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: