Are Librarians, Not Seth Godin, The Ones Missing the Point on Libraries?

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/05/the-future-of-the-library.html

Seth’s Blog: The future of the library via kwout

Twitter is lit up today with divergent responses to Seth Godin’s post, “The Future of the Public Library.”  I think Godin is spot-on with his thoughts and observations, particularly the idea that libraries “…ought to be the local nerve center for information.”  Note he doesn’t see information only in BOOKS, but information in multiple spaces or “containers”, period.  Although he isn’t the first to do it, Godin’s call to reconceptualize libraries and his emphasis on the real meaning of “library” as being embedded in the work librarians do is powerful; Godin’s call disrupts the traditional precept of the library as being book-driven.  I completely agree and if you read my blog regularly, then you know I feel libraries should be idea and learning-driven—that focus and our rethinking what the spaces of library and where librarians can be embedded in our communities is what can make us more central to the communities we serve and increase participation and equitable access to information in many formats by being willing to think outside the traditional “boundaries”.

“The scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data…The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear…There are one thousands things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.  We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.”

More than ever, we need to find ways to invite, not discourage, conversations for learning–not just with people inside the learning communities but from others who can help us continually inform the bigger vision from alternate viewpoints even when it may disrupt you out of your comfort zone.  To me, Godin’s post is not about limiting access to information but about enabling new avenues to information (see his reference to The Mesh) and focusing on creating connections and relationships.  Godin’s call to action aligns with that of Dr. David Lankes in The Atlas of New Librarianship:

“The fundamental shift is from things to human knowledge.  It changes the focus of the work of librarians from artifacts and the products of learning (like books, web pages, and DVDs) to the learning process.  Rather than being concerned with some externalized concept such as information (or, worse, “recorded knowledge”), it (Conversation Theory) places the focus of librarianship squarely on behavior and the effects of services on the individual.  In essence, the value of a book, or librarian for that matter, is evaluated again the need of the library members’ ability to learn (Lankes, p. 23).

I think Godin’s post particularly speaks to me as I definitely see the work I’m doing, more than ever, as embodying the roles of “librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario” and why I continue to be surprised and quite honestly, a little disappointed, that people are more interested in emailing me about our small Kindle program than the Media 21 learning initiative, which I think is incredibly more meaningful for our students and innovative than the circulation of the Kindle devices.  In many ways, I see myself as more of a teacher now than I did when I taught high school English as I find myself continually exploring emerging and expanding concepts of teaching, learning,and multiple forms of literacy.  While it is in some ways a different experience from being a classroom teacher, I am the most reflective I’ve ever been as a practitioner in my near twenty years in education; hence, I try to heed the wisdom of Anne Ruggles Gere who once said, “I propose that we listen to the signals that come through the walls of our classrooms from the outside”, as I attempt to be open to how people in many kinds of learning spaces, not just K12 education, envision the library.

Original photo by Buffy J. Hamilton


Perhaps I identify with Godin’s points because for the last year or so, I have felt a sense of urgency about how school librarians fit into our learning ecosystems of K12 schools.  While the severity of the draconian treatment of Los Angeles Unified School District school librarians is disturbing, I honestly can’t say it is all that surprising to me given the confidential stories I have heard from colleagues in recent years in which talented, passionate, and transparent school librarians were ousted or marginalized to the point in which they felt they had no choice but to leave.  These kinds of stories shared publicly and privately have pushed my thinking and caused me to question in the last year what exactly it means to be a school librarian and what I will need to be to contribute to my learning community.

Consequently, while our qualitative and quantitative data says our library program is doing a lot of things well, I know we have much room for growth and cannot rest on our laurels if we are to be truly responsive to those we serve and to innovate.  What have I seen myself as “owning” and how do I rethink sharing that expertise so that I can continue to build a greater sense of community and value of my talents and the library as a learning space at Creekview High School?  How do I imbue and infuse a bit of “librarian” into the work and learning processes of our teachers and students to scale out the possibilities for “library” and learning?  As I learned from our initial design process experience at our Reimagine Ed meeting in April 2011, it is not always easy to hear the “sacred cows” of our profession challenged by non-librarians, but rather than being defensive, this experience reminded me of Dr. Bob Fecho’s (one of the wisest teachers I had at the University of Georgia) advice to embrace the cognitive chaos and discomfort.  These kinds of experiences help me reflect and consider how to better distribute the “library” by improving our efforts to foster the participatory climate we’ve tried to establish in our library program over the last five years.

My takeaway from Godin’s post is that we may not all agree on the details, but the value of these kinds of posts is that they can initiate and sustain conversations about how we can better improve the work we do and the roles we play in better helping our communities. If we outright dismiss the opinions of others, particularly those who are not librarians, I think we lose the opportunity to see the bigger picture and possibilities.  Are we as a profession willing to listen to other voices and discourses “outside” of our own circles and respond to their vision of how libraries should function in today’s world?  Are we willing to regularly challenge and interrogate our own beliefs and values?  While it is not always easy to negotiate the tension between differing ideas,  I think listening to multiple viewpoints with a sense of humility creates a necessary kind of cognitive dissonance and friction of ideas needed for us to be organic, thoughtful, critical, and purposeful in our practice and thinking.

I am sure many blog posts will be posted this week (and I’d love to read posts from non-librarians on this Seth Godin piece!), but here are a few to contemplate now:

28 comments

  1. Hi. Ace post. I’m not a librarian (not “officially” trained anyhow) but I’m a professional with 6yrs+ experience. My world of libraries is one where we bend over backwards to get the customer in and empowered when they’re in. I love moments like the piece from Seth because it’s a guy telling me exactly what he wants from his library. How good a piece of market research is that?

    I also saw a quote on Twitter which I loved : “I’m not sentimental about books as objects; I’m only sentimental about the content contained in those books” I love what I do. It’s not old school “librarianship” per se, it’s enabling transliteracy ;)

    And finally, sorry for the epic, I’m here for my customers. If they’re not happy or not impressed, I need to think again about why I’m doing something. Simple.

    1. Wow, thank you for your insightful and thoughtful comments! Also, I just want to say that I’m really thinking about what the term “librarian” means–I think it is our work, not the degree, that embodies that concept, and you do! I truly appreciate your reflections and am happy to connect with you!

      Very best,
      Buffy

  2. Great post on the Godin article! If nothing else, it has really sparked an interesting discussion on the future of libraries. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…just discovered your blog and I love it!

  3. You continue to be my hero. I’ll admit that when I first read Godin’s post, I was seething mad because I feel like this sort of thing is happening in libraries and he is missing it (as reflected in my response on my blog). The more I think about it, I realize that as a new librarian, I’ve been extremely lucky to surround myself with excellent librarians who are the “future”, so I’m a bit ahead of the curve, and in my naiveté, I assume that “old fashioned” libraries and librarians no longer exist.
    You make an excellent point that when people challenge what we do and how we do it we can either choose to inform or pout. I? Pouted. You? Choose to inform.
    Thanks for continually pushing me to be a better, more reflective librarian. Can I PLEASE be like you when I grow up? :)

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Buffy. I agree that is it essential that we question our sacred cows – we need to think beyond our comfort zone more and more these days! This is how we will survive as a profession but also, more important than mere survival – which sounds self-serving, we will do a better job for our customers/readers/students !

  5. This applies not only to Public Libraries, but just as importantly to School Libraries, where we should be guiding future users into the new model library, and introducing them to one of the most useful tools of their future, the librarian!

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. It is remarkable the amount of attention Mr. Godin’s post has received. Is it because he is bold enough to offer sage advice without the benefit of an MLIS? I hope not. He would be a great focus group participant! Libraries need to balance their commitment to print with a stronger commitment to other media. They need to reevaluate their role in the community and explore local niches and services that complement their missions and respond to particular community needs. As salient, I am not sure there will be one library model that we will emulate. More likely there will be models based on community needs in which we constantly test, probe, experiment and evaluate all in the name of providing excellent customer service.

  7. very interesting and provoking blog post! How do you do all this? reading, imbedding interesting items in your blog, work, study, live, etc.? I am seriously impressed.

  8. I have mixed thoughts about these opinions. As much as it is obvious our landscape is changing toward more technological modes of learning, I do not think that should provide a rationale for eliminating, or apologize for those who would eliminate, the school/public library space entirely—which is what I feel like I’m hearing in both of these blogs. I think the word “change” is bantered around way too much these days to justify political (and economic) agendas which only benefit a very tiny minority. I think librarians are pretty mutable people overall, they don’t need to be told their profession is in flux. Neither, however, should they be coerced into running like lemmings over the cliff just because “they need to change”.

    Netflix IS NOT a better librarian. It is a company of people who work at minimum wage finding information for a DATABASE that we can access. It might be a matter of semantics, but in this age of information, words and their meanings become paramount.
    I worries me that although Mr. Godin admits the necessity of a librarian, he doesn’t seem to value the library. I strongly disagree with this glib assessment. Without a central space for people to gather there is neither a library NOR a librarian. At that point the librarian simply becomes a faceless entity communicating through the ether to customers via a 1-800 number. Might as well off-shore our jobs to India for all the good that will do. I think he misses the point about our very HUMAN need to gather as people in a community setting. Libraries are popular not because they house “dead books” (god help us), but because they offer us a space to find HUMAN guidance, gather with our fellow humans, share ideas in various ways and to be part of a greater community of people, rather than locked like troglodytes on our computers talking to faceless, emotionless text.

    And what’s this about “better grades without less grunt work?” Really? Learning is ABOUT grunt work.
    Mr. Godin strikes me as a principal I once had who only worried about how much FUN students (the FUN BUG, I call it) had in class rather than whether they actually LEARNED anything. This McDonald’s mentality is a dangerous thing for education—when everyone can get their McA’s with a side of McC’s in any subject, they are not really learning at all, but simply going through motions to achieve a credential. I don’t want these people doing surgery on me. He’s uber trendy and “with it” but doesn’t really stop to consider what the long-term consequences might be of the radical changes he promotes.

    Remember in the 1990s many schools nearly eliminated libraries because books would “soon” be replaced by computers for every student. That happened. Not. Books, like computers (technology) are a tool. We’ve just had more time to recognized this in books so they have become “passé” whereas computer technology is still shiny and magic—so we want it everywhere. Once the glitz wears off, we’ll be switching to another technological tool that will “replace” the computer. It won’t. It’ll just be the next big thing.
    Definitely a good conversation piece, however.

  9. I’m so glad you made these points. I actually found a lot of good insight into Mr. Godin’s post. In today’s networked world we need to all start finding the value in every perspective we can so we can all effectively work together. Librarians need to really start moving in a different direction if we are to show the world what we have to offer. I beleive some are getting it done, we just aren’t communicating it correctly. I actually posted on this on my new blog. It’s so exciting to be involved in so much change.
    Thanks again for the post!

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