Library as Movement

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“Library as Movement.” Victoria Libraries 2019 Planning Summit. Kalorama, Victoria, Australia. (via video conference)

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Abstract: Is the library a platform that allows communities to build knowledge? Is it a community center? A community hub? The concept of a library is evolving faster than our terms for describing the change. Today the library is being seen as a movement. Not a place, but a community-wide effort to improve the lives of community members through knowledge. This presentation talks about how the continued evolution of librarianship toward a proactive force for good in a community changes the skills of librarians, the responsibilities of the community, how we assess success, and how we determine common services while focusing on local realities.

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

Greetings! Thank you for having me, albeit via video. I very much wish I was with you in person. Today I’d like to talk about how our changing concept of what a library is directly effects our ability to plan for shared network services. In particular, how a shifting concept of the library as a community hub and emerging social movement requires a different approach to shared services. We have to take on the very real change of a library as a set of resources for a community to access, to the library as a supporter of building knowledge locally. 

While I could jump right into my recommendations for shared services for the next decade (hint – its more about people development than collection development), my recommendations might seem pretty arbitrary unless I set up why we need to change in the first place. I promise not to get too abstract here, but we need to start with some pretty basic assumptions. First, what do we mean by the word library anyway.

One could say I have a difficult relationship with words. In particular, I tend to get a bit obsessed on definitions. For example, in 2007 the then dean of Drexel’s ischool David Fenske and I were talking about libraries. He made a comment to the effect of “the field of librarianship will be held back until one can define a librarian without reference to a building.” In essence, what is a librarian without a library.

Four years later the direct result of this comment was the 400 plus page book the Atlas of New Librarianship. I think we can all agree, a bit of an overreaction. But here’s the thing about words like library and librarians. Once created, they rarely lead a stable life. Their definitions and usages evolve.

Fenske’s question about how we define what a librarian is began an intensive investigation about the term library that continues to this day. It began me thinking about how we define and conceptualize libraries and the work of librarians. You and I are on a journey of definition. That doesn’t really surprise you. After all, you keep having this meeting for the simple fact that what we do, and why we do it – our definition – changes. It changes for our communities as well, but they often aren’t aware of it. Our communities haven’t been deeply enmeshed in debates about the “library as a community hub,” or “members versus patrons,” and so the words we use to describe ourselves, our services, and even the terms we for them can be jarring for them, and it is dangerous for us if it is jarring for them.

To have a bit of fun with this let me quickly present the shifting ways of thinking about libraries as a sort of progression through evolutionary eras. To be clear, this is not a rigorous chronology, but rather a way of highlighting how we conceptualize libraries, librarianship, and the services we offer – and therefore the network services we need. For the purposes of this talk, these eras start out as more cartoon and stereotype.  However, I believe it is a helpful way of thinking about and planning for shared library service.

I would add some nifty Latin terms to these eras, but, well, I failed Latin. So we’ll begin with the Era of the Book Palace.

The start of the book palace epoch is a bit hard to nail down, but it arguably defined libraries in the western world for well over three centuries from the sixteen hundreds onward. But for our purposes we’ll pick on the Dewey era turn of the 20thcentury.

It was a time when collecting books was vital because they were scarce. The great value of the library was in pulling collections together, and the vast majority of the books gathered were about the rest of the world, not the library’s service community. It was a time of grand architecture. It was also a time of the universalists and documentalists. That is, folks who believed that knowledge could be contained in the pages of a book, and that the knowledge of the world could be sorted into neat categories…ignoring that those categories were developed by and for a culture dominated by white guys. The king of the information world was the book, and libraries were an apex predator in the information ecosystem.

One of the ways you can see how we and others thought about libraries is in looking at the relationship we had with “them.” Them, as in, what did we call the folks we served? This was the golden era of the patron. Patrons supported the library, they received service from the library. They were also nearly anonymous. We didn’t spend a heck of a lot of time defining patrons because we were mostly the only players in town, and our value to our patrons was implicit.


Just as we look at the tools developed to demark epochs of human evolution – the stone age, the bronze age, and so on – we’ll do the same here. What were the defining tools of the book palace, particularly for networks of them? Union catalogs and interlibrary loan. With the dawn of the computer age we could connect our collections together. The work of consortia and library networks was around standardization and efficiency. We sought to use the same cataloging standards; we had closely aligned management structures. We were linking similar to similar. The role of the network was to create standards and to share materials.

So, what brought about the end of the Book Palace Epoch? Networks. Not computers – we’ve been putting up online catalogs since the 70s. No, it was that we could now network not only records, but digital files as well. We needed to get into the full-text business. We needed to get online, we needed to change.

So, libraries became information centers. We were no longer just a place with stuff, we were a gateway to the world. And that world was information. Gone was the quaint Victorian era concept of the patron, in was the modern user – a term freshly taken from computer scientists and drug dealers. Now it wasn’t about having it all, it was about getting to it all. 

And it if wasn’t online, then by God it better be. This was the era of mass digitization. Google and libraries hooked up to scan the world. I remember talking with a Harvard librarian at the time who said their main obstacle in digitizing materials was how to get trucks onto Harvard yard to take away the books and turn them into bits flying free. 

The scanner and the contract were the defining tools of the information center age. If we couldn’t scan it, we would license it. Database, ebooks, video services – the drive was to expand the collection with resources from around the world. In our drive to provide users access, we also transformed the very nature of collecting. Gone were the days of owned materials being ferried around the countryside in delivery vans (well, not gone, but let’s just say we didn’t put them on the postcards anymore), in were Dublin Core and metadata schemas to build towering virtual libraries.

Gone also were the days of budgets being strained to buy materials one time. Now we had to devote budgets to paying for access to a resource annually – a change that is now once again coming back to haunt us with terms of ebook lending. We also spent a LOT of money on public access computers. 

Our collaborative services? Digitization support; shared and state-wide licensing agreements; metadata schema development; and training to build the killer website.

A funny thing happens when you move from patrons to users, and from collecting to accessing. You tend to move from relationships to transactions. Instead of telling the story of the library in outcomes for our communities, we begin to quantify ourselves. Now instead of just counting the volumes in our buildings, we emphasized hits, circulated items, attendance, and of course gate counts. 

So what pushed us out of this era of libraries? Simple, we lost our monopoly.

Now to be clear, libraries haven’t been the sole source of information and access since, well, ever. Though we did have a lock in medieval Europe until Gutenberg went and screwed that up. But we at least had a large portion of mind share in our communities. With the advent of ubiquitous networks like the Internet, and the ability to monetize access, mostly through advertising, our portion of the mind share shrank.

We needed a new way of thinking about libraries and librarians and our value to communities. We didn’t just invent these out of thin air, rather we saw non-access and non-collection activities in a new light. We saw that the value we provide to the community was in the community itself. We became the 3rdSpace, and instead of users, we had citizens or members. 

Our focus wasn’t on collections alone, but on being a place where community members could come and think and work with, or without, those collections. Our newly emphasized focus was on civic improvement. We helped folks find jobs. We provide vital literacy services to youth and adults. We were a safe place to explore dangerous ideas. 

And what tool helped define this epoch? The Library Café. Yes, the café as a literal place to serve coffee, but also the numerous spaces where we pulled down the stacks, or never built them in the first place to allow folks to get together. We called them living rooms, or agora, or simply “the teen space.” Many cities rebuilt or refurbished central libraries to promote economic development. We began hosting co-working spaces

Our consortia still paid for licensed resources and we still shipped materials around. But now, our joint services began to go a bit adrift. How do we collectively support what is by definition a very local thing?

This is also the time when our communities began to get very confused. Sometimes that was phrased inelegantly as “why do we need libraries when we have Google?” It was when our communities began wondering, what is the difference between a library and a community center?

It was also a time when we got very good at posts on Instagram. Because while we had a hard time putting our contributions into words, we had no problem showing the growing number of diverse faces coming into our buildings. Our identity became more diffuse, and more local in nature. But it was the seeking for an identity that lead to our next era, though it’s more a later part of the 3rdspace era. But for now we’ll call it the era of the community hub.

We began to put words and concepts to the third space – but as often happens, we were better at saying what we weren’t as much as what we were. We weren’t a community center as in an open meeting room. We weren’t indoor parks with books. We were a learning center and community hub. Our members became learners, and our focus rested squarely on the community creating its own knowledge and identity. Our tool of preference? The Makerspace. 

No not just 3D printers in a room, but the idea that the community could come together and create in a library. For some librariesthe maker space is 3d printers and hand tools. For others it’s a wide-open living room for group chats. Still others it is the marked spike in programs where community members teach fellow community members.

In libraries across the globe video and audio studios began to pop up. Those scanners we once used to digitize the materials of the library were turned loose on family photo albums. Our walls were pulled down for workshops. We looked into the eyes of the Smart City and claimed the smart citizen turf. We loaned out baking pans with our books and even had cooking classes to boot. We not only paid for Kanopy, we created our own YouTube channels. We talked about great libraries building communities and the communities as the true collection of any library.

The Tilburg public library in the Netherlands took over a former train maintenance warehouse and built pop up libraries right next to incubators for new business start-ups. They used these pop ups as places of experimentation and play that ultimately lead to the impressive LocHal. The IP Centre at the British Library moved the business reference books to the side and retrained the librarians as business planning experts.

The era of the community hub was, well, is a reaction to the retreating human interface to government. Our members could no longer talk to a person with questions on taxes or social services. The face of health care went from a doctor or a nurse, to a patient portal. Into this vacuum stood librarians ready to help. And to support them, social workers. And to support them all artists and writers in residence. Instead of giving the books the best views from our new libraries of glass and steel, we created a destination. Our value was now in quality of life.

I would say many of us are living firmly in this Community Hub Epoch. We are, however, already starting to see the need for continued evolution in this approach. In the UK, for example, too many local councils have seen the community well integrated into the workings of the library and made the jump that the community itself can maintain the library in the form of volunteers. 

In the Netherlands there are no more library schools because community-centered librarianship is being defined as user experiences and customer service versus librarianship and its values and skills. In Florida they are having theme park experts design libraries as an experience, instead of librarians designing libraries as a service. Don’t get me wrong. We should be designing our libraries with the experiences of people in mind. We should be building organizations that serve. But in doing so we must recognize the unique value librarians bring to this endeavor.

That is also not to say that as professionals we are necessarily where we need to be for our communities. Within the library we have to look at ourselves. Are we best structured to serve as a community hub? If evolution happens to ensure survival of the fittest, are we ready? How much of our preparation for librarians cover event planning? How much focus do we put in skills development on tech and collection building, and how much on community engagement and cultural skills? How open are we to the entire community when all too often we organize ourselves in hierarchical management structures where some positions never have to interact with the public?

Which brings me to an emerging era and my attempt to answer what shared services and resources do we need in today’s library landscape. It is conceptualizing the Library as a Movement. It is taking all of this evolution to the next level. The focus isn’t on collections, or access, or places, it is on mobilizing a community for social action. Instead of calling folks patrons or users, or even my personal favorite members, we don’t have a name at all – because the walls between “them” and “us.” Begin to break down. 

Libraries bring together people of diverse, and even clashing perspectives to seek common ground. The greatest asset we have in this era is trust. In a world filled with a cacophony of perspectives, propaganda, and belief, we serve as vital social infrastructure and trusted facilitators working across community divisions to develop a new community narrative. And I know that last sentence borders on buzz word salad, but all it means is we help members of a community find meaning, and power in each other. And in the era of the library as movement, how this happens is going to be different in every library and every community.

In this new era we not only support reading because literacy is a vital skill in making change and democratic participation – we team with the primary schools and the local pizza restaurant to ensure we use common vocabularies and we create a whole culture of reading. In a project for the Hearst Foundation, we created a community literacy initiative. We found that classroom teachers and youth librarians would use the exact same words, with totally different definitions. Literacy for the teachers was skill development for the decoding and understanding of texts. For librarians? It was reading enrichment and the promotion of a love or culture of readers. Parents would take their children from school to library, hear the same words, and not understand the mixed messages they were receiving. 

A literacy researcher on the team was demonstrating how story times could be used to both enhance literacy skills and the love of reading. After the session a mother with her infant child came up to the researcher. “What did you say on that page?” she would ask. Then “and what about on this page.” It took the research a moment to realize that the parent couldn’t read. But instilling reading skills in her child was so important she was going to memorize this book so she could share it with her baby.

That story then led to not only local restaurants having library picked books available for kids, but the city council passing a resolution that every town sponsored event had to have a literacy component. The governor of the state not only signed a declaration about the importance of reding, he recorded a video to be used in all of the schools.

My point is that the community-the schools, the libraries, the businesses, the parents – came together to create change, to create a movement. And the library was part of that movement and could never have done it on its own. And here is the most important part. What worked in Columbia South Carolina will not work in your community. No matter how well we document it, or call it a best practice, or try and turn it into a downloadable toolkit, it won’t work. It is meant to guide, instruct, and inspire you. You, the librarian, your job is to see what will work in your community. That’s the difference from the era of the Book palace. Rather than trying to connect similar to similar – to make a suite of unified and undifferentiated services for all, the networks of today have to train librarians to adapt, not adopt. The network supports and inspires.

Of course, all of these phases of our evolution still co-exist together. 

Take for example The South Carolina Center for Community Literacy – which was the South Carolina Center for Children’s Books and Literacy – which started as collection of award winning children’s books. 

The Center has a collection of both award-winning children’s books and books that help teachers learn about including diverse and representative materials into their lessons. It also has digital services. However, in the past few years the movement aspect of SKILL -as we call it -has emerged. 

We have a bus full of books. No big surprise there. But this bus is also filled with university students from across the campus, and this guy. This is Cocky, the university mascot and something of a celebrity here in South Carolina. That bus? Cocky’s Reading Express, goes to the poorest schools in the state. Those college students? They read to the kids and demonstrate how vital reading is. And the books? Well, that’s where Cocky comes in. You see he gives them out. Over a 120,000 books given to kids where they promise Cocky, a symbol of sport as much as anything else, that they’ll read every day. 

And the center doesn’t stop there. We work with social safety net organizations to do one on one consulting with those in need to connect them to housing, food, and services folks need in their most desperate hours. We work with immigrant groups to advocate for bilingual education. Why isn’t this a community center? Why isn’t this just a bunch of volunteers with book shelves? Because of the answer to David Fenske’s question – it is because librarians with their skills, values, and mission are not simply delivering these services, they are shaping them. Librarians are ensuring privacy in a data driven world. Librarians are ensuring these services are both inclusive in their views, and equitable in their delivery.

And here we come to the meat of the issue: what kind of shared services do we need in this epoch? What do libraries need to support local movements? Awareness, continuous learning, mentorship, and a memory. 

Awareness in looking across libraries, cities, and industries for ideas that can help the communities we serve. What do libraries do in the face of artificial intelligence? How can we best advocate with our communities to put in place safeguards for personal data? How can we better welcome refugees? How can we build platforms for the community to connect people of shared interest? The union catalog of today is the foundation of a community learning management system of tomorrow. A system that directly links a persona with resources, experts, and tracks personal progress in mastering new skills and insights. 

Of course, awareness of an idea and the ability to adapt it to local needs is a very different thing. And I do mean adapt not adopt. Our staff needs to be constantly acquiring new skills. Technical skills, certainly, but facilitation skills, political skills, research skills to implement technologies, programs, and services that look like the community itself.

As librarians develop their new skills and seek to implement new ideas in a community, they need guidance and fellowship. Networks of libraries need to provide mentoring and coaching. We need to develop future leaders and build strong ties among the most remote colleagues.

Lastly there needs to be a shared memory. This memory ranges from classical archives of community development to identifying and highlighting innovation among the group. 

If this sounds a bit familiar…well, it is. The future shared library service is a university of the people. A function that engages librarians and the community players who are part of local movements in learning. Teaching members how to organize collective action. Bringing together different industries together with librarians to forge common goals.

And just as all ideas need to be adapted to local needs, this library university does not have to look like a classical institution of higher education. Don’t build lecture halls, but cooperative laboratories. Teach online, sure, but also learn together in pop up libraries in malls and beaches, and football stadiums. Eschew periodic diplomas for continuous portfolio building. And no class without the partners and community members making this real in their lives.

So there you go, my quick trip through the evolution of libraries. A trip that will never be complete, because we are a living and thriving profession. Our communities need us now more than ever. They need us because we are a trusted place to make sense of a world increasingly wracked with xenophoabia and a flavor of nationalism that seeks to define a nation only as people who think and look like us. Our communities need trusted professionals to ensure not only their rights, but to amplify their voice in the debates on the future.

So there you have it – from an unhealthy relationship with dictionaries to the people’s university. I hope this has been useful, or at least entertaining. I look forward to the conversation to come.

3 responses on “Library as Movement

  1. Chris Buckingham

    An inspirational presentation that engaged library leaders from across Victoria. R D Lankes you are undoubtedly a global thought leader for the sector. Keep up the good work and come visit us in Australia sometime soon.

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