R. David Lankes is director of the School of Library and Information Science and associate dean at the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina, recently moving from his prior role at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. He is the author of The Atlas of New Librarianship (2011) and The New Librarianship Field Guide (MIT; see starred review, LJ 9/15/16). Here he talks about his vision of the future of librarianship.
In your new book, you call librarianship “proactive transformative social engagement.” Why?
RDL: If you take tax dollars, tuition, or institutional overhead, you are affecting the community.
This phrase recognizes that and makes an ethical statement: if you are going to have an impact on communities, it is your duty to make it a positive impact. While this may seem contradictory to objectivity and neutrality, neutrality is in conflict with the profession. Librarians advocate for education, privacy, diversity, and openness. These values seek improvement, not neutrality. If we, as a profession, are going to say that we have value and are worthy of investment, we are saying that we affect society. If we say that libraries are beneficial for information literacy or cultural heritage, we acknowledge that our work has an effect.
You also state that “Good librarians aren’t neutral; they’re principled.” Could you elaborate on this idea?
The work of librarians—according to tradition and the stated values from the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)—should protect privacy, respect diversity, and so on. These principals are not neutral. There are plenty of examples where these values bring a librarian in direct conflict with the communities they serve: library closures, moving collections offsite, the Patriot Act, etc. Trust is based in large part on transparency of motivation (principles) and consistency in the application of those principles.
How are libraries in the conversation, not information, business?
Librarians and the libraries they build and maintain are in the knowledge business. They are dedicated to helping communities make smarter, more knowledgeable decisions. When you look at the work of a librarian in terms of impacts and outcomes, not processes and outputs, things change. The information frame that has been widely adopted throughout society is one focused on documents, data, and interfaces. Do librarians have a stake and a perspective on this infrastructure? Absolutely. But having a more knowing community is our ultimate focus. That means we need to be concerned with how people know, not solely [about] the tools they use to know.
Why do librarians have an unclear definition of librarianship?
The short answer is that when the profession was squarely situated in a building, there was no need for fully expressed definitions. As services have become more about engaging communities where they are, the common sense definition began to break down. Most of my work has involved looking for a more useful definition for librarians who may or may not work in a library. I’ve been trying to take the implicit definition that drives librarians and make it explicit so we can all review it, and then work to instill this definition within the communities we serve. While there is a healthy debate about definitions, there are some aspects of the profession that I find widely held: a desire to be of service and skills such as information organization and searching.
How did you develop the idea of community members?
This is an idea put forth by library consultant Joan Frye Williams. She tells the story of actually asking people in a library. They said member, “after all, I have a card.” There have been a few follow-up studies that show that library users understand the concept of “member.” To be clear, I push for the use of member within the profession, but believe that each community (town, college, hospital, school) should use the terminology they are most comfortable with.
What steps can librarians take to become more proactive?
It is natural to see boundaries where responsibility ends at the door. This works when there is a common understanding of who handles what. We no longer have the luxury of waiting [for patrons to ask] to be served, or believing that people know where to go in order to be served in the first place. We need dialogs in our streets, and an education system (formal and informal) that prepares citizens to continuously question, learn, and seek consensus. Start working to make a difference. Talk to the community and be aware of their hopes and aspirations as well as their problems.
How can we embrace the idea of leaving the library to perform outreach?
We need to assess and reward outcomes and impacts, not processes and outputs. Focus on what needs to be done and then provide staff with the resources (including training) to make it happen. There have been too many times where I have seen a director wondering why staff is not more innovative when the director has not changed the way their staff is reviewed. Open every door in the place. While there are still reasons why library professionals need physical space, a lot of our work can be done with devices and a good internet connection. Spend staff development time ensuring people have the skills and confidence they need to do the job. If librarians feel their only value is in stacks or buildings, no wonder they don’t want to leave. How much time do we spend on developing the professional instead of professional development? Let’s spend some time talking about fears and insecurities and equipping people to have the self-confidence to lead.
How can librarians avoid dividing ourselves: academic, public, school, etc.?
By deciding to do so. There is nothing inherently in the profession that requires this kind of balkanization. There will always be a reason to meet with like professionals and organizations. However, in times of a changing profession, previous boundaries need to break down. We need to start this thinking in our library schools, and then play it out in conferences. The issues our communities face are too complex for any one group to solve them. Part of my emphasis on defining librarians outside of the context of the places they work is because we need to address community needs and aspirations. You may work in a college, but you have a role to play in making your location a better place to live.—Stephanie Sendaula