Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Killing Librarianship - Inspiration from the New England Library Association Conference

I’ve spent the past couple days at the New England Library Association (NELA) conference in lovely Burlington, VT. The conference began with a rousing keynote from R. David Lankes, entitled “Killing Librarianship”. He spoke much more eloquently than I can summarize, so I encourage you to follow him on Twitter @rdlankes, read his work, and view his presentations - see (to actually experience the keynote, go to
For those who just want a summary, I’ll do my best.
Lankes explained that what threatens librarianship most is not Google, Amazon, or ebooks, but a lack of imagination. The new role of librarians is to support innovation, participation, and democracy, addressing some of our society’s most pressing needs. He summarized today’s librarianship in this formula:

Innovation + Participation + Democracy = Librarianship

He spoke about the death of innovation and big ideas in America (referencing Neal Gabler’s essay in the August New York Times - “The Elusive Big Idea)”. Lankes told us that the librarian’s role today (regardless of what it was yesterday and regardless of why a librarian may have entered the field in the first place) is to innovate and to support innovation. He also made it clear that this is every librarian’s responsibility. Referencing Gabler, he pointed out that innovative ideas are being destroyed by the commercial marketplace which too often requires innovators to find the fastest route to profit and extinguishes many great ideas in their early stages as a result. A prime example of this is the seed accelerator/venture capital model, wherein investors require internet startups to “pivot” to a new idea the moment the original concept is under threat of delay or profit estimates suddenly drop off. (You can imagine what would’ve happened had such a marketplace tried to invent the original internet.)
The public library invests in the marketplace -- not the marketplace of capital -- but the marketplace of ideas. The library allows its members (note the use of the term “members”, rather than “users” or “patrons”) to grow in their knowledge and understanding. This support allows people to bring the most important ideas -- not just the most immediately profitable ones -- to light.
Lankes also reminded us what a big idea our profession is. The public library is - in fact - one of the pillars of our democracy. To the extent that our public libraries are under threat of being cut or closed, our American democracy is threatened.

There is not such a cradle of

democracy upon the earth as the

Free Public Library, this republic of

letters, where neither rank, office, nor

wealth receives the slightest


- Andrew Carnegie

The public library allows our citizens to govern themselves more effectively by providing equal access to the information they need to support their decision-making. Those of us working in public libraries burdened by budget cuts, staff cuts, threats of closure, and members’ increasing needs (note that I use the term “members”, not “users”, or “patrons”, per Lankes), know that these cuts and closures cost our society dearly in the long run.
A session I attended on Net Neutrality on Monday underscored the current threats to the free exchange of information online and how we, as librarians, need to be actively involved in the fight to ensure that as many sources of information as possible are equally and freely available to all. A final session by Jessamyn West on Tuesday provided a checklist of how we can ready ourselves to help lagging community members bridge the Digital Divide(s) (there are several - economic, usability, and empowerment) that plague our nation.
To quote Lankes, “the Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society Through Facilitating Knowledge
Creation in Their Communities”.
This is indeed a big idea.
(So it sounds like I’d better get back to work - there’s a lot to do!)

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