New Librarianship: How Transformation is Necessary to Sustain Our Communities

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“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
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.

In a time of increased polarization of politics, a loss of community common truths, and frankly, with the erosion of concepts like the common good, librarians must make a stand for equity, inclusion, diversity, and the good of all our community members.

We must make transformational change in how we structure our work, the services we offer, and ultimately, the prism through which we define our actions. However, far from a replacement of our core mission, this transformation is a re-embrace, and re-interpretation of our core mission and values that have evolved over millennia.

For we librarians are on a mission. Not a mission of materials, but a mission of community. Not a mission of buildings or schema, or organizational structures, or of best practices, but a mission to make meaning in the lives of those we serve, and a mission of making our communities more knowledgeable and smarter in their decisions.

We are seeing a resurgence of librarianship around the globe as new populations discover our mission unencumbered by nostalgia. We are seeing a resurgence of librarianship because people realize in a quest for political power or market share data has become weaponized, privacy commoditized, and the retreat of community dialog to bubbles of only like minded thinkers.

In this work, we are not without sin. Through the adoption of filters, portals, and an abdication of basic values to modernization libraries have been sometimes accomplishes to our current society’s woes. However, through re-committing to our mission and values, and thereby transforming our operations and actions, we once again have the opportunity to work toward a more whole and compassionate society. A more humane progress that puts the rights and value of community members above their net worth, voting habits, or means to pay.

Across the globe libraries have adopted a mission of information, and in doing so, turned a blind eye toward a set of values that did not meet our own. All in an attempt to be relevant by others standards. We adopted technologies that at first glance empowered our communities, be those communities towns, or universities, or businesses. We thought that teaching people Twitter and Facebook would bring people closer together, and yet we did not teach the perils of privacy. Nor, when we teamed with large search providers did we see that in promoting greater access, we were creating greater walled gardens that see our community members as consumers and data points. We were all too quick to compress humans into users, and people into information sources.

In our universities we made grand bargains to get scholars access to articles, at the same time feeding a system that will bankrupt universities. Our quest to provide access, not support knowledge creation has increasingly closed off the documents that help advance human knowledge behind paywalls.

Our primary schools are becoming places where exploration and critical thinking are increasing squeezed between greater high stakes assessments. We sought to band students into reading levels and have turned curricula into dogma.

In the public sphere we have seen user design and customer experience replace the concepts of learning hubs and community spaces of rigorous and uncomfortable dialog. A library must always be a safe place to explore dangerous ideas. Ask yourself for a moment how many great and world-shattering dangerous ideas you have spawned versus how dangerous does your library feel to minorities, new immigrants, the illiterate, and the marginalized?

Far too many of our global brethren have become locked in Daedalus’ maze. We have built layer upon layer of associations and committees to attempt to standardize all of our functions. We have looked to national and international organizations to set policy, and we have, at all costs, avoided seemingly political or in any way biased in our work.

I am here to tell you, if you are a human being, and if you seek to improve the lives of human beings, you are not neutral. If you believe in fostering learning, you are not neutral. If you believe that the best learning comes from the most diverse sources, you are not neutral. If you believe that libraries can lift people and communities and institutions out of poverty, and ignorance, and irrelevance, then you are not neutral.

Librarians, you and me, are agents of positive social change. We cannot look at the growing resentment of immigrants and minorities and stay quiet amongst our stacks. We cannot look at the increasing nationalism that places birth places above human rights and be unmoved.

Librarians were advisors to royalty, we helped bring Europe out of the dark ages. Librarians advanced technology in the east, and help scientists put men on the moon. Medical librarians are supporting the medical team that is fighting to save my life right now and has found new ways to cure diseases once labeled as terminal. These libraries did not do so as buildings and collections. They did so as human systems dedicated to service. They did so as librarians who believed in helping doctors and artists, and dissidents, and engineers, and musicians, and housewives, and students, and prisoners seek out their full potential and move beyond what was known in the volumes often lock away behind desks.

And, it is that time again. Because while I began with a grumpy litany of our sins, today as I look across the globe to Portugal, and Brazil, and the Netherlands, and Japan, and India, I see a new librarianship emerging. Founded on the core of librarianship’s long history, but not bound by methods of the past. Who defines a library? A librarian in partnership with his or her community. Does a library have a collection of books? Is that what a community needs to advance its aspirations? Does it need a physical building? Will a structure be a safe space or necessary space for all?

The information foundation of librarianship is done. It is time for a new school of thought that guides our actions and our decisions. Not one based on technological capability, nor one from an even earlier industrial school of thought that valued efficiency over effectiveness. No! We need one based on knowledge, a sort of pragmatic humanism. Now is the time for the Knowledge School of thought that seeks to sustain our dearest values and our core mission, but to do so grounded in the direct local needs of our communities.

So what is this knowledge school? It begins with our mission. The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Or, put even more simply, we seek to improve the lives of those we serve by helping members of the community make better decisions and find personal meaning.

With this mission comes a core of values developed through practice over centuries. We value learning – we believe that everyone in our community has the ability and should have the opportunity to explore new ideas, new narratives, and discover a new way of seeing the world. Libraries of all types are learning organizations. We don’t all do stand-up lectures and classes, but we all support inquiry. We support the students learning about new places, or even learning about themselves through fiction. We support the lawyer who gains greater mastery of law for a client or their own knowledge. We support doctors who learn about new treatments, janitors who learn about new job opportunities, politicians who gain greater understanding of policy, and all who seek to open themselves up to new ideas.

We value openness – we believe that the restriction of ideas is the restriction of human capability. This does not mean we endorse all ideas, nor does it mean that we do not provide guidance, but it does mean that individuals have the right to know, institutions must be accountable, and governments must be transparent to those they seek to govern. We must demonstrate this transparency in our own work, being willing to fail in public, learning side by side with our communities, and always being willing to admit when we were wrong.

And ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you that I do not say that we must model learning and transparency openly with ease. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of confidence and a great deal of courage to tell a community member, “I don’t know.” It is far far easier to classify materials, or conduct database searchers, than to demonstrate a lack of knowledge with a simultaneous love of learning.

Years ago, a group of designers and instructional scholars were working with a library to build a new learning space. The large city library had cleared out unused space and given free rein to the research team to design an interactive teen learning area. When the team showed the blueprints to the librarians, the librarians asked where were the books? The scholars were confused. This space was, after all, in the middle of a large existing library with plenty of volumes. What they found out was that the librarians were actually asking, “where are we?”

The librarians thought without books they had no place in this space – the books were their value. The scholars on the other hand, saw the value of the librarians, as facilitators. They wanted the librarians throughout the space interacting with the teens, experimenting, supporting, pushing. The librarians had to re-learn their value, and they had to overcome their fear that without tools they were used to, they had to be the face of the library.

In another library, Justin Hoenke bought a 3d printer for his teen space. Rather than assemble it in an office and master it before allowing the teens to use it, he placed the shipping container right in the middle of the teen space. He sat down and started trying to figure it out. As people would pass he would invite them to help. At one point he had to take a hammer and chisel to the newly solidified plastic mound that formed around a poorly installed part. At the end of the day not only did he share the learning experience, he created a relationship with those in the space, and a trust.

Learning always involves trust and fear. There is passion, but it is a vulnerable place to be because we often find we must give up ideas we have either long cherished or have long professed. To be a lifelong learner is to also admit every day of your life that you have lived in some level of ignorance. That what you thought was right ten years ago, today has changed. That is OK, that is how we grow. That is why today I am fighting cancer with genetics instead of bloodletting. It doesn’t mean that our ideas or we ourselves did not have value previously, it just means that our value continues to grow as we do. You could not be the person you are today without the flawed person you were yesterday. The only sin in this is refusing not to admit the flaw and retaining ignorance.

And what other values do we hold dear as librarians? We believe in intellectual freedom and safety. Referring back to the idea that libraries must be safe places to explore dangerous ideas. We know that people will not learn unless they feel safe. This is more than just physical safety, though for those of us who manage buildings, we understand about providing physical safety. This is also about feeling safe to explore ideas. How many in this audience feel that your own workplace is a safe for you? Can you share your crazy ideas, or will they be shot down? Are you encouraged to experiment with new services, or asked to provide huge justifications and assurances before you can use precious few resources?

Now think about those who walk in your doors? Do you offer literacy programs? Do you realize that a library is probably one of the most intimidating building on earth for someone who can’t read? How about new citizens? Do you offer signs in Arabic? English? Do you build spaces for children? How tall are your stacks?

Here’s the thing…how do you know if the spaces you build are welcoming or seen as safe for the community you serve? Did you design it and maintain it with them? Because if you can make your library a co-owned space where the served own that space as much as the librarians amazing things can happen.

In Denmark, there is a library open 24 hours a day. It is not staffed for 24 hours though. After hours the doors are simply not locked. The community can still come in and use the space, because they know they are welcome, and they know they must maintain it as well. When asked how they knew such a plan would work, the librarians said, they didn’t – they just tried it. However, I suspect before they just tried this one thing, they had a trust built up with that community with different services over the years.

In Pistoia Italy the library serves as the new piazza – or town square. Community members from film critics to iron workers organize events and classes throughout the week to meet, teach, and learn, from their neighbors. In Fayetteville New York the library maintains a sewing parlor completely run by community members – the librarians have no idea of how to sew.

In Kenya the libraries are sometimes camels loaded not only with books but tribal garb. In the UK libraries have merged with museums to not only educate the present population, but tell the story of the city to visitors and youth.

In New Zealand as a new library was being built, the library hired an artist in residence to make the interior space welcoming. The artists placed huge stencils of trees along high walls. She invited the community to climb the scaffolding, dip their hands in paint mixed with mud from the site, and make a hand print on the wall. When the scaffolding and stencils were removed towering trees made up literally of the community’s hand and ground surrounded the public.

In Michigan they loan out books, but also looms and musical instruments. In public libraries throughout Europe community members can check out neighbors to learn about other occupations and cultures.

Gone now are the days when a library looked like a library no matters where you went. Gone are the days when a library is defined but what it holds. Now are the days when a library is defined by you, doing your work with a community. Does that look like an Italian piazza, or towering trees, or 3d printers, or a museum? It depends on what you and your community need.

Some will find that scary – a blank canvas where ultimately you must paint a community’s self-portrait – and no one ever taught us how to paint. But still others of you will find that idea exciting. Some will find that transformative, still others will see this as simply what we have always done.

And so we come back briefly to our two themes: transformation and sustainability. We see that there is no clear line between these two. For some, certain ideas of services will appear radical, to others common place. That is how it should be, because our communities are not all alike, and ideas are never spread evenly. For some “maker spaces” and “community rooms” are simply sustaining. For others they may seem transformational. That is how it will always be. However, this uneven nature or transformation brings me to my next point – adoption of ideas within a community should never be due to insufficient preparation or courage from the libraries that seek to serve those communities.

Every profession builds mechanism to normalize itself – to define itself. Through conferences, associations, certifications, curricula, even policy statements and definitions of best practice fields seek to hold together – to sustain – as they push forward -transform, or at least evolve. In librarianship we have built a global system that does all of these things. Yet, here to we must examine what we need to transform in order to sustain the profession.

We can no longer depend on a global professional network that sees only institutions and agencies first. A global knowledge school is first and foremost a network of librarians and allies seeking to advance their services in communities. The primary outputs and services of this network is not standards and best practices, but mentoring, experience sharing, and recognition of individual innovation.

The definition of our profession should no longer be a set of common services and institutional features, rather it should be the capabilities, worldview, and connections of librarians. It is no longer the role of the librarian to match some archetypical library standard. It is the role of the librarian to evaluate the capabilities and culture of the community, seek out the best ideas to serve that community, and then working with that community adapt new ideas that push forward the dreams and aspirations of that community. Notice I said “adapt,” not “apply.” What refence looks like in Lisbon should not be the same as Toronto though they may share many tools, theories, and features.

I have been part of many conversations about how to “flip” libraries. That is, how to take institutions that seek to serve themselves and their collections over the changing needs of the communities they serve. My answer is that you don’t. You seek to connect forward thinking librarians. Rather than trying to transform every library, you locate progressive librarians across institutional and national boundaries. You find librarians with the best ideas and turn them into mentors. You find eager librarians who are feeling beat down by institutional attitudes of inflexibility and show them they are not alone. You show great librarians, no matter their status or the faults of their employers, that they are part of a global knowledge school that is sustaining the dreams of communities and transforming community members into activists for a better society.

When we look across the globe we see the foundations of this new school of thought taking root. Online we see the emergence of Facebook groups that connect like-minded librarians. We see organizations like Public Libraries 2020 networking library leaders across Europe to influence policy. Australia brings together new librarians to equip them to change organizations.

We have the research in library and information science that looks beyond metrics to value, and beyond the state of services, to instilling design thinking. We have an emerging worldview that provides real case studies of librarians making communities smarter. We have new messaging emerging out of Scotland and Denmark that says there is no such thing as a Smart City without Smart Citizens that understand how data and algorithms can be used to empower or oppress. In Brazil and India librarians frustrated with outdated models of service are building pop up libraries on beaches and in rural towns to educate, not simply deliver materials.

These groups meet in conferences and are part of associations, but they are not limiting voice to membership, nor are they seeking universal agreement before experimentation and recognition.

After a previous talk someone summed these ideas up as “think globally, act locally.” Yes, in part. We need to act both locally and globally. We need to not only ensure our local communities are well served, we must ensure that no librarian is left alone in isolation.

What makes us librarians is our mission, our values, and our means of service. The mission is centuries old, before there even was a formal profession. The values? They have emerged and been reinterpreted over those centuries. In fact, today we see real constructive debate on concepts of neutrality, equity, and objectivity. These conversations are hard and long and difficult as they should be. The means of service? These alter regularly with new tools, new environments, and new expectations of our communities. What makes librarianship is both an ongoing conversation about who we are and how we can help, and a rich ecosystem of scholars, practitioners, students, community members, and those that support libraries doing their work.

This conversation that is our profession is not limited to one organization or one event, it is happening every day. It is happening every day because we are a living profession that is learning and adapting, sustaining, and transforming every day. If that sounds exhausting and not energizing, I understand – it can be, but it shouldn’t be. What is exhausting is when as a profession we do not live up to our values of accepting and supporting diversity, and when we don’t use our own facilitation skills to have difficult and rancorous debate at a professional, not personal level.

We have to get this right. As we look around our countries and communities and see the disintegration of civility and respect for the other. We must be the model for the way forward. When we see resistance to inclusion and the replacement of reason and scholarship with personal belief over all, we must be the way forward.

I see a bright future for librarianship in Portugal and across the globe. I see many of us standing up. I see us acknowledging our past sins and embracing our future obligations. This road forward will not be easy, but it has already begun, and we are already seeing reward. I invite you to join.

Thank you.

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