A New Librarianship for a New Age

R. David Lankes, Ph.D.
Professor and Dean's Scholar on New Librarianship
Syracuse University's School of Information Studies

November 18, 2011

The following speech was presented at the 57th Annual Congress of the Italian Library Association in Rome Italy. The screencast, audio, slides, and an Italian language transcript can be found at http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/blog/?p=1309.

Good afternoon. I would like to begin by thanking the Congress organizers and the U.S. Embassy for giving me this opportunity to speak. I have had the good fortune to travel to Italy several times, and with each trip I fall more in love with the country. I also recognize that there is more than simply an ocean that divides us. My experience, and therefore my view of librarianship, is very much shaped by an American perspective. That said, in this global reality I feel that librarianship, its history, values, and dedication to knowledge creates a bond that transcends borders. This point became very apparent to me in the events in Egypt and the Arab Spring in January.

In early 2011, on the heels of a successful revolution in Tunisia, Egyptians took to the street to demand reforms to a government regime that had been in power for nearly 30 years. While much of the media fixated on protestors who occupied Tahrir Square in the Egyptian Capital of Cairo, many demonstrations started in the port city of Alexandria. There, as in Cairo, people from across the socio-economic scale and generations rioted to demand liberty, justice, and social equity. In an attempt to restore the constitution, what was seen primarily as a peaceful uprising lead to the death of 846 people with an additional 6,000 injured across Egypt. On January 28th at 6pm, after the prisons had been opened releasing murders and rapists onto the street, all security withdrew. Roving gangs of looters flooded the streets seeking to take advantage of the chaos.

In Egypt's port city, the violence and looting devastated government buildings. Where once offices stood, only burned-out rubble remained. Protestors went from government building to government building seeking to pull down the direct symbols of corrupt power. Some looters and protestors then eyed the Library of Alexandria. President Mubarak, the focus of the uprising, had opened the modern library in 2002 at a cost of about $220 million. He built it to "recapture the spirit of openness and scholarship of the original," the famous ancient Library of Alexandria - one of the wonders of the ancient world.

As it became apparent that the library might be in danger protestors joined hands and surrounded the Library of Alexandria - not to attack it, or raid it, but to protect it. Throughout the demonstrations and looting the protestors - women, men and children - stood firm and protected the library, in essence retaking it for the people. By the time the uprising had subsided - President Mubarik stepped down, and the protestors celebrated their victory around the country - not a window of the library was broken, not a rock thrown against its walls. Why in the midst of tearing down the regime did the people of the nation protect the library?


Why is this story, while not quite so dramatic, being repeated across the UK and the United States? As U.S. cities faced with a devastating financial crisis sought to close library branches, citizens rallied. Protestors disrupted town halls and city council meetings. Protestors picketed, and in Philadelphia the city council went so far as to sue the Mayor to prevent the closing of neighborhood libraries.

In Kenya they are building public libraries throughout the country, in rural and urban areas alike. Where the communities are too remote to erect buildings, they have built book carts - 5,000 books in a wooden cart pulled by donkeys. In even more remote northern sections of the country they strap crates and tents to camels. Inside villages, the carts are opened, and the tents erected to allow parents and children alike to come learn. In these villages, the camels are more than zoo animals. They provide essential transportation, labor, milk, meat, and even their dung is dried to power stoves. Now this essential animal is seen as providing another vital service - bringing knowledge to the people.

In the countryside along the coast of Colombia, Luis Soriano urges along his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto. On the backs of the donkeys are books. Luis Soriano, a primary school teacher by trade, carries a sign reading "Biblioburro." He is taking books to small villages and spreading literacy throughout the countryside to children that have seen too much violence and conflict for their years. He began with 70 books. Through donations he has grown the collection to over 4,800 volumes, and far past the capacity of his four-legged friends. He now houses the collection in a half-built room that has become an official satellite to the Santa Maria community library some 180 miles away .

We find libraries in the finest castles of Europe, and in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street populist protests in the States. Libraries are embraced by the elite and the common alike. We find librarianship in jungles, and deserts; in schools, and corporations, governments, and indeed within the walls of the Vatican overlooking Rome itself.

It would seem that libraries are universal. So why is it with the advent of digital media and networks that so many question the need for libraries? Why is it in this age of social media and participation that so many within the profession feel threatened? Has the time come for libraries to recede into the past? I put it to you that we, librarians, are in great part responsible for the circumstance that we are in. Today I would like to discuss two reasons that I believe librarians themselves have doomed the field of librarianship. One reason is due to a failure on our part, and the other a great victory we have worked for. Yet both mean the end for libraries as we know them today.

The great failure of librarianship is that too many librarians define the field by its functions. We are librarians because we catalog. Librarians search databases. Librarians are people who collect and preserve books. We see it in how we organize ourselves. We are no longer simply librarians, we are academic librarians, we are technical service librarians, we are digital librarians. We have taken the tools of reductionist classification we used on our books and turned them on ourselves. The result is a fragmenting set of skills and competing priorities. Through this fragmentation we set ourselves against each other. Instead of seeing every librarian hired as a good thing, we see every reference librarian hired as one less cataloger, or special collections librarian, or some other division.

It gets worse. Once you begin to define yourself by what is it you do, new ways of doing things become threats. Or worse, anyone who does similar things becomes competition. Google is a threat because it doesn't use descriptive cataloging to index the world. So we seek to dismiss it because it can't do nested searches and goodness knows it doesn't do authority control at all. Amazon is a threat because it provides books. Worse still, it is even letting folks borrow books on their Kindles.

And what is our response to these so-called threats? Did we librarians build a new Google, or our own ebook platform? No, instead we have adopted Google and Amazon because it turns out they work, they function. Never mind that Google is the largest advertising agency in the world, and Amazon is now able to mine our members' data in order to turn them into future customers. Because we define the world through functional eyes of threats and competition we do not engage new players as partners, nor do we effectively work to instill our values within their services. Instead we see what functions work, and consume them nearly ignorant of the cost to ourselves and those we serve.

Please do not misunderstand me: I use Google and Amazon. I use Facebook and Twitter. There is great value in these tools for our profession and our members. However, each of them can be made better through partnering with libraries. Where we can learn about new ways of discovering information or packaging content, they too can learn from our 3,000 year history of community engagement and value system. However, this will only happen if we are open to true partnership, and seen as valuable allies. If we are seen instead as isolated and stuck with functions of the past, why would they partner with us?

So what then was our great victory that has now come back to haunt us? It is the participatory culture we now live within. All around us people are organizing. Citizens are demanding entry into the decisions of companies and governments alike. We have already seen the power of a connected citizenry in Tunisia and Egypt, and Italy is feeling the direct effects of the power of networking in Libya. Occupy Wall Street that started in my home country has now spread to the streets of Rome. With cell phones and the web, the voice of the people is now magnified, and the appetite for inclusion equally so.

What does this have to do with libraries? Why has this come to haunt us? Because the same people we sought to educate and help are now seeking to have a say in how we run services. In the US and Scandinavia, library members are seeking unprecedented participation in how we run services. I'll be honest - the response from many librarians has puzzled me. This is the world we have asked for. This is the world we have worked for. Why showcase culture if we are not enabling contribution to that culture? Why provide information if not for informed participation. Why educate if not for advocacy? Why is it when we espouse the values and virtue of empowerment, we are surprised when the empowered public seeks power in shaping our destinies as well? And why are we surprised when we have focused on the power of the individual over the institution - the scholar seeking truth, the student seeking wisdom, the mother seeking a better life for her children - that these same people begin to question the need for all institutions, including our own?

Yes ladies and gentlemen, libraries as we know them are doomed. They are right, those who call us quaint and obsolete. There is simply no way to maintain an institution dedicated to physical collections, descriptive cataloging, and a profession of maintenance.

Right now you are asking yourself, what kind of library professor am I? Why was I invited and why do they let me teach future librarians? Perhaps, however, you picked up on my use of the phrase "libraries as we know them" and have seen the title of this talk. You are ready for me to pivot to the way I see forward toward a new librarianship. And you are right, I do believe that the future for librarianship is bright indeed, but it is far from assured, and far from an easy path. It is a path that will require radical personal action. I will also be honest with you, it is a path where I have great confidence in the profession of librarianship, but less confidence in the institutions we now call libraries.

The road to this new librarianship is to expect more. Look back to the stories I began with. In Alexandria, Kenya, and in Colombia we find exceptional people. The power of the library was not in architecture or collections. No Kenyan villager found inspiring grandeur on the back of a camel or donkey. The power was in the idea and the librarian reaching out. In Alexandria, and in Kenya, and Colombia the librarians did not sit back and wait to help, they identified challenges and proactively sought to solve them. The librarians did not see themselves as neutral purveyors of information, but transformative agents of social change.

Several years ago I wrote a piece on the library as conversation. Some of you may be familiar with this work. It was an early work that tried to explain the explosion of social media and the potential impact on the field of librarianship. In that piece I proposed that people were using social networks to create learning environments. That our communities seek to shape the systems they use in order to create and build knowledge. I have since expanded these ideas and have worked with libraries and other organizations to try them out. What has emerged is a new librarianship based not on artifacts, books, and architecture, but learning and conversation.

There is an unstated assumption at the heart of this work: that you are not a user, or consumer. You are a learner in control of your environment, and with the ability to shape it. Those you seek to serve, what I call our members, but you may call them your patrons, are also not users or consumers, they are a part of your library, and belong at the center of it.

Corinne Hill, the director of the Dallas Public Library in the States talked about how she is reconfiguring her libraries by "putting the collaborative spaces in the center, and the books along the walls as art." Now some in the States may see that statement as somehow dismissing the power of books as simply decoration, but here in Rome you and I know that art is not simply decoration. Art is for inspiration, for education, for provoking and embodying culture and history. The books in our libraries, and the media, and the web pages, and the rare collections, are there not to simply sit in a protected vault, but they are there for inspiring, educating and provoking conversations and learning. Your books, your buildings, and your processes are worth nothing if they are not used. Furthermore, mere use is not enough. They are worth nothing if they don't help communities learn and make better decisions. The value of your manuscripts comes not from the pages and ink, but from the reading, applying, and dreaming of your members.

Also at the heart of this new librarianship is reaffirmation of what I see to be a very old and enduring mission. The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. I would like you to note a few things about this mission. The first is that it is the mission of librarians - people - you. Libraries as institutions are the creation of people and professionals. They are either abstractions that can do nothing, or buildings that can simply exert gravity and shield you form the rain. It is the librarian that makes things happen. In these days of mass digitization and networking, you are the ascending and unique resource in the library. This means it is you who have ultimate responsibility for the impact of the library.

When the church controlled the libraries of Italy, it was people who decided what was shared and what was heresy, not the building. When fascism grew here, and across the globe, it was people who censored the collection and attempted to restrict thought, not the building. People matter - you matter. That also means you must take responsibility for the power and impact and future of your library. No building can assure freedom of access to information. No building can preserve the privacy of members. No building or book or manuscript can dedicate itself to the advancement of the individual or society. That is your job. That is your job in Rome, in Florence, in Italy, in Europe, and indeed the globe. That is the driving quest of librarians - to inspire and inform, to make their communities better.

I talked about people standing up in the UK and the States to stop the closure of libraries at the beginning of my speech. What I didn't mention is that there are plenty of libraries that have closed. There have been libraries that shuttered their doors without a whisper of protest. Why? Because the librarians of those communities were unable to connect to their members and prove their value. A building is not enough, a collection is not enough, a job title is not enough. If libraries are to have a bright future, it must be because librarians have a coherent vision of that future, and they are able to engage their communities in the importance of that vision.

It frankly still confuses me when I have librarians take offense to the "improve society" part of the mission. They will say, "Who are we to tell a community how to improve?" or "Who gave librarians the right to change the community?" They fear the specter of a sort of authoritarian librarian who dictates matters of taste and truth to our neighbors, students, and officials. They miss the point.

The point is not that librarians dictate to a community, but rather that they listen to the community, and together define what makes a better tomorrow. In the conversation of what improvement means, the most important conversation we can have, a community discusses its definition of improvement. Furthermore, the librarians of the community -part of the community and therefore with a voice - are both shaped by that conversation, and seek to shape the conversation. They are shaped in organizing themselves and their services to the norms and needs of the community. Yet they also shape that conversation in seeking to preserve the basic values of our profession developed over a 3,000 year history. We must push the importance of openness of ideas, privacy of the individual in engaging with those ideas, a belief that the best ideas come from the richest and most varied collection of information, and the importance of learning.

Now some will note that I did not include the concept of being unbiased. That is because you cannot be unbiased. As humans, we instill our values, prejudices and our own worldview into all that we do. The language you use, the color of your skin, the place you grew up, your education all influence how you see and interact with the world. You are not unbiased. As librarians we believe that privacy is essential - that is a bias. As librarians we believe that more views of a topic are better than fewer - that is a bias. We believe, I hope, that librarians and libraries serve a vital role in a democracy - that too is a bias. We cannot be unbiased, but we can be intellectually honest.

Take the sciences. I am an information scientist. Scientists have not only acknowledged that we have biases, but we have even come up with measures to quantify it. Yet, people still look at science as a legitimate way of examining the world. Why? Not because scientists as people are objective and neutral, but that scientists have developed tools, and an ethos of intellectual honesty. As a scientist I acknowledge my methods may be flawed, so I report them for examination. I acknowledge my interpretation of the data may be wrong, so I publish my results. Science knows the difference between unbiased and transparent. As librarians we must also adopt this distinction.

While I am on the topic of science I must also comment on a common misperception. Science is not cold. To be a good scientist is not to wrap yourself in an air of objectivity and flat emotions. Science and knowledge are all about passion and drive. In science it is a drive for understanding, enlightenment, and truth. In librarianship it is a quest for service and improving community. In science and librarianship we take this passion, this quest, and we seek to use dispassionate and impartial tools and methods, not to eliminate passion, but to ensure the evidence we use in our quests is accurate and credible.

This then is at least part of the answer to the first threat to librarianship - a functional view. For too many of us, and for too long, we have defined our noble profession by our tools. A process like cataloging, and a process like collection development - these are as much tools as the catalog and the materials. A tool without a purpose is meaningless. It is only when our tools are put to use that they gain value. So, therefore, while the tools are important, the true definition of our profession, or any profession, is their impact and use. We must define ourselves by our goals. We are not organizers, we are facilitators. We are not collectors, but those who inspire new ideas. The buildings, the books, and the processes are only as useful as our ability to improve our societies, to make them more knowledgeable. What is a librarian? Someone who fights for an informed citizenry as a necessary part of democracy. What is a librarian? A skilled facilitator who helps students, professors, businessmen, and politicians make better decisions. How do they do it? Today through collections, tomorrow? Who knows?

I also talked about a great victory that will doom librarianship as we know it today. That victory was participation, and the belief within our communities that they have a say in how we do our jobs. How do we incorporate this into a new librarianship? To answer that question I need to tell you a story.

In the past year I have been fortunate enough to tour medieval cities in Tuscany and in Austria. All of these former city-states shared some common architecture. They were all, at least when built, walled cities. They were built in a time when, to preserve their identities as communities, they had to build thick walls to keep invaders out. City after city, fortress after fortress sought to be self-sufficient and impregnable. Today all these cities I visited are still there, and still very much have their identity. Yet the walls have either come down, or the gates made wider. Over time these cities realized that the way to prosperity was in trade. It was in the steady flow of commerce and culture into, out of, and through the city. As this trade grew, the primary defense wasn't walls, but mutual self-interest. You didn't want to invade a trading partner. It was defense not through isolation, but through networks. Rome, Florence, and Salzburg are now great cities on the world stage. They grow and thrive on trade and tourism, and research. They all thrive because they have broken down their walls.

Now, look to your library. How thick are your walls? They may not be built out of stone and mortar, but of policies and practice. How welcome is the community into your fortifications? How interconnected are you to the rest of the neighboring communities? The plain truth is that with the advance of technology we need less and less space to do our jobs. We must cede this space to the community for the trade of ideas. By connecting ourselves to our public, our faculties, our companies, our churches, and our government we become more essential. If you want a brighter future for your library you will not find it in your stacks. Only by throwing open the doors and windows and inviting the world into the library will we assure a place for our profession.

Across the globe we see librarians leaving the library. Librarians are going to the conversations, going to the places they are needed. Librarians are sitting in business meetings. Librarians are doing rounds with doctors, and joining legal teams in court. Just as in the examples that started my talk, librarians are using camels and donkeys to meet the needs of their communities where the community needs them. In universities, librarians are going beyond their walls monitoring Twitter feeds from classes for instant reference. Librarians are posting image collections to Flickr to engage communities, and enriching collections with stories and memories and new applications. Librarians are in person and online showing up where they are needed and not waiting for someone to find them. In doing so they are proving their worth and gaining wider support from the community. They are also potentially undermining the long-term value of the institution.

At Syracuse University we are training librarians to support eScience. Librarians are joining labs and research teams to help organize scientific data and coordinate communication among researchers. We cannot prepare enough of them. These eScience librarians are being hired away, sometimes before they even graduate. They are being hired not into libraries, but academic research units. And many of these academic units are in universities with libraries. Could we see they day when this becomes the norm, and not the exception? When the valuable skills of librarians are absorbed into industry, and the institutions librarians have managed over the centuries simply fade away? I can see that happening. I don't even see that as necessarily a bad thing.

If, however, you do; if you see the institution as important then you had better add value. Can you create an eScience service within the library that manages this expertise for the labs? Can you add value by coordinating the embedded librarians? Can you provide constant and continuous development for library professionals no matter where they sit? If not - if you simply see the mission of your library as standing ready for those who enter the doors - then you have, in my opinion, a much tougher future ahead of you.

Yes, the library of today is doomed. We can mourn it, or we can celebrate the fact that it has prepared us for tomorrow. If you walk away from this talk believing that I see no value in cataloging, or books, or buildings, I have been unclear. All of these have been valuable to get us to today. However, their past value does not dictate their future value. We must constantly question everything we do, not to seek fault, but to test fitness. If a service adds value, we keep it. If it does not, we celebrate its past, and then move on. The mission and our values endure, the tools and functions we use to achieve this mission must change with the times.

I see a bright future for librarians. A future where librarians must help heal the woes of the world, not entertain it. Where librarians must pull our communities out of crippling debt, and even more crippling intolerance. Where librarians do not document their communities, but transform them. Ladies and gentlemen, we must expect more from ourselves and our libraries. We must teach our communities to expect more from us as well. We must, through our actions, show our communities that a building with books is not enough. That no community should ever be satisfied with a mediocre library, or librarians that only seek to define themselves by their duties, and not their responsibility to make the world a better place.

What lies ahead I cannot say. What will the conversation about the future of libraries here in Italy and throughout the world look like? Will it be contentious? Riotous? Resigned? Quiet? Apathetic? I don't know. I do know that if you wait for it to happen, or if you wait for it to finish, it will never occur. If you remain on the sidelines, how can you expect others to jump into the fray? If you sit quietly with your criticism or comment, you abdicate the future. Let me say that again: by not choosing to engage in the conversation on the future of librarianship, you abdicate your power to shape it.

Dewey, Cutter, and Ranganathan, all created a legacy that we, by calling ourselves librarians, have become stewards to. This legacy is one to be respected and continued, not simply enshrined and frozen. All of these giants, upon whose shoulders we now stand, never saw the field as finite, nor fixed, nor passive. Unlike some fine sculpture or glorious piece of architecture, we preserve the legacy of these librarians by constantly tearing down convention for efficiency, structure for effectiveness, and past assumptions for future success.

Be proud of your heritage as a librarian. Ours is an old and noble profession that can count among our members radicals, missionaries, teachers, and more. They have started for you an amazing conversation full of richness and history. They have written this conversation into our values, our institutions, and our education. But they did not complete the work, nor finish the conversation. They held it open for you, for those you mentor, and for those that they mentor. The conversation that is librarianship is alive and waiting for your voice.

Thank you.