A Time of our Choosing

Speech notes by R. David Lankes

September 25, 2009

In his article on the future of academic libraries, Derek Law says that librarians "have become so busy and adept at keeping the library efficient and well managed that we have lacked the space to step back and observe it from a higher level ." What's worse is that many in the field don't see the need to. Many imply that the focus needs to be on skills (technical, cataloging, reference, etc.) and they question the need to develop the thoughtful practitioner who is more fluent in theory and deeper concepts.

Why should front line librarians worry about theories and big pictures when there is plenty to do with the trees before them? There is already plenty for us to do, and with tighter budgets, more things to do than people to do them. Also we have plenty of evidence that people are fine with our services. Numbers are up and we have a high-perceived credibility.

On a research front, why bother to look at the big picture when it has already been laid out and we have so much to do on the sub-tasks? Why question the need and relationship of cataloging, reference, circulation, public services, archives, and such? We have metadata schema, semantic web, and linked data to keep us busy in cataloging. We have social networking and the whole 2.0 catalog on the systems side. Reference has to figure out the right mix of in-person desks to virtual reference systems, to IM, and so on. With so much activity, surely we are fulfilling our functions.

The problem with a functional view is that it tells you what to do, but not what to do next. In fact there is a dangerous paradox one can slip into where success in a given function can actually spell disaster for the future. Many a company has gone out of business not from lack of quality, or loss of mission, but through inflexibility. Large corporations are often slow to advance into new markets because doing so requires them to abandon proven skills and tools for new ones.

Take for example the current state of climbing usage in public libraries. Most public libraries are reporting higher circulation, much higher use of digital resources, and larger gate counts. Libraries get on the news as the new cool place in the recession. Success, right? Keep doing what we're doing and success will bring them in. But what happens when the recession ends and people can afford Amazon, and the like? If we continue to be the cheap resource place, and don't use this economy as an opportunity to develop new services to meet our new clientele, why should they come back?

We need to take a step back and see not only if we are doing the functions right, but if they are the right functions.

The past decades have been marked by an amazing blur of technological advancements. Not just the web; think about the state of personal computers even two decades ago. Librarians should feel a sense of pride that they have managed to cope as well as they have in such a volatile world. Yet we have new possibilities, and we have new audiences, and unless we step back we may miss our opportunities.

We now exist in such a frenetic and disjointed sate of "deep expertise" we feel tension and fragmentation. Are a public librarian and an academic librarian still the same thing? What do we hold in common as librarians? These may seem too broad of questions, but without the answers we are having a VERY hard time defining our value to our communities. It is now much easier for librarians to define what they do, than to define why it is of value.

In essence, if we do not all become thoughtful practitioners who take the time to explore the fundamentals of our profession, we may put our very future in jeopardy. So with colleagues around the world I've been working on that bigger picture. I want to give you a view of what we're finding. You may not agree with it, but at least it is a start, and hopefully it will get you thinking about the issue.

Also let me say, that I firmly believe this is a challenge that the field is more than up to. I believe that librarians are essential within society, and more than that, I believe that our best days and the golden era of librarianship are ahead of us.

I will begin my task of convincing you of that by proposing a mission for the field:

The mission of librarians is to improve society through the facilitation of knowledge creation in their communities.

I want you to note a few things about this mission. The first is that it is not a mission of a library. A library is an abstraction, an org chart of a building. These abstractions cannot have missions. It takes people--you--to do anything. It is easy to assume a sort of abstract responsibility in a library mission: if you don't do it, or believe it, then someone will. No, this mission is for librarians; for you. It is your personal responsibility to improve society. It is your personal responsibility to facilitate knowledge creation.

But what does that mean? There is a long form to this answer, but we don't have a few months, so let me do the Cliff's Notes and talk about just three aspects of that mission: knowledge, facilitation, and improving society.

Knowledge is not a thing, nor is it a cold and objective truth. Knowledge is a passion and a belief that is built up through ongoing conversations with yourself, your colleagues, and especially your communities. Take a rock for example. It is a thing, yet if you are a geologist you can tell from that rock when it was formed, and even the process and place of formation. However, that knowledge is not resident in the rock, it is resident in the geologist. The same is true for a book, or a DVD, or a web page. These are artifacts. The knowledge is in the head of the readers and writers. When you read you are engaging in a conversation. Not a conversation with the author, but with yourself. (Do I believe this? How does this relate to what I already know?) There is no such thing as "recorded knowledge." Knowledge is alive and dynamic. It can't be put under glass for examination.

As librarians we need to understand the nature of this dynamic "knowing." Only in understanding how people create knowledge and how they learn can we best serve them. This is core knowledge not just for reference staff or instructional librarians, but every librarian no matter the job, task, or setting. We are all in the learning business.

So if being in the knowledge business is the first thing that defines our mission, and our identity as professionals, how do we facilitate knowledge creation? Knowledge is created through conversation. So to facilitate knowledge is to facilitate conversation.

The first form of facilitation is one that librarians are most comfortable with: access. Librarians facilitate access to conversations. We do this by adding resources for internal dialog (e.g., finding a good book), or getting a member to an existing conversation among people (like an online dialog, or hosting a meeting). But librarians must also aid members in getting others to the members' conversations. Librarians must become publishers of community. They must take the conversations of the local community and make them available to the larger world. I foresee the day in the not so distant future when the majority of time a librarian spends will be outside of a physical library. They will be working with communities to publish their ideas to the world.

Yet access is insufficient for learning. Librarians must also provide the requisite knowledge to participate in the conversations that members access. It does a member no good if the best source of knowledge is online and the member cannot use a computer.

The third form of facilitation a librarian must provide is a safe environment for the conversation. There are all different kinds of safety, from physical safety, to intellectual safety, to a form of cultural safety. I had a colleague who was told to speak up more as part of the faculty. Her response was that when she tried to do so in the past she was shot down, made to feel like the "new kid" who didn't know enough departmental history to contribute. Her voice was lost because she did not feel safe to participate.

The last form of facilitation is in motivation. Librarians must understand why a member is seeking a given set of knowledge. They must not simply assume that a member's own internal motivation is sufficient to learn what must be learned. Librarians must have a much more nuanced view of motivation and reward systems.

So with our understanding of knowledge and our means of facilitation, surely librarians are ready to serve. Yet there is one thing missing. Look again at the mission. It really has two parts. Knowledge and facilitation are part of a service aspect. This part of the mission calls for the librarian to define their role as subservient to the community. But the first part of the mission is an ethical counterbalance to the desires of the community. To talk of "improvement" means you have a view of better and worse - a direction. This means you have a point of view, and a voice. If a member of the community were to ask for bomb making information do you as a librarian have an obligation to share that information? What about pornography? Hate materials?

Librarians are not neutral voices in a community. To be a neutral voice is to add no value. Librarians are intellectually honest brokers within the community, part of the community. You gain trust because you have principles and act in concert with those. A librarian's values are partially formed by the community, and partially formed by the bounds of the profession. Our values serve as the ethical counterbalance to the desires of the community.

It is this set of values that differentiates us from Google, and Amazon, and even teachers, and politicians. There are a lot of professions that facilitate knowledge, but few do so with the solid philosophy of openness, rationalism, and honesty that is so integral to librarianship.

Now I know this sounds very abstract, and I can appreciate a need for solidity; for the direct translation of these pillars to cataloging and systems. They are there, but now we're back to the multi-month course. What I can say is this:

First, librarianship is all about knowledge: not information, not artifacts, not stuff, and not containers. These are merely tools to our ultimate mission.

Second, knowledge is created through conversations: with ourselves and between friends, colleagues, teachers and students, organizations, and societies. And because librarians are in the knowledge business, they are in the conversation business. That means we need to be good at mapping, mediating, and capturing conversations.

You need to acknowledge conversations take two strong interacting voices. Between conversants, yes, but also between the library and the community it serves. The library is not neutral or passive in that conversation, but co-owns it, co-shapes it, and takes equal responsibility in it. Just as we share in the success of our members, so too the failures of our members are our failures.

Lastly, and most importantly of all, we are librarians. We are noble and necessary in a free society, not because we simply serve in some neutral way, but because we are a loud voice for knowledge, for cooperation, for openness, and for learning.

Books can crumble to dust, but we will still be librarians. Buildings can collapse and decay, but we will still be librarians. No place defines us. No tools define us. It is our mission, our focus on knowledge, our methods of facilitation, but most importantly of all, our values that make us librarians. And in these days of imploding newspapers, and bankrupt broadcast business models, and the creeping surveillance society, we are needed more than ever.

I have to say I am tired of librarians putting themselves down, or underestimating their own self-worth. I believe that librarians not only deserve credit, but compliments and inspiration. I know my language can be over the top, but why do we reserve inspirational speeches to movies and Shakespeare? I've said it before and I'll say it again: we live in Shakespearian times.

We must look up from the trees and the policies and the standards and the committees. We must look up and rise above the obstacles and annoyances of today, and see our future: a future where librarianship provides the connective tissue of our cities, our academies, our schools, our offices, and our hospitals. We shall do so at a time of our choosing and in a manner of our creation. That time is now. And the methods we shall divine. Because we are a noble vocation, and society needs us now more than ever.