Come together: Librarians across borders for better communities

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

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

Speech Text: See below

Script for the talk (typos and all):

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

In 2001 I attended a symposium on digital reference at the Library of Congress. In many ways it was the culmination of work that I and colleagues had been doing for years to not only develop virtual reference, but to get it accepted by the larger library community. Joe Janes had defined our bar for success. Any successful innovation in libraries was marked by the loss of the modifier. Digital libraries became just libraries, online public access catalogs became simply catalogs. And online searching is just searching. Virtual reference was becoming reference.

It was an odd feeling listening to people I did not know talk about virtual reference. The ideas they were presenting were new. More and more presentations weren’t really about virtual reference, they were, well, just reference. There was a feeling of satisfaction, certainly. But it wasn’t a feeling of celebration. If anything, it was a feeling of loss. We had done it – now what?

Why the ancient history lesson?

I come today with good news. We’ve done it. Over the past decade we have reinvented librarianship. We have done it in building new libraries like Oslo, Aarhus, and Pistoia. We have done it in convenings like Next and at conferences around the world – our unconferences and afternoon sessions have become the president’s talks and the whole agenda.

Scholarship has provided tools, theories, and data to show a more impactful librarianship. Trust of librarians across the globe is growing as trust in most traditional institutions  – like the media and elected government- is falling. Putting the community and learning at the core of what we do, who we are, has spawned mobile maker spaces, library living rooms, yoga story hours. Our collections and standards of the 20th century have blossomed around a renewed core. Rather than seeking to recreate an ideal library in the streets of India, the favellas of Brazil, and the growing cities of Kenya we now understand a strong core of librarianship looks like the diverse communities we serve. Pop up beach libraries, spires of steel and glass, reclaimed train warehouses, urban story houses. the new standard library is that there is no standard library.

Many attendees of this conference deserve credit for this transformation. It has been years of asking and answering hard questions. Many have faced down resistant administration, or staff, or even a confused public seeking to reconcile the new librarianship with stereotypes forged in childhood.

So, what now? Do we, as I did years ago, accept the loss of the fight – the end of a mission? Do we now turn from transformation and invention to routinization and adapting to a new normal? Is it time for the drafting of standards and toolkits?

The answer, for me at least, is that we are not done yet. Any declaration of victory is more than pre-mature, it is an unconscionable abandonment of one of our essential communities – the community of librarians ourselves.

What about those who work in libraries that are far from embracing their communities. What about the librarians and innovators that find themselves as lonesome voices in an increasingly uncomfortable status quo? What about those librarians – librarians by education, by title, or by spirit, that need mentors and support?

It is essential that we take what we have learned at Next and in the streets of our cities, and turn our own community into a movement. It is time to build a global network of new librarianship.

You may rightly say that there are plenty of library networks. Good lord the first and second library 4000 years ago in Babylon probably joined together in a consortium as soon as the keystones had been laid. We know now that even the mythical ancient Library of Alexandria wasn’t so much a storehouse of scrolls and tablets, but more modern university that brought together and connected scholars from around the ancient world. Our libraries are swimming in networks for inter-library loan. We are part of associations for a region, and a country, and a world. Our catalogs are connected. Our collections are federated. Our reference is linked. But are our people?

Can the lonely librarian seeking change in America reach out to a change agent in Japan? Can the single librarian in the mountains of Switzerland learn from and teach the librarians of New South Wales or Cape Town? Not once a year, but anytime?

What we have seen in the revolution of the internet, sometimes good, sometimes very bad, is that in a world of constant contact, networks are formed peer to peer. They are as much, if not more about social interactions as content transfer. They organize information around need and interest, not an abstract universal classification or committee structures. They build credibility through consistent excellence of interaction, not status or title.

We see now international association attempting to adapt technologies and become more networked, and we see too often our associations get weighed down by years of history and borders that mean less and less. We see our consortia struggle to use social media for change, opting more often to use them as means of broadcast and setting up the next event. We see organization after organization generate immense and valuable professional development – webinars, videos, workshops – that too often get lost in the noise of every other organization doing the same.

We must turn our efforts and our learning, and our success to reinviting our network. Rather than seeing them as information networks for the creation and exchange of information, we must, as we have done in our libraires, center them on learning. Our networks must be agile with porous borders that take on the aspirations of our profession. Our networks, as we have come to see our libraries, must be movements that combine the genius of librarians and allies to advance society, not simply our own self-interest.

In many ways we know how to do this. Our networks must be about access. They must connect the isolated and frustrated innovators. This access must be two ways – not simply helping out librarians, but providing them with platforms to inform, educate, and organize others. This access must be peer-to-peer and dynamic. In the US education system, we have seen formal hierarchical networks stifle innovation. A teacher in a classroom that develops a new and better way to teach, may be unable to share that idea to the teacher literally in the classroom next to them because they lack time and are locked into a formal review process that slows the spread of new ideas in the false label of quality control.

The networks we need must provide opportunities to build and disseminate knowledge. Provide training, yes, but more importantly constantly seek to incorporate new knowledge into shared understandings that is transferrable from one setting to another. Credentials that span degrees, span borders, and span institutions.

Our networks must be welcoming places – just as a library should be a safe space to explore dangerous ideas, so too should our networks. If we seek to build and sustain civil conversations in our increasingly divided towns and states, we must model this within ourselves. People of all colors, regions, and race should feel free to express ideas that should be evaluated and critiqued as ideas, not as elements of a person’s character.

Finally, our networks must foster motivation. This is particularly true of the newest members of the library community. New librarians just starting out in the streets of Iran or India possess the most valuable professional asset of the field: a new perspective. New eyes in the classroom or on the job can ask the vital question “why is it so?” They can question long standing practice as well as new initiatives. This questioning is not disrespect or ignorance, but a vital function of a living and evolving profession. It forces us all to ruthlessly interrogate the value of our services.

What does this new library network look like? Well in many ways it looks like this very conference. It looks like the critical conversations on race in librarianship that happen around twitter hashtags. And in truth – well in truth, we cannot know how it looks until we build it.

In 2020 the European Union funded a group of library organizations from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Denmark to work together to develop better continuing education for adult learners and new citizens.

The goal of the NEWCOMER project is to create a network of libraries that focus on the community in which they operate. By exchanging the best international practices, and encouraging librarians to develop their expertise, the project aims to increase the quality of libraries’ programs for adult education and to broadly support the social inclusion of vulnerable groups in libraries.

This is what we told the EU, and it is what is driving the deliverables. But the real intention is to build a network of practice. This group is talking about what makes a librarian? They are talking about curriculum and policy. And they are doing this by inviting in, in person when we can, but for now virtually, fellow librarians to learn about, and question, their day to day activities.

In library science education, we are now exploring networked methods of preparing our future colleagues. Rather than building ever larger faculties for classroom instruction, we are connecting the academy to libraries, and transforming these libraries into clinical teaching centers – much as medical education uses the teaching hospital.

For research we are pairing universities with networks of public libraries across the southern region of the US to build new centers. Where the research questions of the scholar is matched with the front-line perspective of the practitioner in an environment of real service to real communities. This kind of integrated ecosystem allows us to explore vital questions like improving the knowledge infrastructure of under-served communities. It allows us to ask the hard questions of de-colonizing our institutions and understanding systemic racism in ourselves.

So, if you are like I was in that Library of Congress Audience years ago, seeing your hard work coming to reality. If you either see the work as now done, or wonder what to do next, or simply feel the excitement of creation is done, it is not. We have all done hard and important work. It is now incumbent upon all of us to share what we have learned. And just as we have transformed our libraries to better meet the needs of our communities, we must now transform our own knowledge infrastructure to meet the needs of all of us.

Thank you.