ASSOCIATES (2011, November, v. 18, no. 2)

Feature

Think BIG

Christina Neigel
Instructor, Library and Information Technology
University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, Canada

Identifying a Philosophy of Practice

I have often counseled potential students that the love of reading is not an indication that one will be a good librarian or technician but the love of learning is. Whether you are a librarian, library support staff, technician, assistant or even a shelver, you work in a library because there is something fairly powerful that compels you to be there. In light of the great changes that we are seeing in our world, we must settle back on our heels, ground ourselves firmly on the earth and ask ourselves where we are headed. It is so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of daily activities that we can become complacent with our lot in life. However, it is not good enough for us to believe that our past success is an adequate predictor of future success. The incredible rate of technological, economic, and, even, environmental change puts our profession under major strain. In order to meet these challenges with fortitude and confidence, we need to carefully examine our guiding principles and philosophies. Just as many institutions develop mission statements in which all of their goals and actions are based, we need to develop a professional mission that guides us and frees us to change in ways that may be considered dramatic.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Professor David Lankes’ new book, The Atlas of New Librarianship. It is a provocative read. In it, he asserts:

The Mission of Library Workers is to Improve Society Through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in Their Communities. (i)

He encourages us to think about what we do in terms of being a part of our communities rather than acting as bystanders. Those who work in libraries have an obligation to participate in conversations within their communities in an effort to help those communities value libraries as entities that provide tools for improving their lives in some way.

Some of my students recently debated Lankes’ mission statement and many were uncomfortable with the suggestion that those who work in libraries have the right to decree what improvements are needed for society. Indeed, libraries should not dictate what is needed to improve society. However, as an intrinsic component to society, the library can act in many ways to improve it by conversing with its members and finding ways to help. Like the process of innovation, these “improvements” do not have to be big. These improvements can be as subtle as helping someone use a new database.

As James Burke illustrated in his fascinating television series, Connections (http://www.k-web.org/), major changes to our world are really the result of a series of small innovations and ideas that intersect. Libraries are populated with people who can facilitate the exchange of ideas – whether it is by hosting meeting rooms, online resources, or by garnering input for activities from local entrepreneurs. Library staff must think beyond the reference desk, the catalogue and, even, their own collections. Library staff must embrace change. Accepting change and working with it, means library staff cannot hang on to tools that no longer serve the interests of their communities. Such action is highly dependent on what any given community requires. In turn, this can only be determined if the library endorses full participation from its community.

Getting Out There

What is “participation”? It is the activity of engagement. It is about sharing and taking part. We are very good about making our facilities available to our communities but we often fail to dig deeply and ask our communities to share with us. Consider, for example, reference where we wait for people to come to us, ask questions, and we answer them. Reference statistics clearly show that the information needs of our members occur less and less IN the library. Yet, those needs have not disappeared. People are attempting to solve their own educational and information needs in non-traditional ways. We need to examine how people are attempting to solve their problems and anticipate their wishes. Again, this can only be done if we are conversing with our members, asking questions and being open to the answers.

The core of library work should be focused on interactions. Anythink (http://www.anythinklibraries.org/) is an example of a library system that has taken a novel approach to its space and to its staff. In the organization’s manifesto, staff are encouraged to view: “your calling to trespass into the unknown and come back with a concrete piece someone can hold onto, turn over, and use to fuel their mind and soul.” (ii) In academic libraries it may be important to recognize that the generation of new ideas and learning can be “fun” by altering the austere and somewhat elitist atmosphere that places of “higher learning” often generate. We have to be prepared to re-invent our spaces and the way we carry out our work. It is through discourse that people are able to critically examine the world around them and find solutions to problems, big and small. The subtle but steady constriction of information rights and freedoms jeopardizes these interactions. Yet, awareness is the only way people can openly challenge the limitations that come with the monetization of ideas, oligarchies, and fear.

Marketing vs. Conversing

Having just wrapped up a course on promotional planning for library technicians, there is no doubt, in this author’s mind, that promotion is essential to the survival of libraries. However, this should not be seen as something as simple as marketing – putting an advertisement in a paper, having a “News & Events” page on the library website or performing school visits to tell children about the services at the public library. One cannot effectively promote anything unless it is relevant, timely, and useful. In order to determine whether a service has these qualities, it is essential that library folk talk to their members and find out. Surveys are common tools used in this pursuit as they are seen as efficient and inexpensive. However, they tend to limit discussion and often leave little room for discovery. They are not provocative and they do not inspire discussion. Focus groups are often more illuminating and they can initiate conversations that might go otherwise unexplored. Meeting stakeholders can be another approach to starting discussions and gaining perspective. Once a need has been identified, libraries need to invest in determining what affect the library has had.

Library Catalogues Do Not Make a Library

We need to make peace with the fact that our catalogues are not representative of the profession and that cataloguing may not be integral to our survival. We need to approach members of our communities and ask them what they want. We need to conduct ourselves in a manner that reaffirms our role as facilitators to knowledge creation. We need to stop arguing about who is a “librarian” and who is not. Our members make no distinctions. Our members struggle to make sense of the insurmountable “data” that exists at their fingertips. Ironically, the data deluge has merely made the acquisition of knowledge more difficult. Information is a PUBLIC asset and while not all information is free for the taking, our ability to think IS. Libraries can assist people in finding information that is protected under national or international intellectual property rights and using that information in a legal and moral manner. Library staff can help their members identify their problems and work with them on resolving them – inside and OUTSIDE library buildings. The library can be ANYWHERE and ANYTIME.

The Changing Face of Education

I have frequently heard library staff declare that they “do not teach”. I find this an interesting limitation that many library folk have placed on themselves. With the emergence of ubiquitous learning, a process where people acquire knowledge using modern technologies to learn, when needed and as needed the ability for people to become educated goes far beyond the formal classroom. Consequently, there is an emerging role for library professionals to assist their membership with the learning process. There are circumstances where the role of teaching has been limited because of union regulations and collective agreements. In such cases, the professional library community needs to address this and adapt library educational programs to better equip their graduates (whether it is through certification or general education). In Canada, school libraries continue to whither and are “fortunate” if they are staffed by a part time technician. Teachers have no time to teach information literacy in the context of the research process and technicians are not allowed to. At the expense of teaching tomorrow’s adults the skills to navigate a complex world, there continues an erosion of the school library. Challenging as it may be, the library community needs to assert its value and find a means of supporting education. Yet, this is not the duty of just those working in schools, it is the obligation of the entire library profession.

Libraries have a stake in the educational process. They have this investment because they contribute to the process of learning. It is not negated or made less important because it occurs outside the classroom. However, its impact may be felt more substantially if library professionals are seen as having greater parity with other professionals.

Self-Regulation

Most professions that require certification and licensure do so because of the potential risks to the public if certain skills and knowledge are not met. With the exception of some programs being accredited by associations like the American Library Association and the Australian Library and Information Association, there is little in the way of regulatory control for working professionals. Since most members of this professional community inherently value life-long learning, continuing education and training is available and endorsed by library organizations. However, there is no system of audit that helps to ensure that library professionals are applying their efforts in a direction that makes sense to the profession. More significantly, this prevents the profession as being seen on par with those that do require self-review. Such a process does not, necessarily, mean that the roles of librarians, library support staff, technicians and assistants, are more clearly delineated. Rather, it means that the profession acknowledges the need for self-review, quality assurance, recognized professional development and respect from other professions. It is one way library professionals can promote a pivotal role in tomorrow’s society – a society that is increasingly dependent on information.

Conversing With Our Communities Is An Investment

We are members of the communities that our libraries serve. As a result, it is critical that we encourage ourselves and our colleagues to think critically, innovate and create. We cannot rely on the comforts of what we have always done to shield us from change. We can make educated choices by ensuring that we converse with those we work with in our communities and make certain that whatever new technologies and ideas we adopt, they are done in consultation with those who will benefit most by them. We need to spend more time and energy being innovative and creative as this will not only serve us but also our membership. In order to sustain a strong democratic way of life that protects our rights and freedoms, we must challenge our members to think, discuss and debate. There is an increasing tendency to monetize all aspects of creative thought and innovation and this hampers long-term problem solving. Library staff are well positioned to guide people back to the value of sharing ideas as is evidenced by the use of open source software and open access journals. We also need to demand that our administrators and professional associations represent our interests in a more vocal and visionary way. We can do so much more with our skills and knowledge but it will require courage to break through tradition, nostalgia and apprehension. We are poised to empower, inspire, educate and encourage. We must think BIG.


(i) Lankes, David. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(ii) Smith, Pam. (2011). Managing innovation: creating Anythink. Journal of Library Innovation 2(1), 6. Retrieved from: http://www.libraryinnovation.org/article/view/127/144.

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