Librarians Building the New Normal

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

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script or in Portuguese

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A better world where we can explore ideas, love whom we love, be who we are. A better, more equitable world where nations seek prosperity together, and do not take what they want by force. Where we use the internet as a global platform for sharing and gathering, not for data collection or surveillance. A better world where we seek commonality while celebrating differences.

However, the world is not simply going to get better on its own. And having libraries in that world is insufficient to bring us to the world we want. Libraries being around in one form another for a few thousand years has not resulted in any form of utopia.

No if we want a better world, we are going to have to be part of making it better. Our world, today, demands that we re-think the role of libraries. That we acknowledge the true power of a library to make change is not in books or buildings, but in you, the librarians. Librarians dedicated to the values of learning, openness, diversity, intellectual honesty, as well as intellectual freedom and safety.

Our current world is splintered and hurting, and libraries are one of the few institutions left to help stich together our communities and work together to create a better world. For too long we have defined our roles as access points. As places that gather materials and provide space to access information. Information is not enough. Information has no conscience, no ability to see consequences or interrogate a connection to reality. Information access points have no empathy, or dedication to the larger mission of a compassionate economy. Information and data are things that can be harvested, packaged, and monetized. And while data and information are important, librarians are not in the information business – we are about knowledge.

Knowledge cannot be recorded, cataloged and shelved as a series of sterile containers. Knowledge is passion and the perpetual drive within us as human beings seeking to better understand, to better control our own fate, and to ultimately find meaning.

It is time for us to make a better world through direct engagement with our communities – be those communities living in the streets of Sao Paulo, or the lecture halls of a university, or the classrooms of our primary schools, or in in hospital rooms.

Some of you will hear this call and say that I am asking too much of you. Or, you may say that my vision for librarianship is too large, spilling over from a core mission of collections into the turbulent world of politics and activism. I understand the hesitation, but librarians’ role as activists is long and stems from our core beliefs.

An effort in Australia is underway to define the role of libraries in supporting the health and wellbeing of communities. When thinking of ways librarians and the libraries they manage could support the health of communities, librarians were quick to talk about access to books, databases, and materials on health conditions. If you have cancer or high blood pressure, you can go to the library to learn more about your condition. Clearly, the thinking goes, that more information on living a healthy lifestyle will lead to healthier communities.

But when talking with community members, finding health information is not a problem. Aside from those library collections the internet opens up millions of documents on just about any condition you can imagine. The true problem the community is facing is not in finding health information, or even determining the quality of that information – though that is a problem to be sure – it was in using that information to act. Actions like seeing a doctor, or accessing affordable medication, or getting support was the scarcity.

When the idea of amplifying community voices was suggested as a strategy librarians could support, the librarians pushed back. That was too close to advocacy – too close to activism focused on policy and governmental change. That, it was said, is not the role of librarians.

Except, in that same effort librarians identified a core skill in stories and storytelling. Few librarians would argue that stories and storytelling aren’t central to the field. We gather stories in the form of fiction, non-fiction, and yes, in research articles that tell the story of experiments and new discoveries. We hold story telling programs and invite authors of stories to come and engage with our communities.

In health care, communities were struggling with getting service…these struggles are stories. If you don’t like the idea of being an advocate, then see yourself as a mighty platform to amplify the stories of the community. For centuries libraries have amplified the stories of published authors. It is now time for our libraries to be platforms for the stories and lived experience of the community itself – from the struggling student to the most learned lawyer. Our job as librarians is no longer to gather the elite stories of voices outside of the community – that role has importance, but it is in service to amplifying the voice of the community itself. Amplify it in learning, in connecting, and yes in advocating.

Return to the theme for the day – a better world. What does that world look like? Who will tell its story? What is the narrative of the community? Is it a literate community? Is it inventive, artistic, economically thriving? Is it suffering? Is it disconnected? And once you work to build that common narrative, what will you do about it? As you forge a new vision for a new normal past the pandemic, what will you do if the narrative of the community is one of pain and suffering and disenfranchisement? Will you simply document it? Will you seek to distract the community through readings and fun events? Or will you make a commitment to educate and empower the diverse voices of the community to make the world better?

I tell you today that libraries are not the storehouses of society, they are engines of disruption. Don’t believe me? Take the concept of information literacy. For some information literacy is about educating those we serve about materials – how one can test the authenticity of those materials, what form they might take, what you can legally do with materials. This is the worst form of information literacy in that it looks at information use in a legalistic frame. This is what peer review is, this is what copyright is, look for a date on a document, look for an author.

The best form of information literacy is teaching cautious curiosity. It is preparing people to be empowered to seek out their truth, and skeptical about what they may find in that process. We wish to disrupt a cycle of information consumption that automatically trusts a source because it seems right or comes from a certain source. We want people to question the narrative and the messenger, and ultimately their own pre-determined world view.

Take our collections. The best academic library collections in the world are full of lies and heresies. They are there not by accident, but so that scholars trained to seek out the truth can recognize the opposite. They are there to challenge the student to break out of a commonsense narrative into a critical one. Our academic libraries empower scholars and students alike to see past what is, to what could be.

In the United States school librarians are currently fighting against the use of lexile levels in reading development. A lexile level is assigned to a book and supposedly matches the ability of a young reader. Yet librarians know that readers should be striving and yes failing, to read beyond any stated level. Students driven by strong interests will try and fail and try and fail at higher level texts, and in the end expand their capabilities – and their understanding. Disruption.

It was the librarians seeking disruptive change that brought fiction into the public library, that opened the stacks, that built pop up libraires in beaches and favellas where the people needed them, not where the government chose to put them. It was a disruptive force that brought about the public library in the first place saying that learning was not restricted to the elite.

But, disruption is not enough for that better world. Tearing down can be hard and important work, but in the end leaves only the broken and the skeptical. Libraries must be engines of disruption, and forgers of a new normal. And let me be clear in my language, because libraries are nothing more than buildings and organizational charts – librarians must be engines of disruption, and forgers of a new normal.

Librarians must provide access to new and emerging ideas – not waiting for them to be published or even written. And that access must be two ways. Librarians must help the members of our communities to access the work and ideas of others as well as be platforms for our members to share their own work. We must actively discard the artificial distinction between reader and author, producer and consumer. The very act of learning is the act of creation.

Librarians must build the knowledge of our communities. Through workshops and reference transactions, through the provision of materials and software, librarians must prepare our members to engage in an increasingly global conversation about what a better world should be.

As librarians we must create spaces – real and virtual – where people can come together, explore, learn, and feel safe in doing so. This is partially about creating a sense of safety, but more importantly, building facilitated environments where people can take on hard and sensitive subjects in an honest, but civil way.

For example, in my hometown of Columbia South Carlina, the librarians host difficult conversations on race. In person and now via video conference, trained facilitator librarians bring together black and white to honestly confront systemic racism in daily lives. Former white supremacists sit next to Black elders seeking a better world. Why the library? Because librarians have built up trust with most sectors of the community.

What other civic organization spans generations, professions, and social class? And they built this trust and span those societal strata on purpose – by choice. They span the community not because they are neutral or unbiased in whom the serve, but the exact opposite. They have made it their mission to bring literacy, access, learning to the most in need. Once again, they are seeking to disrupt long held barriers between people, and then construct a new and better community with greater empathy among the members.

Finally, librarians seek to understand what motivates those we seek to serve. In an increasingly digital world where the neurology of motivation and the dopamine cycle has been weaponized by companies seeking to sell advertising, libraries seek a deeper connection to intrinsic motivation. Where Facebook might use game theory to sell your attention, librarians seek to unleash the passions of a person. A passion for reading, a passion for science, a passion to understand, and ultimately, control the world around a person.

I understand that the shift from information provider to engines of disruption and reconstruction is a scary leap. It is frightening because no building or collection, or organizational chart can serve as engine and facilitator – those are uniquely human acts. And that means that I am asking you to put yourself in front of the community. The better world we seek will not be built by buildings and collections, but by a dedicated corps of professionals seeking a better tomorrow. Yes, we have tools made of glass and steel and paper and bindings, but it is through human connection that we lay foundations of trust. No signage or database, or ebook will begin to weave together our fracture society. Black must meet with white. Right must meet with left. Old and young must all come together and do the hard work of finding common ground and a common vision of tomorrow. People will have to change their minds and their actions. It is in this change that our true value and are success must be measured.

I will leave you with one final story. It is a story that gives me hope. In 2011 the people of Egypt took to the streets to demand reforms from a government regime that had been in power for nearly 30 years. In the port city of Alexandria, the government released violent prisoners and sent in rioters to assault and discredit the protestors. As buildings burned and symbols of government power were vandalized, the citizens of the city – men, women, and children – formed a human chain around the modern library of Alexandria to protect it.

The peaceful protestors called out to the librarians sheltered inside the building asking to place a 30 foot long protest flag on the steps of the library. Every day the protestors on their way to seek greater democracy would touch their hands to the flag draped on top of concrete steps built by the very leader they sought now to oust from power. By the end of the protests not one window was broken, and no stone thrown against its walls. Because in the years it had been open, the library had served and built a bond with the community. What was intended as a show of the wealth of the president had become a tool of liberation through knowledge.

However, before we celebrate too much, we must understand that this revolution was followed by a coup, and more protests, and more limits on democratic institutions. Showing us that we can never truly live in a better world forever. The better world we seek is a constantly evolving target that requires constant vigilance, and constant reinvention.

We all want to live in a better world, but to do so, we all must be dedicated to making a better world. Librarians hold a special place in this. Librarians are dedicated to knowledge. Librarians are dedicated and based in communities. Librarians are the corps of professionals that can facilitate a civil discussion about how we come together to imagine better. We do this through engaging, not through shelving. We do this through connecting, not just collecting. We do this through a dedication to the values that have served us over hundreds of years and a constant reinvention of our purpose.

Thank you.