“Relationships Instead of Transaction.” X Congreso Nacional de Bibliotecas Públicas. Online.
Abstract: Why libraries must transition from transactions to relationships.
Speech Text: See below
I would like to begin by thanking the event organizers and the Cultural Ministry for inviting me to speak today. It is a great honor. Not being in person with you, however, is a great disappointment. I have always wanted to visit Spain.
Part of my disappointment comes from when, as a teenager, I was introduced to the broadcaster and historian James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. In this series Burke talks about Cordova in the 11th century. A great city with a great library that held over 440,000 books – more than all of France at the time. And that was only one of 69 libraries in the city.
What’s remarkable, however, wasn’t just the number of books in Cordova, but that they were in use. Across the city the library’s holdings were tools that helped drive new forms of architecture, engineering, agricultural, mathematics, poetry, and music all while my ancestors, a bit further to the north, were pounding ideas into stone and mud.
And this is hardly the only historical library mischaracterized as a sort of repository. The Ancient Library of Alexandria was more think tank and university than store house for scrolls. With its destruction – attributed to whichever group someone didn’t like at the time, but was probably just a casualty of a collapsing economy – it wasn’t just that the books were somehow saved. It was that the scholars who had written the materials went back to places like India, and started a mathematical tradition that gave us the concept of Zero and algebra. Or to Moorish Spain where the people developed architecture around the arch and columns and revolutionized agriculture with a sophisticated aqueduct system.
Libraries have always been, I argue, agents of invention and social change. The public library tradition in America, for example, is not the result of white men wanting to share books, but a social liberation movement that resulted in universal public education, child labor laws, and women’s right to vote. Even the great Andrew Carnegie built libraries to prepare a population to govern itself, instead of show pieces for his collection.
Librarianship today, the people and the institutions they build and maintain, both draw inspiration from this past, and reconstruct it with the eyes of the present. The idea that libraries are books, buildings, and catalogs is a creation of a time when industrialization pushed toward mechanization and standards. Our classrooms became assembly lines to build citizens, and if a child didn’t fit the mold because of their color or culture? They were out of luck.
We still live with vestiges of this industrial mindset today with a focus on an artificial division between consumer and producer, service and user, and knowledge as a document versus knowledge as a human hunger to know and a passionate quest to find meaning.
I know this is a rather grand introduction to something as seemingly concrete as moving from transactions to relationships in our public libraries. But I give you this grand view as an invitation. To show that from Alexandria to Cordova to your library, how libraries work is a product of people building a common vision. It is an invitation and a challenge. What is your view of your country, your community and how do you see the world?
Take my earlier example of how industrialization changed education. Being able to put 20-30 students into a classroom is a product of how a century or two ago we saw knowledge. The child was like an empty glass that we would fill with math and reading. If a child couldn’t keep up, their glass was perhaps a bit too shallow. But now we see knowledge as dynamic and constructed. Children, and really everyone, learns through connecting to the everyday experience. We learn in different ways, and we value different things when we are learning. We know this from studies in neuroscience and education and sociology.
Now think about your library. Do you view your community as a bunch of glasses waiting to be filled with the latest novel, or some missing piece of information? Then you are about deficits and transactions. Your service is to determine the missing piece and fill it with a book or article or workshop. This can be measured as a series of transactions. Number of people through the door, number of books circulated, number of people in a workshop. After all, if these books or buildings didn’t fill the deficit, perhaps their glass was a bit too shallow.
But what changes now that we know learning is constructed and highly individual? What if we are all learning, librarians and patron alike? Then each person that comes to the library has both an ability to learn and to teach. An accountant may want to learn about history, but also can teach others in book keeping or taxes. A stay at home parent may need books for his or her child, but can also share skills in cooking, or yoga or any number of topics. When a person asks a librarian a question, the answer they seek may be just a small part of a novel being written, or a dissertation to be defended.
In this worldview the true outcome is books written, degrees earned, or children taught.
And how do we measure this impact? We build relationships and tell stories. Our goal is no longer to inform a community, or preserve the work of the community, it is to foster conversations and build a collective narrative of the people.
I know this is sounding abstract, so let me give a concrete example.
The Free Library of Philadelphia built a kitchen in their main library in the urban core of the city. In this teaching kitchen they invited in community members to learn about nutrition and healthy cooking. They also would invite in new citizens of the community to prepare food from their home countries. The first part was to ensure the wellbeing of the city, the second was to create community over the universal concept of breaking bread together.
The library had cook books. The library had information on nutrition. But now the library had a place for people to come together and learn together. The goal of the library hadn’t changed, but the tools to achieve that goal had.
Several years ago, I was invited to talk in Italy about communities and libraries. The head of the Italian Library Association at the time told me the difference between Italian and American libraries. He said, “In America your libraries loan out cookbooks, in Italy, we ask our mothers.” I have to admit that I was a happy years later when I visited the new San Gorgio Library in Pistoia Italy and saw a whole wall devoted to cookbooks. And not just cookbooks, the librarians even loaned out reading glasses to read those books and the library had a café.
Now, I’m not saying that every library in Spain needs to build a kitchen or a café. That’ not the point. The point is that in Philadelphia and in Pistoia, librarians connected to their communities to see what the community needed. Note, not what the community was missing – that’s deficit thinking. What they needed to be better. And the kitchens, cook books, and cafes where tools to achieve the vision of a better community.
More importantly, the café and the kitchen were not staffed by librarians, but by the community itself. Those Italian mothers? They could cook and teach in the kitchen – sharing their expertise with the world.
The librarian’s role, an essential role, was to identify the aspirations of the community. To identify expertise in the community, and to create a place – digital or physical – for communion. For coming together as a community and share.
In Richland Library in South Carolina that communion was in the form of hard conversations on race relations. Black elders sat side by side with former white supremacists to talk about how these groups could overcome racism and bigotry. In Norway and Finland the national library legislation calls upon public libraries to hold conversations on democracy and participation in government. In the cloud forests of Columbia a community library looks like crates of books and materials carried to remote villages on the backs of donkeys.
The value of these libraries is not found in counts of meals cooked, miles walked, or racists won over. They are found in relationships built and lives enhanced.
Now, finally, to the topic at hand. A shift to outcomes over outputs, and community over collection centers squarely on the work of librarians.
I have been widely quoted as saying that bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities. I stand by those words, but let me add some nuance to them. There is nothing inherently bad about collections. Books, manuscripts, databases, musical scores are invaluable tools, but just tools. If a library worries about the completeness of a collection, or the size of a collection, but not the value of the collection in the lives of the community? That is the bad practice. I say to you that no great collection ever enriched a life on its own. It took access to that collection, understanding how to find material, and how to use that material to have a positive impact in someone’s life. Cataloging, shelving, finding aids, preservation are all vital services that transform a building full of books into a library.
A great library is really a great librarian meeting, knowing, and connecting to a community. A great library is built person to person. A great library is a trusted source of information, and meaning. And trust does not come from being unbiased or neutral. It comes from a dedication to the advancement of a person and a community. You build trust and counter misinformation not by simply highlighting so-called good information. It comes from a community member knowing that you, as a human being, are invested in their success. Librarians are not unbiased arbiters of truth, but passionate change agents dedicated to building and realizing the vision of the community.
In a small village in upstate New York the poor of the community would come to a food pantry to get food to feed their family. The local librarian realized that the children who would go to the pantry wouldn’t come into the library. So, the librarian built a literacy service in the pantry. As parents would get food, the librarians would work with children on reading and help them succeed in school. When it became clear that part of why these families needed food support was that the parents lacked formal education, the library started adult education classes. The service was so successful it was replicated across the county in other libraries, community centers and in churches.
At the end of one of these literacy projects the librarian would give each child a book. One time the librarian handed the book to a young girl. The girl started to cry. When asked why she was crying, the girl said this was the first new thing she had ever owned. That book wasn’t something to be collected, cataloged, and shelved. It was a token of meaning. Giving that girl a book was saying that she mattered. That she had worth. That story, that impact, will never show up in a circulation statistic or gate count. It is a story that makes the data real.
Librarians in a relationship world are storytellers. They build and share the story of the community. They realize that people come to the library to write their own stories, that they are adding pages in the book of their life. And in some community the library facilitating that process looks like two donkeys or a kitchen, or reading in a food pantry. There is no one library of the future or of today. There is no one floorplan, or service list, or mission statement that can capture the glorious diversity of our communities…save one. You.
The role of the librarian in this emerging worldview is different in emphasis from previous generations. Librarians need to be expert in adaption, not adoption. Instead of looking for best practices, toolkits, and standardized practice, librarians must be part of innovation learning networks. You need to constantly be scanning for new ideas and see what works in other communities. That’s not different. But what is different is that instead of applying these new practices in your communities, you need to match these new ideas with the values and nature of your community. That means that the real skill is reading and understanding what makes your community unique. That means you must redefine the relationship between you and those you serve.
So, what does it mean to be a “relational” librarian? After all, you weren’t trained to host a kitchen, or do adult literacy education. It’s true. A lot of library science education is in skills related to technical services like cataloging and maintaining the catalog. Or else we’re trained in public services like reference where we are taught to answer questions only when asked. And all of this education tends to talk about principles like being unbiased and preserving patron privacy above all else.
The short answer is, and I apologize for going back to the very basics, the three things that define a librarian: mission, methods, and values.
The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. That’s a fancy way of saying, we make the world better through helping people learn. This learning may be about science, or it may be about what fiction they enjoy. In all cases it is about constantly building and tuning their worldview.
How do librarians enact this mission, through providing access, building knowledge, offering a safe environment to explore dangerous ideas, and through understanding the motivation of a community or one of its members. Access isn’t simply access to stuff, like books. It is also access to other community members. It is also in helping the world access the brilliance of your own community.
How many of our shelves are filled with materials on places other than the town or city we serve? And how much of our library’s spaces are devoted to sharing the literature, music, food, culture, and curiosity of our own citizens to the world? How many of our shelves are there to be consumed by a community of deficits, and how many are there to celebrate and share the passions of our neighbors?
To be clear there are plenty of other organizations that also seek to improve society through knowledge. Schools and universities for example. But also, publishers. There are also vital and important institutions that use methods such as access and environment. Google certainly is about helping people access information. Wikipedia is a fabulous resource for communities to share what they know.
What sets librarians in a special place in the global society is that the mission and skills are matched with stated values. We believe in transparency and rationalism. We strive for diversity because we know the best learning comes from the richest set of inputs. We fight for intellectual freedom, and we are intellectually honest.
Note, I didn’t say unbiased or neutral. Librarians are not neutral. We do not believe that all issues have multiple legitimates sides to be supported. There simply are not two sides to questions of the Holocaust, or global warming, or racism. We are not unaffected observers of our communities, we are advocates for them. We give voice to the marginalized.
In my home city of Columbia South Carolina every year thousands of school children, their teachers, and librarians march upon the capital and have a read-in. Children, their teachers, and librarians sit on the steps of the buildings, read, and listen to speaker after speaker talk about the importance of literacy and supporting education. This is not a neutral act.
Just because many in the community see children and reading as non-controversial, it is still an example of political activism meant to influence policy and budget decisions. The very fact that you are able to loan out materials, or create community spaces based on tax revenue means you are not objective – you believe in the work you do, and you must be willing to fight for it.
I am not asking you to throw out your history, or what you learned in library school. I am asking you to update it. Any thriving profession must have active debates about education and skills. The collection development you were taught now needs to become connection development. Yes, you still need to identify quality materials, but now you need to identify quality community instructors.
I was visiting the world’s first public library maker space with my then 9 year old son. At the time the maker space was a few 3d printers and tools in boxes that could be set up in a community room. As my son and I were learning about the technology the librarian in charge of the space said that the next weekend they were going to have a maker fair. They were going to have the 3D printer, and Lego kits. She wanted to have someone who could talk about using duct tape in projects but she couldn’t find anyone.
Let me take a quick moment to explain for those not familiar with duct tape; it is a durable, and often colorful adhesive tape. It was originally used to seal up air ducts in air conditioning and heating systems. But in more recent years it had been used by a subculture to make wallets, toys, and even wedding dresses.
It turns out my 9 year old was one of the folks making things out of ducts tape. So, when the librarian said she was looking for someone for the fair, he instantly took out his phone and started showing her all of his duct tape creations. The librarian said, “great – you’ll do it!”
The whole ride home, and most of that week – as my 9 year gathered his creation, bought more tape, and thought about projects – he was beaming. Like the little girl with the new book, the librarian didn’t give my son just an assignment, she gave him recognition and a sense of worth.
Every great librarian I know has a story. It is a memory they bring out when the work gets too hard or too boring. It is a time they made a difference and a time they use for inspiration. In all of the stories I’ve heard they never once start with a well cataloged book, or a daring window display. They all start with a person whose life was changed for the better because of a connection the librarian made with that person. A child who discovered the love of reading. A wife helped to escape an abusive relationship. An unemployed person shown they still matter.
Remember that books are important tools, but we are not in the book business. If we were, we wouldn’t wrap them in plastic, stamp them, and let them out of our buildings. Remember that our buildings are important tools, but we are not in the building business. If we were, we would charge a fee to enter and rope off the beautiful rooms so they could only be seen, not used. Our databases, our websites, cafes, kitchens, donkeys, our 3D printers, do not define what a library is or what a librarian does. These are all the result of our real work – to connect to our neighbors, and through learning and knowledge, help them find meaning and make smarter decisions.
And because this work is noble and so essential society sets us apart from other acts of the state or the market. We are given a special place in our communities not because we have a certain amount of foot traffic but because by helping a wife find meaning in a book, she comes to the library. We are valued not because of the number of books we circulate, but because we help the marginalized lift out of poverty through self-learning.
And we become inspired in our work not because we listen to old men with white beards from across the ocean, but because every day we are given the responsibility of curating nothing less than the community itself. Our true collection grows with every birth and suffers with every passing. Our true collection, our true calling, our true mission is in the classroom, and the town hall, and the church, and the business, and the home.
When we circulate a book or answer a question or offer a program it is not because that is what we can count, but because the community comes closer to its dreams.