex-prisoners were losing benefits like food support because they couldn’t find stable housing, they worked with the county government to allow local library branches to be their official homes and to check in with their library card.

In the streets of Toronto, librarians drive Internet enabled cars into needy neighborhoods. In other Canadian towns libraries operate needle exchange programs, or host health fairs for the homeless.

All of these innovations were put in place because librarians came together to define positive change and what communities needed.

And so we come back to being a change agent. What change are you seeking? I tell you now that changing the mind of the 30 years of service reference librarian who still believes that the library should be books and wants to bring back the card catalog is impossible if you try to do it one change at a time. The first thing you need, we need as a field, is a vision of librarians changing all of society. Without this big vision, every change will be seen as incremental, a fad, and something to be waited out.

We need a vision where we can articulate why a makerspace belongs in some libraries, but not others. A consistent vision that talks about why some libraries need more stacks, and some need fewer. In essence we need a cohesive vision of the field that allows librarians to build libraries that are responsive to the unique needs of their unique community, but still part of a larger societal force.

For a long time, we thought that vision was based on information. Why did libraries go from physical owned materials, to physical and digital, owned and licensed resources? Because people needed information, or so the argument went. Books, databases, web pages, it was all part of an information buffet we laid out for our users. And indeed, they were no longer patrons, or even people, they were users. We defined people as what they sought to consume, and we worked very hard to make sure their consumption experience, their user experience, was efficient.

But something happened along this route that increasingly made librarians uncomfortable. Librarians found themselves compared to and aligned with an information industry that did not share our values. Suddenly user experiences in libraries were being compared to user experiences with Google and Facebook. At first as good examples, but librarians began to realize that the industry’s view of people as users, and interactions as experiences was being driven by a quest for data that could be monetized. Technology and data, once seen as neutral, now was being used to drive purchases, and was recreating old inequities. Ultimately making a sale and making meaning in a life are not the same thing, and librarians are increasingly rejecting this narrative. This is not the change we seek to bring to our communities.

It was never stated like this, but it emerged in how librarians started seeing their job and their relation to a community. Suddenly we were talking about third spaces, harking back to Oldenburg’s ground-breaking work. In Europe libraries become the new piazzas, the new town squares. We talked more about democratic participation, learning, and empowerment. Why did libraries move to embrace makerspaces? OK, part was because it was trendy, but the language around their adoption was not on technology and innovation, but empowerment. People, no matter their income or access to industry, could make things.

These ideas of meaning, of community, of providing a place apart from monetizing people as data does not fit into a vision of information. Instead we, as a community, needed to expect more of ourselves and our communities needed to expect more of us. There are thousands upon thousands of information sites available to our communities that are anxious to get our communities’ eyes and their data. We seek their minds and their ways of making meaning.

That is not information – that is knowledge. Our business, in the 4 thousand years of our discipline, has been to make communities smarter, and the lives of community members more meaningful. That starts in their heads – how they see the world. Humans are not just thinking organisms – we are learning organisms. That whole drive to learn and the unknown can be used to create novel and additive experiences to sell product, or it can be used to expand a person’s possibilities.

The librarians of Topeka, the citizens of Ohio, of Toronto, and Edmonton, and British Columbia are examples of how to build knowledge and empowerment. The literacy volunteers in the poor streets of Topeka were not informing users, they were educating people. The homeless of Washing State have come to see their library not as a point of distraction, but as a place to see new possibilities. They seek out the warmth of the building, but also the warmth of human compassion.

And to be clear, what works in Topeka, may not work in Montreal and what works in Plateau-Mont-Royal, may not work in the Borough of NDG. Knowledge is based on the uniqueness of our communities, not some standard that fits all. The days when libraries looked and worked the same across a province, or a country, or a globe are over. The true skill of a librarian is not implementing best practice from abroad, but in understanding their community. Does your college seek to be a top research university or a great teaching institution? Is your neighborhood affluent, or does it need you to serve as a social safety net?

That is a change we can believe in. That is a change that matters. That is a change that is durable.

So, you want to be a change agent? Fine, here’s what you need to know:

You are not neutral. You are less a change agent than an advocate for change. You have a point of view. Listen to your community, learn from your community, and know your professional and personal values. Then act upon them.

You are a facilitator. Yes, librarians can catalog and search, they can manage information, but the great change in our profession is adding the new skill of facilitation to librarians’ tool sets. Your community is your collection and you need to be able to engage that community and get them talking together. And then we must go even further. We must understand that a library is co-owned with the community. Not just overseen, or funded, but in every aspect of operation librarians must team with the community.

Communities are unique and librarians bridge to the global. For too long we viewed libraries as a product of the industrial age, and we sought efficiency and standardizing everything. You could walk into a library in Montréal or Toronto, or Hong Kong and they would have the same general structure. Now, we want community members to walk into a library and see themselves, and their uniqueness. It is the job of the librarians to find the best in Hong Kong and Seattle and adapt it to the local community.

It is time for us to expect more. We should expect more of ourselves. Librarians today don’t simply organize collections of offer programming. We engage communities and advocate for those communities. We empower community members to seek out their best selves and to find meaning. We no longer collect the work of story tellers, we are the story tellers weaving together the narrative of the community from the diverse threads of community members.

We must expect more from our communities. Instead of seeing those that we serve as passive users, we must see our community as a vast array of expertise and aspirations. We need to stop seeking to serve the community, and instead seek to engage that community – to partner with that community. To unleash the powers of that community upon the world.

We must expect more of society. We must work to make our communities more welcoming. We must seek to make our communities more knowledgeable. We must not only be a pace for reflection and investigation, but advocate for more reflection and discussion throughout all of our communities.

As I said in Expect More, a book I wrote and that the librarians of Quebec have now translated into French: Bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities. That’s not to say that libraries shouldn’t have good collections, or that libraries shouldn’t have services. Rather it is a call to librarians to focus on the community – the community is your true collection.

We must constantly look to reinvent and understand this profession anew. That’s what a living profession does. We’ve been around for 4 thousand years not because we haven’t changed, but because we have. And we’ve changed not simply because change is always good, but because our communities’ needs have changed. They’ve move from small towns and hamlets to the country side to farms to urban settings. We’ve moved from a slow pace of generational knowledge of monarchies and patriarchies to urban cities and new ideas of democracy. And all along librarians have been part of that transition. We have been advisors of kings, and now are advisors to everyone regardless of rank, regardless of wealth, regardless of race or creed or color. That’s why I am proud to be a librarian. That’s why we need to continue this conversation.

Thank you very much.

Information Science Versus Library Science in the in the Era of Technology

Chalk Board with Notes

“Information Science Versus Library Science in the In The Era Of Technology.” Keynote to the ICLIS International Conference 2018. Bandung, Indonesia. (via video conference)

Abstract: A brief discussion of how the field of library nd information science should be seen as a conversation, and the importance of talking about knowledge and social impact

South Carolina Library Association Remarks

Comments to the South Carolina Library Association. Greenville, SC. (via video conference)

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Abstract: South Carolina Libraries can help lead the world and help save it.

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

Today I am going to ask you to save the world. But that seems like a kind of heavy place to start, so instead I’d like to start with cancer.

There is a reason I’m not there in person, and a reason I have not been coming to visit your libraries recently. You see I am in confinement in Durham, North Carolina. I realize that sounds like I’m in prison – which might not surprise some of you – but confinement is actually a medical term.

In an attempt to rid me of cancer on August 24th my son donated nearly a liter of his bone marrow to replace my own. For the past 60 plus days I have been confined in Durham with daily visits to the Duke Medical Center for treatment. There were plenty of difficult days where just getting out of bed was a success. Daily transfusions of blood, 21 pills a day, and a white blood cell count of 0 can really take it out of you. But, I’m getting better. As I get better, I’m finding Netflix a bit less entertaining, and it turns out that I really hate jigsaw puzzles.

So my mind turns back to the world. It would be easy to find another series to binge or another book to read, but the world intrudes on any oasis after a time. I promise this talk won’t be a political venting. But it is impossible, no matter your politics, to see the stress and strife in the world. Issues of immigration, opioids, embolden racism, and a desire to pit us versus them seem to be a pandemic.

Between the nightly news and the overwhelming article sharing on Facebook – Facebook which seems to be in a race to get rid fraudulent voting information and leak our personal data-it seems we are entering into a new cold war with Russia, or China, or apparently a cold civil war. Twitter is toxic. The blue wave is coming or it will be overwhelmed by a red wave. Every commercial on Durham television after 6 is one politician bashing another. And don’t even get me started on the Pete Davidson/Ariana Grande split.

[Play Ghostbusters Video]

OK, that might be a bit over the top…but not so much for everyone. My point is that our communities are divided and under stress. Yuval Harari, the author of books like “Sapiens,” talks about this in his latest book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” He contends that the world organizes around huge narratives. Before World War II it had three to chose from: fascism, communism, and liberalism. By the way, liberalism as in liberty or more precisely liberal democracy – that’s us in this picture. After the War there were two: communism and liberalism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, just one.

And now, too many of us see liberalism falling apart, or so Harari argues. When we are without some large guiding narrative, big questions become impossible to answer with consensus. Why do we fight a war? What is the purpose of our foreign policy? What is the American Dream today? And without a common narrative as a people we are regulated to us versus them, camps over countries, and personal gain over community advancement.

Now even if you don’t fully buy into Harari’s argument, there is a real danger of a people, community, and yes, domains, when there is no large scale narrative. I see this in an example from history. It is an example that looks at how without a working narrative a once well-respected profession was increasingly seen as obsolete – their tasks able to be learned by everyone not just professionals. The education of this discipline was stagnant, emphasizing theory and concepts over real application. It was a profession with service at its core and had existed for thousands of years.

The discipline I would like to talk about is medicine.

One of my favorite books of all time is John Barry’s “The Great Influenza.” Barry writes about the great swine flu of the early 1900’s. But it really tells the story of the rapid transformation of medicine from an art to a science.

Today we hold doctors in high esteem. We see the field as essential and specialized. Yet that was not always the case, particularly in the late 1800’s. Here are just a few excerpts from Barry’s book to paint a picture:

“Hence Oliver Wendell Holmes, the physician father of the Supreme Court justice, was not much overstating when he declared, ‘I firmly believe that if the whole materie medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind-and all the worse for the fishes.’”

“…in 1835 Harvard’s Jacob Bigelow had argued in a major address that in ‘the unbiased opinion of most medical experts of sound judgement and long experience…the amount of death and disaster in the world would be less, if all disease were left to itself.’”

These opinions and ideas also had more direct consequences, that may sound a bit familiar. First in professional education:

“Charles Eliot…had become Harvard president in 1869. In his first report as president, he declared, ’The whole system of medical education in this country needs thorough reformation. The ignorance and general incompetency of the average graduate of the American medical schools, at the time when he receives the degree which turns him loose upon the community, is something horrible to contemplate.’”

Then in the reputation of the professionals themselves:

“As these ideas spread, as traditional physicians failed to demonstrate the ability to cure anyone, as democratic emotions and anti-elitism swept the nation with Andrew Jackson, American medicine became as wild and democratic as the frontier…Now several state legislatures did away with the licensing of physicians entirely. Why should there be any licensing requirements? Did physicians know anything? Could they heal anyone…As late as 1900, forty-one states licensed pharmacists, thirty-five licensed dentists, and only thirty-four licensed physicians. A typical medical journal article in 1858 asked, ‘To What Cause Are We to Attribute the Diminished Respectability of the Medical Profession in the Esteem of the American Public?’”

So what changed? Medicine developed a new narrative: one based on direct scientific observation. One that placed experimentation and sharing what works above grand theories developed centuries before. Doctors began listening to their patients. Doctors began using chemistry to develop first antiseptics, then anesthesia, then antibiotics, then a host of pharmaceuticals.

Note that the advances to medicine were not easy, straightforward, or strictly ethical. Core gynecological practice was developed with unwilling and anaesthetized slaves. The chemotherapies that were used to treat my cancer were developed from chemical weapons first used in World War I and later through exposing black service men to mustard gas…by the U.S. Army. But medicine is coming to face those ugly realities and developing codes of ethics that are inclusive and enforced.

And so we come to librarianship. A profession that too is adopting a new narrative. A new librarianship that is focused on our communities and the needs of people – not customers or users, but people. And in my confinement I begin to see stories globally of libraries that are not paralyzed by a growing nihilism and not building walls to be oasis and sanctuaries ignoring the concerns of the world around them. They, librarians, are building community hubs and services. They are taking the new narrative of librarianship – one based in both knowledge and action – and healing communities.

I read, for example about Glasgow Libraries in Scotland. They have teamed with a non-profit, Citizens Advice Bureau to directly address homelessness. They not only located experts in homelessness in the libraries, they train library staff to identify and approach the homeless as well. Then the librarians and Bureau staff work together to provide counselling, support and advice to people affected by homelessness.

I first became aware of this idea of public libraries serving as the functional local government from Gina Millsap, director of the Topeka Public Library. Kansas has become notorious for not having a functional state government as the legislature sits in opposition to the governor. This hasn’t stopped Gina and the librarians of Topeka from helping their citizens. They received an award when they set out to tackle illiteracy. They trained librarians in basic literacy instruction. When it became clear the neighborhoods in the greatest need of service was too far from the physical library, they worked with the city bus services to change bus routes. Then they sent librarians into those communities. When demand for the service became too great for the librarians the library trained hundreds of volunteers to work throughout the city.

The idea of libraries becoming direct civil service for their communities can also be seen in Cuyahoga, Ohio. The public librarians work in the local prisons. When it became clear the prisoners didn’t have enough education materials, the library teamed with Overdrive to fix tablets for the incarcerated. When a prisoner was set for release, the librarians set up appointments with their local branch librarian who would help them with housing and other social services. And speaking of prisoners, in Brazil the incarcerated can now read down their prison terms – 4 days for each book, 12 book a year.

I see a narrative of community support and learning in Narcan projects that prepare library staff to deal with opioid overdoses. I see programs, like the recently announced health insurance enrollment initiative of the Public Library Association. Bookmobiles converted to maker spaces to reach rural populations. Smart citizen initiatives across the European Union that demonstrates that there are no Smart Cities, without smart citizens trained in data-centered algorithms that can liberate and oppress.

I also see it very much in South Carolina. I see it in Richland with the difficult conversations where librarians facilitate community dialogs about race. I see it is Spartanburg where librarians are preserving history and making it accessible to their community members. I see it in Union with expanded facilities. I see it at the State Library where they are working with librarians of all types to accommodate people of differing abilities. I see it across South Carolina. Libraries that became areas of refuge and rebuilding in hurricanes and thousand year floods and respond to the horror of racial killing.

I also see it beyond public libraries. Academic libraries are teaming together to preserve the unique histories of communities. College libraries that have started to take on the reality that a number of college students become homeless trying to afford tuition.

Across the globe as politicians argue about immigration, librarians are going to resettlement camps to offer materials, and education, and hope. Librarians that turn citizen anxiety into voter registration drives.

In essence I believe that librarianship has passed from a sort of professional nihilism where we were going to be displaced by Google and Facebook and Wikipedia to a renewed mission to improve society through inspiring learning in our communities. And while this new librarianship, this new knowledge school of thought, is far from universal, it is growing and having a positive impact here in South Carolina, and in Germany, and in Uganda, and China, and Brazil.

This is far from the first time libraries have played a pivotal role in reshaping society. The librarians of ancient Alexandria were close advisors to the kings and queens in Egypt. Librarians kept ancient lessons available to the scholars of what is now Korea and China. Large libraries in the Muslim cities of the Iberian Peninsula helped advance architecture and mathematics and would eventually be the fuel for the Renaissance.

The libraries of Oxford and Cambridge fueled both the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. And those doctors who in the 1800’s found themselves on the verge of collapse? Today medical librarians are supporting the very team that is keeping me alive.

And so, I come back to my opening line. I am here to ask you to save the world. I am asking you to take the new narrative of knowledge and meaning that is displacing the old narratives of efficiency and access to information and spread it beyond your walls.

To be clear, this is a lot to ask.

Gone are the days when every library looked and acted alike. For while we are united by a single mission, how our communities make that vision a reality will be different. The mission of a librarian is to improve society by facilitating knowledge creation in his or her community. Or put more simply, our job is to make the lives of the people we serve, be they parents, lawyers, seniors, professors, gay, black, educated or not, to make their lives better and more meaningful through learning. Learning happens with the pages of a good novel, a comic book, hands on in a maker space, and talking online.

Your job as a librarian is not to offer everything – maker space, Narcan, prison liaison – but those services that best help your community reach its highest aspirations. Your job, as a librarian is to be an active part of a global network of librarians sharing ideas, experimenting, sharing results, and then working with community members to identify which ideas will work locally, and to adapt – not simply adopt – those ideas in your library.

You get collections that meet the needs and the demographics of your locality.

You get instruction and information literacy not based on some universal method – but that starts in local belief and ends in global awareness and is informed by rationalism.

You get engagement with industry and other local government based on the needs of the community, not simply opportunity.

You build smart cities with smart citizens who not only understand the potential benefits of technology and data, but the potential for oppression by algorithms.

You have my pledge that the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science stands ready to partner with you. We are teaming with libraries such as Charleston to develop new professional development opportunities for all staff. We have heard your worries about currency of curriculum and the fear of creating a sort of monoculture of thinking. We are currently remaking our curriculum as a knowledge school. And if you haven’t looked at our faculty in a while, take a look again. We have retained our best scholars and recruited a new array of amazing scholars over the past three years – nearly half the faculty is new.

I may be confined to Durham and home for this year, but the work of my school, and the work of building a global knowledge school of thought goes on. From Berlin, to Montreal, to Florence, to Mumbai to Columbia librarians are strengthening their communities. They are living up to the values of the field laid down over the past centuries: openness, diversity, learning, access, and engagement. Librarians in this state, this country, and across the world are putting these values into action within their buildings, and going out into the community. We are building strong local networks of schools, universities, businesses, non-profits, faith based organizations, and beyond to ensure every member of a community has the power to learn and find a place in that community. We librarians through SCLA, and ALA, and on Facebook, and in peer networks are connecting together a global corps of librarians and allies into the knowledge school of thinking.

Our communities are hurting, and bewildered, and dividing due to pressures of xenophobia, racism, economic disparity, and politicians who seek power above the greater good. We librarians, you and me, with our partners must tie them back together. We must model how even the most contentious debate can be conducted with respect. We must model how fake news is dispelled with knowledge, not picking a side. We must model that local government supported and overseen by the people, with the people, can be effective and powerful. We must model acting locally and globally for the common good.

Realize that in times of great uncertainty, people do not need a refuge walled off from the outside world, they need to feel empowered to effect that world. And that goes for you and you staff as well. Don’t tell me that your mayor or city council won’t let you, or the people don’t need it happen. In my very short time in South Carolina I have seen a library preserve signs and flags central to the civil rights movement. I have visited a library that was segregated well into the 1970’s now reach out across old mill towns to ensure that library service is available to all. I have seen a library team with a title I school and a Latino organization and the local city council to build a city-wide literacy effort. I have seen a county raise the salary of every worker in a library system to promote equitable labor practice. And I have seen an annual march on the capital by thousands of school children drawing attention to the importance of reading.

My fellow librarians now is your time. The need in our communities is great, but there is a resurgence of trust and funding in libraries. When you go home, bring your staff together and ask how can we convene the community and truly assess their aspirations and dreams. Connect together, not once a year, but every day. Build mentorship networks so no librarian ever feels isolated. Do this if you are in a big library or a small one. In a public library, or academic or special. Build the narratives of your community and celebrate it. Work with the county, and the hospital, and the pizza shop, and the tourist board.

My fellow librarians, let us now save the world.

Thank you.

I’m Tired of Changing My Facebook Profile Picture Instead of the World

Lankes' Facebook Profile Picture

I’m getting tired of changing my Facebook profile picture. How does one decide the right time to be for trans rights, or supporting the Jewish community, or asking people to vote. But that’s not why I’m tired. I’m tired, nay exhausted because

  1. There are so many vital communities facing threat, but more so because
  2. Changing a Facebook profile picture is potentially the most useless form of support I can offer.

Pipe bombs; race killings; deadly antisemitism; rolling back the rights of the vulnerable; vilifying immigrants seeking asylum; militarizing our borders; endangering the lives of those of us with pre-existing conditions (how hard have we worked to make cancer a non-fatal diagnosis only to kill people through insurance policy); not just a coarsening of the public discourse, but a weaponizing of it; making those who seek transparency and accountability “enemies of the people;” somehow believing that we are not connected in one Earth with one climate. The list seems to keep getting longer. Not enough Facebook ribbons – not enough attention span – not enough energy to fight it all. I am exhausted, nay depressed.

Even if I could, why try. How can I make a difference?

Then, I realize, I am a professor – an educator. My job is to prepare the next and current generation to think critically and deeply about issues and seek solutions. My job in higher education is to not only teach the tools of rationalism and analysis, but to integrate people more fully into today’s society empowered to make changes. A college education is not vocational training, and it should not be a privileged ticket to the marketplace. A college education should be the mentored transition from learning about things (events, processes, people, times, tools) to manipulating and creating things to improve society. Higher education is not about butts in seats, but minds engaged in action.

I am a librarian. I manage libraries and support librarians in towns across the globe, from the pre-school classroom, to the government seat of power and everywhere in between. A library is a place librarians build and maintain on behalf of a community to aid that community make smarter decisions and helps community members find meaning in their lives. Books are not knowledge – they are kindling for the fire that is the possibilities in every one of us – as are maker spaces, and video games, and lectures, and all the tools of today’s libraries. Libraries are community hubs where people come together to refine their dreams and aspirations individually and as a commons.

I am a part of a knowledge school of thinking where teachers and librarians seek to help communities act to improve society. Where doctors and nurses don’t simply see patients and ailments, but people seeking to be healthy. Where lawyers argue in court to not simply to interpret the law, but engage in an ancient dialog of what makes good law and a just society. I am part of a knowledge school of thought where journalists seek the truth and speak that truth to power. I am part of a knowledge school that understands that data can either empower or oppress. A school that understands that we are always learning, and that learning is an open process that must be done in an open environment of diversity and inclusion.

I am tired. We all get tired. I am exhausted – rest, we all need a good rest. I’m depressed, but that is because I am letting those who seek to disempower and live in deliberate ignorance define my power and my opportunities for change. Today, my rest from saving the world will be to help one person, just one. My recovery will come not by ignoring the hostile bigots, but by teaching students about the power of diversity. My energy will come from small victories at first…doing my job well and living up to my values. But then the larger victories will come, maybe from my direct action, but more likely from those that I serve with integrity.

These victories will not be for a party, no political party is perfect in its engagement with its counter. Instead I will be with my tribe, my school of thought that seeks as a missionary force to put learning at the center of the human endeavor. A spirit of discovery of the self and the cosmos driven by cooperation with all those who would commit to putting knowledge first. My battlegrounds will not be in marble buildings in one city, but in the classrooms, libraries, doctors’ offices, newsrooms, and homes of those that seek truth across the globe. Even though we may never find “THE” truth, in our pursuit we will adopt values of openness, transparency, rationalism, intellectual honesty, inclusion and respect for diverse voices, and a belief that ultimately all we do is for a greater social good.

Your words and your actions have power. You have the power to make the world better: sometimes one person at a time, sometimes whole communities.

New Librarianship: How Transformation is Necessary to Sustain Our Communities

“New Librarianship: How Transformation is Necessary to Sustain Our Communities.” 13th National Congress of Librarians Archivists and Documentalists. Portugal. (via video conference)

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Speech Text: Read Speaker Script in Portuguese
Abstract: Libraries have existed in one form or another for over 4,000 years. They have been around that long not because they didn’t change, but because they have constantly changed to meet the new and emerging needs of the communities they serve. Libraries and the librarians that build and maintain them, have adopted new services, technologies, and world views to meet their basic mission of improving society through creating smarter communities. Where once libraries were for elites, or a narrow portion of society, today they span society from birth to old age – from school to work.

This talk lays out a foundation of a new librarianship founded in knowledge and communities. It lays out a growing global knowledge school of thought that is transforming the core of librarianship not as a rejection of the past, but as the process every living vital profession goes through: serving the communities of today. Serving communities facing rising populism, political discord, massive human migration, wage disparities, technological disruption, and so much more. What the world needs now is not just a new services, but librarians prepared to serve all of society as advocates.

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

Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize that I could not join you in person. I am currently undergoing a bone marrow transplant to treat recurrent cancer. However, the organizers have been kind enough to allow me to address you through this video. I also apologize for reading from a script, but my hope is that by making the transcript available with the talk, it can overcome some of my limitations with languages.

Cancer is a horrible disease that has many effects on patients and those around them. For me, I fear, one of the side effects is a distinct loss of patience, and accompanying subtlety. So I apologize if my remarks are a bit blunt, and sometimes lack a nuanced edge. However, my main task for the congress, I believe, is to spark conversation.

So let me start with this: it is time for librarians to embrace transformational change in the way they work, and in the libraries they build. We need to make this change not to keep our jobs or preserve our place in our culture, we need to make this change because too many in the communities we serve are suffering and we are one of the last standing institutions that can help them.
Continue reading “New Librarianship: How Transformation is Necessary to Sustain Our Communities”

SLIS Update on School Library Program

Karen Gavigan teaches the Charleston Cohort

Greetings Friends,

I just wanted to send an update on some activities of your knowledge school. This month has been a lot about school libraries and the librarians that make them effective. SLIS had a great presence at the South Carolina Association of School Librarians (SCASL). Heather Moorefield-Lang presented an amazing keynote address to over 500 South Carolina school librarians. She got a well-deserved standing ovation. As you can imagine, it was peppered with some great one-liners.

We are also having a great response to the Library Scholars program that partners with school districts to transition teachers to certified school librarians. Our first cohort started this spring with the Charleston County School District. We were able to bring all 10 students to SCASL and they proudly showed their Garnet colors. We are in the process of signing up the Florence 1 School District for the Summer and are in conversations with 4 other districts! Here’s a story on the Charleston cohort: http://www.sc.edu/study/colleges_schools/cic/library_and_information_science/news/2018/slis_launches_library_scholar_program.php

In other fantastic news, our own Lucy Santos-Green co-authored an amazing piece of research with Melissa Johnston. The article published in School Library Research – a highly respected school library academic journal-is titled Still Polishing the Diamond: School Library Research over the Last Decade and provides a terrific overview of research in the field.

Our dedication to school librarians as agents of transformational change and student success is also seen in our hiring. I am thrilled to announce that Valerie Byrd Fort is joining the faculty. Valerie has a distinguished career as a school librarian and has taught many classes with SLIS as adjunct faculty. Starting in the Fall she will come on as a full-time instructor and will lead Cocky’s Reading Express for us. We are also searching for a new tenure-track position in school libraries, and the Augusta Baker Chair in youth literacy and diversity. Where other LIS programs around the country are shrinking or even closing their school library programs, we are investing in ours.

This is also a perfect time for our investment in the school library program, as there is an acute need for school librarians in South Carolina and the Southeast. If you didn’t see the article on the need for teachers and school librarians in the State newspaper, here’s a link to the article and quote I’d like to draw your attention to:

Effort to keep S.C. teachers in the class after retiring moves forward

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/news/politics-government/politics-columns-blogs/the-buzz/article206103649.html#storylink=cpy

Here’s the quote:

“Just in nine (school) districts in my neck of the woods, 75 percent of our library media specialists are within five years of retirement,” Fanning said Thursday. “There’s only one library media program in the state of South Carolina — and that’s at USC (the University of South Carolina) — and they’re not cranking out enough even for my nine districts.”

Fanning, is Senator Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield

For me this story emphasizes the need for our school library program, confirms the importance of our cohort program, and gives us an opportunity to reach out to the legislature. 

So, to our school library students and alumni, thank you for your support and continued feedback. The work you do is vital to our communities. Know that SLIS is there for you and wants to be a partner in the success of educating the next generation. We heard a lot of great ideas at SCASL and are already following up (think student teacher orientation).

The mission of the knowledge school continues.