|Susan O’Neal (left), 2011–2012 NJLA president, chose R.
David Lankes as the first of two keynoters for the 2012 NJLA
annual conference. Mobile app vendor Boopsie, represented
here by Sam Nickell, sponsored his appearance. [photo by Kathy Dempsey]
|At NJLA, Lankes’ opening
slide showed his baby picture;
a later slide said why
libraries used to matter.
David Lankes says that if librarians want to survive and thrive, they need to give up control of information.
If that concept intrigues you, infuriates you, or intimidates you, then read on.
R. David Lankes, Ph.D., is an author, a professor, and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies in New York. He’s also director of the library science program for the iSchool and director of the Information Institute of Syracuse. Lankes has given many lectures and presentations that have been widely distributed. (You may have heard about someone claiming that “the greatest threat to librarianship is a lack of imagination.” That was him.) He’s known for his forward thinking and his passion about the information profession. In early June, Lankes gave the opening keynote for the New Jersey Library Association’s (NJLA) annual conference in Atlantic City, where I had the good fortune to hear him in person for the first time. I was even more fortunate to have the chance to interview him afterward.
But let’s go back to the beginning. Lankes’ keynote (generously sponsored by Boopsie) was titled “New Librarianship’s New Promise.” He opened by acknowledging that “No change process comes without stress,” and explained that libraries and other public institutions have a sort of “social compact” that they must constantly negotiate with their communities. An organization’s promise is that it will transform over time in order to continue to serve.
Libraries’ promise has historically been to safeguard information and to make it available; to help enlighten the masses. Now of course, people don’t need libraries in the same ways they used to. So, Lankes asked the crowd in the theater: “What is our promise now? Because the world has changed.” He insisted that we must think about the promise as active and that we must shape the promise, not be shaped by it.
To do this, it’s necessary for library workers to have an ongoing dialogue with their users. This means doing a lot more than having a focus group every 5 years to fulfill a strategic plan. It means constantly, proactively asking people: “What do you want to be? Where do you want to go?” This is not the norm in most libraries, where the administrators feel the need to steer their ships where they think the ships need to go. After all, people schooled in the information profession know what citizens need. The info experts know better than those uninformed citizens themselves, right?
Not so fast. This is exactly the control that Lankes wants you to give up.
The Old Model of Librarianship
Look at the original model of (and reasoning for) librarianship. A big part of it was based on the fact that books were scarce and information was hard to find, so libraries’ job was remediation and their promise was to collect those valuable commodities and make them available to scholars who needed them. That model is outdated now (in the developed world at least). We’re practically drowning in books and info. (And even if you don’t own any, you can access some.) Therefore, your promise, your social contract, needs to be updated.
While Lankes gave various examples that entertained listeners as he enlightened them, they boiled down to this: Instead of safeguarding information and lending it to the masses under strict guidelines, libraries should take on more of a sharing and enabling role. So instead of just providing info to a new company that wants its own website, why not have the library build website templates so the startup can concentrate on its business? Instead of offering books and hour-long programs on how to do something, why not offer full courses (perhaps by letting people use computer labs to enroll in free, online university classes)?
In that same vein, he urged, when people come to the library to help the community with something, the idea is not to inform them, it’s to let them help. Lankes gave an example of one town where a chef visited the public library because there was no real cafe in town and he wanted to learn about starting one. Instead of just giving him business books and sending him on his way, the administrators encouraged him to set up a food stand on the library’s lawn to get started. It became popular and eventually enabled the chef to get a development grant to build something bigger. This changed the library from a static data provider into a real platform for action.
The New Model of Librarianship
When information professionals lament that their community members (any community, be it a town, a campus, a corporation, a school, etc.) don’t understand information, don’t follow their rules, etc., Lankes said that the problem is not where you think it is. “Your communities are not broken,” he explained. “They are dreaming.” They’re dreaming of what they might accomplish, of what they want their lives to be, of what ventures they could begin. And maybe having to bring in three types of ID and fill in a long form in order to borrow a $10 book seems to them like a silly roadblock on the way to that dream.
As the good professor reached the crescendo of his presentation, he became more and more animated. He insisted that library employees needed to care more about people and less about rules. Don’t just help people find jobs, he urged—help them find respect, because that’s what they’re really seeking. “Our job is to unleash our communities upon the world!” he exclaimed. Don’t lock all the possibilities inside of your walls; push them outside so everyone can realize what’s available.
So, Lankes concluded, the new promise he’d referred to an hour earlier was participation. If librarians change their model from hoarding and safeguarding information to proactively helping citizens chase their dreams, then they’ll continue to be relevant and useful, even sought after, as the world turns.
If you’re shaking your head right now, thinking that this is all pie in the sky, that that’s not what you went to school to do, and that letting people set up small businesses on your lawn has nothing to do with the principles of librarianship, I’m sure you’re not alone. I’m also sure, after a couple of decades in this business, that if you keep doing what you did 20 years ago, or even 5 years ago, you’re going to be in trouble. As Lankes quipped to a handful of listeners who spoke to him after his keynote, “If you think this is tough, try obsolescence.”
One-on-One With David Lankes
This big thinker was gracious enough to sit down with me afterward, and I asked him a few pointed questions about some of the things he’d said. We talked about service mentality, whether library users were “customers,” and whether libraries should be considered as businesses and be run like retail organizations. But that’s fodder for a different article. Getting back to his idea of the new promise, he told me he believes that the “worst disservice” librarians can do is to abdicate their responsibility to create and to participate. He, clearly, is not one of those folks who thinks stuff like the Fab Lab at Fayetteville (N.Y.) Public Library (www.fayettevillefreelibrary.org/about-us/services/fablab) or the YOUmedia digital learning space for teens at the Chicago Public Library (www.youmediachicago.org/10-philosophy/pages/66-youmedia-design) are way off base. These projects are still about helping people learn, but are just doing it in a much more active and proactive way.
I realize this is a semi-radical point of view. I mean, people decide to get their M.L.I.S. degrees in order to catalog items and to preserve and archive them, to help students of all ages, to spread information literacy, to write code, or to help others learn in traditional ways. Most have not gotten their degrees in order to run 3D printers, to join the chamber of commerce, to help teens write music electronically, to write strategic communication plans, or to administer a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I can relate to older members of the profession who say, “This is not what I signed up for!” In fact, some of the newer graduates are out of the loop on these unusual activities too. This is why I was especially interested in asking Lankes, whose book The Atlas of New Librarianship won the 2012 ABC-CLIO/Greenwood Award for the Best Book in Library Literature, a big question: How can library schools change to prepare people for this vision you have?
Lankes’ two-pronged answer was logical, but as you might expect, it didn’t offer a simple or quick fix. He began by pointing out that library schools are accredited by the profession itself. So if graduates truly aren’t prepared with all the necessary skills when they emerge, the profession is largely responsible. He did acknowledge that there could be stronger ties between the schools and the practitioners. (Indeed, I’ve read many pieces that lamented that disconnect.)
We discussed the fact that, to learn what you need to know in order to run or even to work in a progressive library these days, 2 years just isn’t enough. One idea he advocated was that perhaps we should structure our degrees more traditionally, i.e., have an undergraduate L.I.S. degree that included the basics, then also have master’s degrees and doctorates available. This scheme would allow for much greater learning over time and would let students choose more-specialized courses, so they could become really proficient in library administration, or marketing, or children’s services, or website design, etc.
The second part of his answer was about continuing education. In many other fields, continuing ed has standards and requirements. Throughout much of librarianship, though, conferences are seen as continuing ed, yet conferences have no standards. You go to a big meeting and sit in on the sessions that interest you, and the presenters could be anyone from a 30-year veteran who’s an inspiration to a first-year rookie who did a cool project. Lankes advocates doing “real projects” as continuing ed, things that are useful and standardized and have something to do with a real-world library need. (What a concept.)
Feeding and Funding Change
Today, we face the need to take the info professionals who are on the job now and urge them to change their views, change their habits, change their rules, and change their promises. In the meantime, they’ll still have to prove their value and fight for their funding. All of this led me to ask Lankes just how to convince administrators, mayors, deans, CEOs, and the like that they should allow—and fund—such nontraditional library activities as makerspaces and loud learning labs. He said that many of these laypeople had pretty low expectations of libraries (which we have, over time, trained them to have). Therefore, we can raise their expectations by showing them just what a great library can accomplish and how it can help its community move forward (hence, his latest book, Expect More). Libraries have spawned the likes of sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury, along with inventors, scientists, etc. Why can’t the library in your school or town or company be the force that enables the creation of The Next Big Thing?
And this brought our conversation full circle. To help users, we need to ask them what they want to do and be. Then we have to put aside our old gatekeeper roles and our strict borrowing rules and our insistence on quiet. Lankes believes that we have to become more open and inviting in order to encourage creativity. This is when he said that you have to give up control. We all know that this profession values control (and not without good reason). He didn’t mean we should turn our buildings into carnivals and make it a big free-for-all. I think he meant that order is still important, but if you have so much order that it stifles all creativity, you’ll never move forward.
In today’s fast-paced world, stagnation equals death. You can’t afford to sit still or to be merely reactive. Does your library leadership have the courage to be proactive, to make new promises, to relinquish control of info, and to feed your community’s creativity? Let’s hope so.