“Saying Thank You”

Every year the Duke Adult Bone Marrow and Transplant Clinic hosts a reunion of transplant recipients. They asked my son (and donor) to speak this year, my first reunion. It was an amazing event, and it was so amazing to meet folks who were celebrating transplants from 25 years ago. Following is the text of my remarks.

How do I say thank you to someone for saving my life? How do I say thank you to my son who spent his first day of college face down on a table as Steel needles extracted bone marrow from his pelvic bone? Or, who years earlier, when he was only thirteen had to help his father up the stairs when I was too weak to make it on my own?

How do I say thank you to my younger son for caring and supporting me when all I could give him for nearly half of his life was worrying about cancer – would it kill his father? Would it return? Why did I have to be without my parents for months? Why did my dad miss my concert? How do I get close to a man when I’m told a virus I got at school could put him in the hospital, or worse? How do I thank my son for not breaking when at 10 after weeks of celebrating the end of chemo, I had to share the news that the cancer was back, the chemo was back, the pain was back, the fear was back?

How do I say thank you to my wife who hourly took my temperature-every hour on the hour-to make sure I was ok, or awoke as I cried out at 3 am convinced I was suffocating during a panic attack? Thank a woman who clearly married me for my good looks, for sweeping up the growing piles of hair on the bathroom floor, and the dinner table, and the car…surprising us both how much hair I actually had to lose? How do you let your soulmate know that the only thing worse than bone shattering pain of Neulasta is knowing her feeling of helplessness watching you hurt? How can you thank her for all the times she crawled into bed to hold you, and let her know her love, her touch, her simple presence was stronger relief than any opioid?

How do I thank a mother and stepfather who uprooted their lives to care for my family when I could not? A mother who would sit by my chemo chair and talk about how as wife and mother she recovered from my father’s death, and how we live a good life. And a new father who financially helped a family linked by love instead of DNA.

How do I say thank you to nurses who cheered me on and an instant later threatened to take away my nausea meds if I didn’t walk every day or who shared stories of soccer and beer, and who never, never, never made me feel any less dignified, or worthy or human? The nurse practitioners who made the first Sunday off from treatment feel like tropical vacation or who, while she wouldn’t promise I would be home for Thanksgiving, made it happen? Thank the physical therapist who came to me on the worst day of the transplant when I hurt, couldn’t keep any food in my body, had just finished another three hour infusion of magnesium and had moved from my resting bitch face to my “I swear I will cut you face” and cheerily asked if I am ready to hop on the bike? Or the doctors who have given me a chance to meet my grandchildren one day- a day far far into the future?

How do I say thank you to those who are no longer with us. To my fellow cancer patients who fought and fought who were worthy and loved and still died. Thank them for sharing their final days with me and who brightened as I improved even as they slipped away. 

How do I say thank you for those whom the South invented the phrase “bless their heart.” Folks who earnestly offered healing through crystals or remote regression therapy to right the injuries I received in the womb or who were convinced juicing was the cure. These folks deserve my thanks because while they may offer crystals or essential oils or, and I’m not making this up, beet juice, what they are saying is that you are loved, and you are important and the universe should heal you.

How do I thank the colleague who covered that work trip or the neighbor who brought over the meal or the prayer circles or those who lit the night or those who mowed my lawn or the personal trainer that helped you gain 8lbs of muscle or those that sent me a card every month just to say that I mattered?

Words ring hollow. And though not one of these people ever expected anything in return and were happy to give, guilt rises. Guilt because I can never repay the debt I owe. Even though none of these people ever expected pay back, and rather than seeing it as a debt, saw it as a reward-a chance to fulfill a mission, or took joy in giving, or paid forward a kindness they had received. And still, the guilt rises and I must find a way to give back, to absorb this love and sacrifice and find joy.

And so, I choose as my thank you to see cancer as a gift. I choose to see cancer as a harsh light that shines on the love I have been given. I thank cancer for the pain that cramped my muscles and screamed in my very bones because I now know the relief of a gentle hand and a loving embrace. I thank cancer for the fatigue so deep it trapped me for hours in the dark because when I woke up there was my wife to walk with me in the sun. I thank cancer for the nausea that sought to starve me because I now know what it is to be nourished by a neighbor’s meal. And I thank cancer for seeking to devour me from my marrow because it introduced me to the man my boy had become. A man who without hesitation said, “anything you need dad.”

Customers, Members, and Users oh my!

Stephen Bell wrote a column for Library Journal[1]that has folks talking. I have known Stephen and respect his work and appreciate how he makes me think. I very much disagree with his conclusion, that academic librarians should call folks customers, and that not doing so is somehow a product of elitism. Clearly from social media I am not alone. I, however, don’t believe that challenging ideas means challenging the person with ad hominem attacks. We need to have conflicting ideas to seek out the best ones. If we attack those that share ideas we disagree with, we create a climate of silence.

Because of the topic, I made some posts on Facebook, and folks have pointed to them. However, not everyone is on Facebook, so I’ve expanded them here.

OK, it’s time to talk about them again. Them as in the folks we serve. This is an important and ongoing conversation that bounces back and forth around terms like users, patrons, customers, members, and the like. To some this may seem like a trivial conversation. To me, however, words matter. Our use of them is framed in social and cultural norms. When we use a term, we evoke not only a single definition, but a web of associated meanings and contexts. For example, why not use the word comrades? Or sisters?

Before I jump into my thoughts on those who use the library as customers a few caveats.

The terms we use to interact with the community and the term we use within the profession to talk them can be, even should be different. The term used in our daily interactions in our libraries, be they public, school, academic, or special should be a term negotiated with that community. It should reflect not only how a library interacts with those who seek out our services, but how we are situated in a local context.

Next, I’m going to focus on the predominant terms I hear from this conversation – patron, user, customer- that we can use across the profession from academic to school to public, to law, and so on. So while I love citizen, student, faculty they don’t work in all settings. This is important, because, when I use the word community, it isn’t just referring to a town or place we live, but a group of people who share resources and some means of allocating them. A university is a community. A school is a community, etc.

Lastly, our terminology keeps changing, as it should, since our profession and the institutions we create, are changing. Librarians are pushing our libraries to be more participatory. Libraries are evolving from collections of materials, to service centers, to community hubs, to, as Marie Østergaard says, a movement[2]. The boundaries of those who serve and those who receive service (I refuse to say are serviced) are being broken down. It is the same boundaries that are breaking down between consumers and producers in markets.

So why do I hate the use of customer in the context of librarianship? Why do I think that that using “customer” is so wrong that I fear my head will explode? Ultimately because I believe it leads to transactional thinking where value is defined solely by satisfaction. Folks are our neighbors, fellow citizens, peers, members out of communities, but they are never simply customers. This is true in libraries, and education in general.  Students, for example, don’t buy an education. They partner with faculty to explore the world and a discipline. It’s why classes are meant to be rigorous[3]. Also, in education, it is a very slippery slope from seeing students as customers, to seeing them as products. It is also a slippery slope for all types of libraries to see the rest of the community as products.

For example, in these days of monetizing personal data, higher education, primary & secondary education, and government have all either contemplated revenue generation through data aggregation, or have done it. Google knows about our children through school issued Chromebooks. Universities buy data to target recruitment and set up WIFI tracking of freshmen to target behavioral services. Public libraries have adopted third-party services where the third party has targeted ads as part of its business model[4]. To be clear, this adoption of monetized data for revenue isn’t because of the use of customer as a term– it is because of the mindset that thinks of a community as a body of customers.

The problem with viewing our communities as customers is not that we see ourselves as superior, it is that we see them as separate from us and that we have no agency. Librarians must and do shape a community they are in because they are part of the community. 

In a public setting folks served are not a buying public, but citizens with rights and responsibilities. If they don’t like the service they receive from their government they can’t shop around for a better one. They must engage in a democratic process for improvement. I get the need to implement techniques and concepts from “customer service,” but a customer/business relationship is NOT the answer. Having all parties feeling a mutual responsibility to improve their community is.

So, if not customer, what do we call them? 

Patron? Still a widely used, and frankly useful term. I tend not to use it because it comes from the days when those with resources would support the library, especially to help the library support folks without means. It came from a time of clear class structures that today we are seeking to break down (even though we are failing at this).

User? I don’t like this term because it too has an implication of transactions over relationships, particularly peer relationships. The term comes from computing and has the gloss of technology. However, these days we are more aware than ever how technology comes at a cost. After all we aren’t really the only users of Facebook. Facebook uses us to generate revenue. Nobody wants to be used. 

I have to say, after my conversation with Marie in Aarhus[5], I’m starting to come around on user a bit. But only if you use it to describe librarians as part of the community doing the using. In her thinking on the library as movement, the community – citizens, librarians, businesses – are users of the library as a place and set of capabilities. She talked about how architects worked with the term users. In this context, it makes sense. Architects are building a facility that is to be used.

So, I keep coming back to the term member. It was Joan Frye Williams that won me over to this term. It is short for community member. It denotes a sense of ownership and belonging. Some, rightly point out that member can also be seen as exclusionary. To have members, implies there are folks who are not part of the club. Except, of course, there are. People who use a public library that live elsewhere often have to buy membership. Either you are a member of the university community, or you are not.

For me it all comes back to how we think about the communities we serve and our relationship with them. During this most recent discussion I have heard the phrase owner and client. We will probably never have the perfect word, because we are seeking to encapsulate such a broad set of circumstances. Further, at the end of the day, so long as we are working with the community, and we are seeking to make our communities better we are doing it right.


[1]https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=Academic-Librarians-C-Word-Problem-From-the-Bell-Tower

[2]https://davidlankes.org/the-library-as-a-movement/

[3]An interesting historical note. Since about the Renaissance, students were very much customers. They paid faculty members directly for lessons and classes. This led to an obvious conflict of interest. It wasn’t until the 19thcentury that most colleges moved to a tuition model removing, at least the most obvious, conflict. This was particularly problematic in medical training, as becoming a doctor could be as much about wealth as knowledge. Check out John Barry’s The Great Influenza for more…also it is one of my favorite books, so check it out anyway.

[4]http://www.ala.org/news/member-news/2019/07/ala-urges-linkedin-learning-reconsider-changes-terms-service-impair-library

[5]Again: https://davidlankes.org/the-library-as-a-movement/

Library as Movement

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

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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.

Decoding AI and Libraries

AI

“Decoding AI and Libraries.” KB College: AI en de Bibliotheek – de computer leest alles. The Hague, Netherlands. (via video conference)

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script
Abstract: How can we think about AI and the role of libraries in AI development?

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

In the 90s I was working on a project called AskERIC – a service that would answer questions of educators and policy makers online. It was early days of the web, well before Google, Facebook, or Amazon. Yet even then we would regularly get questions about artificial intelligence; “i.e., Can’t machines answer these questions?” My boss’ answer was great – “We’ll use natural intelligence until artificial intelligence catches up.” 

A quarter century later, artificial intelligence has done some significant catching up. From search engines to conversational digital assistance to machine learning embedded in photo apps to identify faces and places, the progress of A.I. is breathtaking.

The last 10 years of progress is particularly impressive when you realize that A.I. has been a quest of computer scientists since before there was such a thing as computer science.

Today the larger conversations of A.I. tend to be either utopian

A.I. will improve medicine, reduce accidents, and decrease global energy use

or dystopian

It will destroy jobs, privacy, and freedom.

A.I. has also become a bit of a marketing term – soon, I fear we’ll be eating our cereals fortified with AI.

The hype and real progress have merged into a bit of a jumbled mess that overall can lead to a sort of awe and inaction.

Awe in that many of us in the library, and particularly public library community, may feel the details are over our head. A.I. is a game for Google. Inaction because the topic seems too big – what role is there for a library when these tools are being created by trillion-dollar industries?

True story, the same day my dean asked me about the possibility of creating a degree in data science and A.I., MIT announced a Billion Dollar plan to create an A.I. college[1]. I don’t think he appreciated me asking him if I would have a billion to work with as well. 

I’ve found these reactions – awe and inaction – are often a result of muddled vocabulary. So, for my contribution to today’s agenda, I’d like to briefly break the conversation down into more precise, and actionable concepts. My focus here will be in the contribution of public libraries, but I believe that the concepts are not only relevant to other public sector organizations but can only be truly implemented with partners of all types.

So rather than just think of A.I. as a big amorphous capability, I ask you to think about three interlocking layers: data, algorithms, and machine learning.

Ready access to masses of data has led to high-impact algorithms and increasingly to machine learning and black box “deep learning” systems. If we, librarians do not seek to have positive impacts at each of these levels – well, to be blunt – I would argue we are not doing our job and putting our communities in danger.

So, let’s begin with data.

The first thing that gets thrown into the A.I. bucket is the idea of data or big data. From data science to analytics there is a global uptick in generating and collecting data. With the advent of always connected digital network devices – read smart phones – in the pockets of global citizens, data has become a new type of raw resource.

And when I say global, I mean it. In 2010 the United Nations reported that there are far more people in the world that have access to a cell phone than to a toilet.

With this connectivity, most in society have simply accepted that one of the costs to being connected is sharing data. Sharing it with a carrier and sharing it with the company who wrote the phone’s software. Apple or Google probably know right now where you are, who you’re with, and if you use Siri or Google Assistant, they are primed to be listening to what you might be saying right now. No, I mean literally, right now.

The phone thing probably doesn’t surprise you. But what about the road you used to get here today? When governments build or repave a road, there is a good likelihood they are embedding sensors into it. Why? Well one reason is to save the environment and money in northern climates. How? In the winter rather than just lay down salt or chemicals on every mile of road, smart sensors can pinpoint where ice melt is needed, and reduce the application of costly chemicals.

Sensors are also used to determine the amount of traffic on the road, when to change signal lights, collect tolls, and check for wear and tear.

Add to this the data generated by cars on the road – digital radio, GPS, increasing autonomous driving – and the data begins to add up.

In fact, by one estimate in a few years each mile of highway in the U.S. will generate a gigabyte of data an hour. As there are 3.5 million miles of highways in the U.S., that would be 3.3 petabytes of data per hour, or 28 exabytes per year.

Just in case you are wondering, five exabytes is enough to hold all words ever spoken by humans from pre-history to about the year 1995. Now imagine over 5 times that a year, just on asphalt.

Now that may seem overwhelming, but at the data layer there is a lot of need, and space for libraries to participate. The questions to ask and develop answers to are familiar. Who has access to that data? How is that data stored and how do you find anything in that exabyte haystack? How do we make people aware of the data they may be sharing? How do we advocate for effective regulation to protect citizens?

I argue that public libraries should be steward of public data. Libraries have a VERY long history of data stewardship that includes respect for privacy and seeking equitable access to information. If we are going to allow our governments and our businesses to harvest data then we need to ensure our communities have a strong say in how that happens and trust in those that make the decisions. Right now, libraries have a stronger level of trust than Apple, Google, Facebook, and most elected governments[2].

The accumulation of data in and of itself is not particularly alarming. As libraries have shown over and over again having a bunch of stuff means nothing if you don’t have systems to find it and use it. This takes us to our second layer of concern in A.I.: algorithms.

Companies and governments alike are using massive computing power to sort through data, much of it identifiable to a single individual, and then these folks make some pretty astounding decisions. Decisions like which ad to show you, or what credit limit to set on your credit card, to what news you see, and even to what health care you receive. In our most liberal democracies software is used to influence elections, and who gets interviewed for jobs.

Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit[3],” tells the story of an angry father who storms into a department store to confront the store manager. It seems that the store had been sending his 16-year-old daughter a huge number of coupons for pregnancy related items: diapers, baby lotion and such. The father asks the manager if the store is trying to encourage the girl to get pregnant? The manager apologizes to the man and assures him the store will stop immediately. A few days later the manager calls the father, only to find that the daughter was indeed pregnant, and the store knew it before she told her father.

What’s remarkable is that the store knew about the pregnancy without the girl ever telling a soul. The store had determined her condition from looking at what products she was buying, activity on a store credit card, and in crunching through huge amounts of data. If we updated this story from a few years ago we could add her search history and online shopping habits, even her shopping at other physical stores. It is now common practice to use online tracking, WIFI connection history, and unique data identifiers to merge data across a person’s entire life and feed them into software algorithms that dictate the information and opportunities they are presented with.

In her book “Weapons of math destruction[4],” Cathy O’Neil documents story after story of data mining and algorithms that have massive effects in people’s lives, even when they show clear biases and faults. She describes investment algorithms that not only missed the coming financial crisis or 2008, but actually contributed to it. Models that increased student debt, prison time for minorities, and blackballed those with mental health challenges from jobs.

The recurring theme in her work is that these systems are normally put in place with the best of intentions.

And here we see the key issue in the use of software to crunch massive data to make decisions on commerce, health care, credit, even jail sentences. That issue lies in the assumptions that those who use the software make. Often very dubious, and downright dangerous assumptions. Assumptions such as algorithms are objective, and that data collection is somehow a neutral act. Or even, that everything can be represented in a quantitative way – including, by the way, culture[5]and the benefit a person makes to society[6]

What role is there for librarians, curators, and academics here? The answer on the surface is about the same as in our discussion of data. Education, awareness, a voice in regulation. However, we must be very aware of the nature of our voice. 

For too long librarians saw ourselves as neutral actors. We collected, described, and provided materials believing that these acts were either without bias, or that those biases were controlled.

In collecting we took it all…except for works that were self-published, or from sources we deemed of low quality. In cataloging we relied on literary warrant and the language of the community – often ignoring that we only saw the dominant voices of that community. Our services were for all – during our open hours for those who could travel to our buildings.

We as a profession are now waking up to the fact that we are a product of our cultures – good and bad. We understand that the choices we make in everything from collections to programs are just that – choices. Our choices may be guided by best practice, or even enforced by law, but ultimately, they are human choices in a material world where resource decisions must be made.

So as a library we are not asking to be neutral arbiters of data collection and uses. We are seeking to improve society through data and algorithms – that means we have a point of view. We have a definition of what improve means.

However, the biases we bring, or more precisely the principles, we bring to the Googles and Facebooks of the world is that a strong voice that advocates for transparency, privacy, the common good, and a need for a durable memory is important.

We recognize that bias exists even if we can’t always identify it, and so we require diversity and inclusive voices in our work. In this act we are not simply advocates, we are activists. A missionary corps of professionals equipping our communities to fight for their interests.

And this brings us to our last layer. The layer that most purists would say is true artificial intelligence development. The use of software techniques to enable machine learning, and especially the more specific deep learning.

That is, software that allows the creation of algorithms and procedures without human intervention. With techniques like neural nets, Bayesian predictors, Markov models, and deep adversarial networks software sorts through piles and piles of data seeking patterns and predictive power.

An example of machine learning systems in action would be feeding a system a number of prepared examples, say hundreds of MRI scans that are coded for signs of breast cancer. The software builds models over and over again until they can reproduce the results without the prepared examples. The trained system is then set upon vast piles of data using their new internally developed models.

With the wide availability of massive data, newer deep learning techniques do away with the coding, and go straight to iterative learning. Where machine learning used hundreds of coded examples, deep learning sets software free on millions and millions of examples with no coded examples – potentially improving the results and eliminating the labor-intensive teaching phase.

When this works well, it can be more accurate than humans doing the same tasks. Billions of operations per second finding pixel by pixel details humans could never see. And they can do it millions and billions of times never tiring, never getting distracted.

In these A.I. systems there are two issues that librarians need to respond to. The first is that these machine-generated algorithms are only as good as the data they are fed. MRIs are one thing, credit risks are quite another. Just as with our human generated algorithms, these systems are very sensitive to the data they work with.

For example, a maker of bathroom fixtures sold an AI-enhanced soap dispenser. The new dispenser reduced waste because it was extremely accurate at knowing if humans hands were put under the dispenser or say a suitcase at an airport. Extremely accurate, so long as the hands belonged to a white person. The system could not recognize darker skin tones[7]. Why? Was the machine racist? Well, not on its own. It turns out it had been trained on only images of Caucasian hands. 

We see example after example of machine learning systems that exhibit the worst of our unconscious biases. Chat bots that can be hijacked by racists through Twitter, job screening software that kicks out non-western names. Image classifiers labeling images of black people as gorillas[8].

However, bad data ruining a system is nothing new. If you’ve had about 10 seconds of work migrating integrated library systems, you know that all too well.

The real issue here is that the models developed through deep learning are impenetrable. That MRI example looking for breast cancer? The programmers can tell you if the system detected cancer, even the confidence the software has in its prediction. The programmer can’t tell you how it arrived at that decision. That’s a problem. All of those weapons of math destruction Cathy O’Neil described, can be audited. We can pick apart the results and look for biases and error. In deep learning, everything works until, well, an airplane crashes to the ground or an autonomous car goes off the road.

And so what are we to do? This is tricky. There can be no doubt that data analytics, algorithms taking advantage of massive data, and A.I. have provided librarians and society great advantages. Look no further than how Google has become one of a librarian’s greatest tools because it provides not only the ability to search through trillions of web pages in milliseconds, but often serves as a digital document delivery service undreamed of 25 years ago when I was working on AskERIC.

And yet, we still need that natural intelligence my boss, Mike Eisenberg, talked about.

Our communities, and our society, needs a voice to ensure the data being used is representative of all of a community, not just the dominant voice, or the most monetizable. Our communities need support, understanding, and organizing to ensure that the true societal costs of A.I. are evaluated, not simply the benefits.

That may sound like our job is the be the critic or even the luddite, holding back progress. But that’s not what we need. Librarians need to become well versed in these technologies, and participate in their development, not simply dismiss them or hamper them. We must not only demonstrate flaws where they exist but be ready to offer up solutions. Solutions grounded in our values and in the communities we serve.

We need to know the difference between facial identification systems, and facial identification systems that are used to track refugees. We need to know the difference between systems that filter through terabytes of data, and systems that create filter bubbles that reinforce prejudice and extremism.

And today is a great first step to honoring that responsibility.

Thank you, and I look forward to the conversations to come.


[1]https://www.technologyreview.com/f/612293/mit-has-just-announced-a-1-billion-plan-to-create-a-new-college-for-ai/

[2]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tvt-lHZBUwU

[3]http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/881631924

[4]http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1039545320

[5]his article certainly doesn’t claim that all of cultural heritage can be represented quantitatively. Rather I include the citation because it is a good introduction to the use of quantitative analysis of some cultural material and because it includes the very cool term Culturomics, “Culturomics is the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.” https://www.librarian.net/wp-content/uploads/science-googlelabs.pdf

[6]https://www.businessinsider.com/china-social-credit-system-punishments-and-rewards-explained-2018-4

[7]https://www.iflscience.com/technology/this-racist-soap-dispenser-reveals-why-diversity-in-tech-is-muchneeded/

[8]https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/01/google-sorry-racist-auto-tag-photo-app

Bibliopocalypse

Dürers, Albrecht. Die Offenbarung des Johannes: 4. Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter, 1497-1498.

David and Daniel Gonçalves of the Bibliotecas são Comunidades blog asked me to write a post for their bog:

The theme of the text is to imagine a world without libraries. The aim is to demonstrate the importance of libraries and how much we depend on them.

As you can see from the text I wrote, this was fun and exciting for me. It also has me thinking about imaginative advocacy. The use of stories, drawings, and creative other creative works to advocate for libraries, but more in general.

I know this is a pretty rich and well developed area. I just started to thinking how I could be a part.

In any case, let me know what you think (the text is in English): Bibliopocalypse

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

Reception at ALA

Davis College

If you are attending this year’s ALA Annual Conference in D.C. or are in the area please join the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science for a reception celebrating great librarianship. Great librarianship exemplified by our alumni, faculty, students, and staff.

This year, we will also be celebrating the life of the great librarian and 2019 Margaret E. Monroe Library Adult Services Award winner Nicolette Sosulski, who passed away this year.

So, if you are an alumni, South Carolina librarian, friend of Nicolette, or just want to share some great company, please join us:

Friday June 21st. 6-8pm

The Loft at 600F 4th Floor (Retreat Room)

600 F St NW

Washington, DC  20004

Thank You for Making a Difference

This past week I spent some time in social media and here asking folks to give blood. This was the 6th year in a row that we’ve been part of an Annual Lankes Family Blood Drive in Central New York. We began (though my amazing wife Anna Maria deserves all the credit) the event after my first stem cell/bone marrow transplant. We wanted to use our experience for something positive. People giving blood saved my life and we wanted to give back.

Even though we’ve moved to South Carolina amazing volunteers like Michele McIntyre and Blythe Bennet and the congregation of the Holy Cross Church have kept it going.

We received the following email from Katie Stepanian, our amazing contact with the American Red Cross, and it shows just how many people you can help with your donation.

Thank you for all of your time and efforts with the blood drive this year at Holy Cross Church. Without your personal asks, your volunteer time before and after the drive,  and the support from Holy Cross Church, we would not have been able to meet our goal for this drive and the demand this month. 

From where I sit the event went perfectly, though I would love any feedback you have for me. Below are the stats:

  • Goal- 53 units
  • 43 scheduled
  • 56 registered
  • 8 deferrals
  • 2 turnaways (could have been self deferrals or walkins who could not wait)
  • 43 whole blood donations
  • 5 power red donations
  • 53 units collected (100% to goal!)

There were 7 first time donors!  I will put on my calendar to pull the list of presenting donors for you once it comes through which will be next week. 

I can’t thank you each enough for continuing to help the Red Cross connect with donors in the community. David’s drive is one of the highest producing drives in my territory.  Year after year it yields a significant contribution, and with the addition of these 53 units now totals 374 donations! This brings your total in potential lives saved to 1,122!  WOOO HOOO!!!  Most importantly, you are a reminder to the community about the importance of taking time to donate blood and the why behind our mission.

1,122 people benefited from your generosity. Thank you thank you thank you.

Please give blood if you can: American Red Cross.

How you know you need a blood transfusion in the days and weeks after a bone marrow transplant

Here is how you know you need a blood transfusion in the days and weeks after a bone marrow transplant.

It will start at 3am when the cocktail of fluids and supplements from the previous day’s treatment will wake you up with a strong need to pee. However, no matter the urgency, you can’t just get up. If you don’t slowly sit up and wait; then make sure you flex the muscles in your arms and legs first, you will stand up with too little blood pressure to push oxygen to your brain and you will fall back into bed (if you are lucky- if you are not lucky it will be the floor). Your heart will not provide enough force to push blood up against gravity and so it will pool in your veins, waiting for your major muscle groups to provide pumping action.

Once you get to the bathroom, be sure to either sit down to pee or place a steadying hand on the wall so you don’t sway or make a mess. There is a good chance the effort of the 10 foot walk will also wind you.

Assuming all that goes well, you will need to wake at 7am for the daily drive into the clinic. This will mean you need to fight to wake up. I don’t me deal with being groggy, or wanting to go back to sleep. I mean feeling like you are at the bottom of a 30 foot well, and you have to climb up and will your eyes to open at the top.

Once you’re up, remember your nighttime routine to sit up slowly. Next, as you dress don’t forget the compression socks. It turns out that the cells and proteins in your blood determine the amount of fluid that stays in your blood vessels, and how much is pushed out to soft tissues. Your proteins are out of whack, so your body pushes fluid into your ankles, swelling them, and painfully engorging your muscles. The socks provide a temporary reprieve squeezing the fluid around.

Now that you’ve made it to the clinic you have a very important decision to make. You enter the building on the ground floor. There are two ways to get to the clinic one floor above. You can take the elevator (the blessed blessed elevator), or you can take the staircase in the atrium. The physical therapist who deserves sainthood for the evil glares she endures with a smile from you, has made it very clear that if you don’t do some exercise, you will have real trouble in walking. You will hear her voice in your head sweetly telling you that stairs are the best exercise you can get right now. You will also see in the face of your beloved caretaker, that she is hearing that voice too.

The stairs are split in two by a merciful landing. The first half is easy…you will only need to rest here for a minute or two. However, and this is very important, at the top of the second half, to your right is a bench. Do not stop until you are sitting on that bench. It is very important, because at the top of the stairs you will be suffocating, and don’t want to fall down the stairs. Suffocating is not an exaggeration. The deep gasps for air, the empty feeling in your lungs, and the panic you are feeling is real. Without enough red blood cells to take oxygen molecules to your brain and body, you can fill your lungs as many times as you like, but it will not make a difference. You might as well be drowning.

But, it will pass. You will stand, you will walk, and you will make it the 100 feet or so to the treatment area. The nurses (the blessed blessed nurses) will draw vials of blood from an external central line that leads from outside of your body, through your chest, up to your neck, and then down to a point just outside the heart. Then you start to hope for less than 8. It is not always a hard rule, but in your mind you are hoping the hemoglobin count is 7.9 or lower. 8 is the threshold for a transfusion of platelets – red blood cells. These are the cells you need to breathe. These are the cells you need to keep from fainting. These are the cells that will keep you awake for more than three hours at a time.

Without transfusions of red cells and platelets in the days after a bone marrow transplant, you die. Without these transfusions in the weeks after the transplant, when your new marrow is growing, you may not die, but you won’t enjoy living.

Today, from 12-6 at the Holy Cross Church at 4112 East Genesee Street in Syracuse there is a blood drive. The blood you give today may help a bone marrow patient like me. It may help several infants in hospitals around the area. It may save a life of a patient in surgery. No matter who it helps, it will mean that a father or mother or child or grandparent a cancer patient a hemophiliac a friend or a lover will live. Please consider giving a gift you hopefully never have to think about to a person or who can think of nothing else.

Thank you.

Live in Central New York? I Need Your Blood

On June 4 from 12-6 is the 6th Annual Lankes Family Blood Drive at Holy Cross Church in Syracuse, NY. Ready access to blood has saved my life through my treatments for cancer. One pint of blood can save the lives of several people. Summer is also a high need time for blood donations.

There are spots still available for donors. The Syracuse community has been so supportive of me and my family. I am asking you to extend that love to cancer patients across the area.

Please call 1-800-RED-CROSS or visit RedCrossBlood.org and enter: LANKES to schedule an appointment. Also, there is good chance you can get a $5 Amazon gift card!