Blazing Trails, pt. 5: Finding our compass

August 9, 2010 at 2:33 am 3 comments

This post is part 5, of a series. Earlier parts are here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Following up on the last post a bit…I want to make sure I’ve given proper weight to the possibility of a future library that is not built around print books. Books are a huge part of library identity. To many people, books ARE the library. Have you ever been on a library interview panel? What’s the standard answer to the “Why do you want to work here” question? “Well, I love books…” (aside to interviewers: if you’re applying at a library, that’s pretty much assumed. Tell me something I don’t already know. At this point, I’d almost rather hear someone say “I’ve never liked reading, but…”). Books are so intertwined with libraries, and so many people still think that books=printed books, that I wonder if losing printed books will mean losing our identity completely.

Over the past year or so, I’ve seen some thoughtful and provocative discussions of libraries and identity coming out of library land. Some of them inspired this series. There are brave librarians and leaders already out there, scouting the territory, They are taking a look at the rough terrain we are traversing, and the rougher terrain ahead, and trying to establish a compass by which we can navigate.

Kim Leeder made a good strike forward over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe (and if you aren’t reading that blog yet, you should be), asking “What is the real core of our work?” As it turns out, looking at our job duties doesn’t necessarily provide the answer, but Kim looked past the job descriptions and settled on knowledge as being at the root of what we do:

I see no work in librarianship more real than the collection, protection, and dissemination of Knowledge, and the empowerment of others in means to acquire it….The internet, while making information more widely available, has simultaneously obscured true Knowledge and increased the importance of our real work.

This distinction between information and knowledge is a very important one for librarians, and the beginning of what separates us from other programs, services and industries that might appear to be replacements for us down the road. If we think our jobs are just about information, we are already lost. There are too many alternatives out there, and most of them are easier to use and faster to adapt to changes than libraries. I don’t think we can win on that front. But if you go beyond just connecting people to information, and look at the purpose behind it, then you start to make some progress.

John Blyberg, Kathryn Greenhill and Cindi Trainor tackled this question a little over a year ago, and came up with the Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians, which is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. To them, our purpose is “preserving the integrity of civilization.” I like the sound of that, even though I have to admit I’m not 100% certain what it means. Well, “preserving” is straightforward enough, but “the integrity of civilization” could mean many things. Sounds like a noble undertaking, though, doesn’t it?

When I had the great good fortune to hear Jennifer James speak at the Eureka! Leadership Institute a couple of years ago, she spoke at length about civilization (and please forgive my paraphrasing if I get anything wrong – I’m working from 2-year-old notes). Signs of civilization, according to James, are access to information, increasing inclusivity, and alternatives to violence/knowledge. She also said “civilization is the long process of learning to be kind.” (Let your brain bend around that for awhile: “civilization is the long process of learning to be kind.” Beautiful!) So, civilization requires access, inclusivity, and knowledge? Hello, libraries! We already do this. We are good at this. This is at the core of our profession. So yes, I think we are uniquely positioned to “preserve the integrity of civilization.”

James posits that there are four basic stages of adaptation: technological shift, where energy is concentrated and definitions are changed; economic shift, which is about using that energy efficiently; demographic shifts, which lead to increasing inclusivity; and cultural shift, which is where we bog down. Cultural changes happen more slowly and generate more resistance, because they involve the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. James says that we have to find people who can tell a new story and show the possible future. We resist transformation because of fear. We need compelling stories to combat fear. She thinks librarians can tell those stories.

It seems to me that we are looking for the intersection of knowledge and creativity – this is our “due north” and the point by which we orient all of our other decisions and explorations. As Andy Woodworth said:

I get up every day and encourage curiosity. Whether it is educational or recreational, I am a literacy facilitator, a creativity generator, and intellectual advocate all rolled into one….It is public service in the cause of the common good….An institution where you can explore freely, inquire openly, and learn unbounded by the shackles of others. A construct where you can see the near infinite landscape of human knowledge and revel its depth and breadth. A place, I believe, where people can let themselves go and become the person they were meant to be.

Hell, yes!

You may have noticed that the intrepid explorers I’ve quoted really avoid making predictions about HOW libraries will do their work in years to come. They focus on the core beliefs that underlie our work. That’s not an accident, and it’s not a cop-out. After looking at the profession with a critical eye, these folks have come to the conclusion that the values are what will last – the expression and physical manifestations of those values can change (and will have to change) as often as we need them to in order to keep serving our communities in vital and viable ways.

As Clay Shirky said about newspapers:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

In fact, Char Booth says that the one “librarian as _________” metaphor that may be able to encompass our identity for the time being is “librarian as shapeshifter.” We take on roles as needed in order to fulfill our larger purpose, which is not to save libraries (although I believe that will happen, too), but to serve and protect our very civilization.

See? Noble! And not dependent on printed books, either.

And now that we’ve established our guiding principles, we can strike out in all kinds of directions without losing our way.

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Blazing Trails, pt. 4: Rocky terrain Please stand by…

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"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." - Pearce

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