Q&A: Librarianship, Knowledge Transfer, and Cultural Heritage

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Blue DavidAs part of my World Tour sweep through Italy, a number of folks submitted questions for me to answer. One set of questions is going to be translated and printed in the Italian Library Association’s Journal (AIB). I have been given permission to post the questions and my responses here.

I post them because while they are couched in the Italian Library context, I think they have larger applicability – particularly when it comes to the relationship between librarianship and cultural heritage. I would value your thoughts.

Editorial Note: I present the questions as sent to me rather than editing them for a smoother translation. All the grammatical errors in the answer are my own.

1) The discipline LIS in Italy is taught inside Cultural Heritage Area: the focus is on conservation of our rich libraries collections. We agree that libraries are in the knowledge sector, but for transmission of knowledge and not creation. How can the mission for librarians facilitating knowledge be adapted to Italy in your view?

I believe there is a two part answer to your question: defining knowledge, and looking to the purpose behind the preservation and access to cultural heritage. Let me begin with knowledge.

First, in my work knowledge is fundamentally human and individual. I define knowledge pragmatically as a network of beliefs and understandings of the world and how that network effects how we behave and interact with the world around us. Many get caught up on the phrase “knowledge creation.” It is often portrayed as some original act of scholarship. Scientists and scholars create knowledge the argument goes, the rest of us consume it. Yet knowledge creation, as I use it, is nothing more than learning.

When we learn something it is not a simple transfer of a fact or opinion into our minds. Instead, as humans we relate any fact or opinion to what we already know. Take something like a walk through the ruins of the Roman Senate. I have had two tours of the site in the past decade. The first talked about how Romans through the centuries were inspired by the classic architecture and recycled the ideas and materials into new buildings. So the Coliseum now lay in ruins because Romans were smart enough to reuse the quarried materials to build Saint Peter’s Cathedral. The second tour, however, talked about how each preceding generation pillaged their heritage and stole away the quarried stone to set up a new religion and regime.

Those interpretations did not come from the marble and rock. It came from people who had radically different connections and perspectives. As part of the audience of these tours I took away yet a different perspective still (for example linking the telling of these views to a vacation and my family). All of this is knowledge creation. Even facts held in common are themselves part of a complex, and very personal web of understandings and beliefs.

So you cannot transmit knowledge. You cannot preserve it in a book, or a sculpture or a painting. All of these tangible forms (sites, works, artifacts) can inspire knowledge, but not directly convey it. We can read a manuscript 100s of years old, but by doing so we are learning about the past, not the present that the author was writing about. If transmitting knowledge was as simple as writing it down, you and I would not be engaged in these conversations and questions.

So if you help a scholar explore the past, or an astronomer discover a new planet, you are facilitating knowledge creation. If you help a five year old learn to read or a mother understand the dangers of smoking while pregnant you too are facilitating knowledge creation.

Now the second part of the answer: the mission in relation to cultural heritage. To be sure in most approaches to cultural heritage there is a strong focus on the materials produced by a society. Yet to what end? Why is it important to preserve books, manuscripts, buildings, and the like? Also, doesn’t cultural heritage go beyond artifacts produced in the past? What about our current trends and thoughts? What about the heritage we pass on to future generations like values and priorities?

For me cultural heritage is an ongoing dialog of a culture on how history shapes the present, and how the present seeks to hand down their values to the future. Certainly the field of cultural heritage is strongly influenced by artifacts, but these artifacts are always contextualized by the present cultural narrative.

When we preserve manuscripts today we not only document any changes we make, but we make our preservation work obvious. However, 100 years ago we would have worked to restore and recreate the artifact in our image of what it should look like. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is filled with ancient Greek statues that may look complete today, but were actually reconstructions: piecing found sculptural parts together.

So do librarians preserve and organize materials and collections for scholars? Certainly some do. Why do these librarians do this? To facilitate the knowledge creation (the learning) of their communities. You suggest a community of scholars, but it is the same mission as a public librarian in the U.S. helping a 5 year old learn to read, or a librarian in Beijing helping a college student find an article for their thesis. In all these cases librarians don’t simply transmit knowledge – they facilitate learning.

If I want to study ancient manuscripts in the Vatican Library I have to apply and be granted credentials as a “scholar.” Librarians determine who counts as a scholar and who does not. What’s more, even if a scholar is granted access, a librarian must approve access to a certain manuscript that will be taken from a climate controlled vault where it is organized for efficient access. At every step in that process the librarian is making choices, adding value, and inserting themselves into the learning process.

My mission is not some blanket statement to say there is only one way to serve a community. Quite the opposite. How we serve our communities should lead librarians to create libraries as unique in form and function as the communities they serve. Do we need to throw the doors open at the Vatican Library to all comers? No. Do we, as librarians, need to recognize that learning (knowledge creation) is the right of all Italian (and world) citizens? Yes. If we want the next great work of scholarship, the next cathedral, or technology, or manuscript, or forum we must invest in all of our citizens, not simply those of us who took the time to get a Ph.D.

2) Since many centuries, libraries were silent space for scholars doing their research. The re-thinking of libraries as community squares has been recently applied by some public libraries, but people is not used to use the libraries. How the “contract” you speak in the Atlas can be signed with people in Italy where reading and learning are at the minimum grade in Europe?

In Kenya they are building as many libraries as they can. In areas too remote for construction vehicles they have built a set of donkey carts librarians use to bring learning. In the most remote desert areas of northern tribes where even donkeys cannot tread, the librarians bring learning on the back of camels. The camel arrives with a library in boxes strapped to its back. The librarians unpack the boxes full of mats, tents, and books and teach mothers and children to read.

In the remote forests of Columbia Luis Soriano packs books and teaching materials on the back of two burros to bring learning to remote villages. In the alleys of Vancouver Canadian librarians work with junkies and the homeless to show that through learning there are opportunities to find a job, to find a home, to find a purpose.

To be clear the villagers and junkies did not press their politicians for library service. Instead librarians took their communities goal to be more literate and humane and went to the places of needs. I could tell more stories where librarians accelerate scholarship embedded in research teams, or improving health care through direct partnerships with doctors, but all of these have one thing in common. The librarians did not sit by and wait to be asked to change the world. No one has ever changed the world by standing ready. They built a new social compact by proactively engaging the community and providing real value.

The new social compact where librarians are respected professionals and held in high esteem does not come from pronouncements or association declarations. The new social compact doesn’t come from a degree granted or a book written. It comes from the real work of making a community better: smarter, more capable, more fulfilled. The social compact for libraries will start as a million compacts forged from one librarian with one citizen helped.

The new status and capabilities for librarians in Italy, and the US, and France, and Russia will happen only if librarians forge strong alliances with the communities we aid. To be sure not everyone will accept this new status or change their perspectives. But it has been my experience that when a community in need is offered the assistance of a knowledge professional with over 4,000 years of pedigree of using learning to advance societies in a principled manner, few say no.

As a scholar you know the work of librarians, in spirit if not name, helped bring Europe out of the Dark Ages. You know the role of scholarship facilitated by libraries in ancient Alexandria, then India, and Moorish Spain and the city states in Italy. The current condition of librarians is not pre-ordained. The very structure of a society and how it treats citizenry, wealth disparity, class, race, and gender is part of that society’s cultural heritage as much as their sculptures and temples it builds and preserves. All of those structures and societal priorities, ALL OF THEM, are in the purview of librarians.

3) Only after Bologna reform, the education of librarians became recognized in our universities (2001) and only recently (2012) we started in Italy to put in practice lifelong learning. To be a librarian until now you do not need to have a LIS degree.  What are the minimum requirements and competences we should ask to librarians to know in your opinion?

In 2012 a group of scholars and practitioners in libraries and museums gathered at the Salzburg Global Summit to discuss the role of libraries and museums in an age of participation. The assembled group developed a curriculum that designated the core competencies for librarians and museums professionals, now known as the Salzburg Curriculum. What I like about the curriculum is that it goes beyond a set of skills and also identifies an overarching mission and values.

The mission of librarians and museum professionals is to foster conversations that improve society through knowledge exchange and social action.

If that mission looks familiar it is no coincidence. I was part of the team that developed the curriculum. However, that team included librarians and museum specialists from Egypt, South Korea, the UK, and beyond. The values they identified are:

  • Openness and Transparency
  • Self Reflection
  • Collaboration
  • Service
  • Empathy and Respect
  • Continuous Learning/Striving for Excellence (which requires lifelong learning), and
  • Creativity and Imagination

These values won’t be too much of a surprise to anyone in the field of librarianship. The group then identified 6 competency areas:

  1. Transformative Social Engagement
  2. Technology
  3. Management for Participation
  4. Asset Management
  5. Cultural Skills
  6. Knowledge/Learning/Innovation

These areas are deliberately broad. Information organization (cataloging/metadata/ontological work) would fit into “Asset Management” for example. The major addition in this Salzburg Curriculum is the idea of “Transformative Social Engagement.” The idea is that librarians should proactively make a difference in the communities they serve.

The world that librarians seek to serve is in great flux. The advent of ubiquitous networks; increased globalization; ever increasing life spans; access to advanced health care; the increasing disparity between the rich and poor; massive human migration are all changing how people live day to day. In times of great flux professionals need to be prepared beyond skills and tools. They must build a foundation of values and purpose. While they need core skills like how to identify community needs and how to be continual learners, tools and routines change too quickly to ground LIS education in specifics.

Today information organization is well beyond human intermediated classification. Today a deep knowledge of classification or ontology development must include knowledge of data mining, inductive term identification, and algorithmic concept development. This isn’t just about who develops the next Google, but rather how we unleash the expertise of the humanities scholar that can analyze every word of every manuscript written in the 15th century.

Preservationists are going beyond Japanese paper to team with physicists in reading fossilized scrolls by the quantum properties of the ink on the scroll. Librarians and archivists working with the original wax cylinders developed by Edison have developed laser scanning techniques to recreate musical scores from the 1800s. Today historians and archeologists are using satellite imagery to find lost cities and tectonic sampling to understand what lies below the columns of Rome.

Embracing the community is not about abandoning a collection, or a long standing mission of librarians. The physicists, archeologists, and historian are part of our communities. If we do not take advantage of their expertise or if we fail to evolve to support their modern scholarship then librarians are neither achieving their mission nor living up to our values of service. What’s even worse, we abdicate the support of scholars and communities of all sorts to others that do hold our principles dear. Do we really want to take the vital work of scholar and citizen alike and hand it over to those who only value monetization? Do we want the future of academy and village alike in the hands of modern day digital sharecroppers who demand our privacy for functionality? Do we believe that the value of digitization efforts of our cultural heritage should be measured against a stock price of “content aggregators?”

If librarians don’t simultaneously assert themselves and evolve to truly embrace our communities we abdicate not only our future, but potentially the future of scholarship and community knowledge. I realize many will see these words as hyperbole, but what other knowledge profession spans from the primary classroom to the lecture halls of the highest ivory towers? What other dedicated, principled profession supports lawyers, doctors, and politicians? Librarians sit at the seat of particle physics exploring the basic stuff of the cosmos and the hospital bed where parents must make sense of a terminal diagnosis for their child.

By limiting the potential of librarians to information providers or transmitters of knowledge or to book people, or to neutral civil servants we abdicate a responsibility to preserve society…not society’s artifacts or their stories, but society itself.

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