Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; when I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them.
I don’t believe that librarians must share a worldview to work well together. In fact, I would prefer that librarians choose a wide spectrum of different (albeit connected) missions for ourselves: doing so allows us to enrich each other’s perspectives, build relationships with a diverse range of patrons, and serve our communities more flexibly. My four favorite librarian manifestos conflict with each other, and with my own beliefs, in all kinds of delicious ways, and so it does not surprise me to react with similar ambiguity to the “mission” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship. There are some deep resonances between my views and those of its author. In general, the particular vision of librarianship that R. David Lankes used to ground and guide his book, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities, ” (p. v, and throughout) closely matches my own experience of librarians.
But Lankes was wrong to posit an antagonistic dichotomy between his own worldview, as reified into that mission statement, and what he identified as a mainstream “materials-centered librarian worldview” (Lankes, 2011, p. 15). Librarians do not necessarily have to subjugate their love for useful materials in order to excel at their jobs; an obsession with good tools is a fundamental, intimate aspect of what it means to be human. Learning-focused librarians and artifacts-focused librarians often get along famously, benefiting from the orthagonal tension between their worldviews, and I know librarians who balance those two focuses so expertly that I’d be hard-pressed to fit them into either category. The real antagonist, which stifles true librarianship wherever it occurs, is the rules-centric worldview. In The Atlas of New Librarianship, Lankes described a situation where a public library instituted the rule of increasing the materials budget by 10 percent every year (without regard for what that could mean for necessary services in a succession of financially lean years). He blamed a collection-first worldview for this absurdity (Lankes, 2011, p. 15). Is it not equally likely that the problem resulted from a rules-first worldview?
I know an unapologetically materials-centered elementary school librarian, someone whose professional life has revolved around her reverence for books. She applies learning theories skillfully, she pioneered the use of integrated library curricula in her district, and she’s very service-oriented; it’s just that those values don’t take first place in her heart, or in her conversations. This librarian retired not too long ago; she recently reported to me that the theory-focused, “new school” librarian who replaced her withdrew every book in the library that was more than five years old. “But surely,” I protested, “you mean that she withdrew everything that hasn’t circulated in the last five years! Things people aren’t using! I know how you feel about those old books, but if no one was using them…” I was wrong. All materials acquired more than five years ago would henceforth be withdrawn without replacement, even high-circulation items. From what I could find out, the replacement librarian wasn’t artifact-centered at all; she didn’t care about shiny new computers any more than she did about dusty old books. She had simply developed (or absorbed) a set of narrow rules for establishing a purportedly modern library, where there would be plenty of space for purportedly modern learning activities. There was no room left in her ideology for assessing her community’s investment in other ways of learning.
As part of my own job, I manage electronic reserves, and so I continually seek out and analyze discussion about them. In that context, the biggest conflicts arise between those library workers who want to explore possibilities, describe best practices, and work with the interpretation-based legal precedents surrounding fair use, and those parties (often other library workers!) who want to set clear, “objective” rules about what is and isn’t acceptable. No one in that area of practice is especially attached to the tools they use or focused on the specific materials that they digitize; the plentiful antagonisms between electronic reserves workers derive almost entirely from the tension between “the right thing is what works best for the people we care about, given these open-ended parameters” and “there must be exact rules to determine what the right thing is; then everyone just needs to follow the rules.”
Even with constant exposure to rules-centric librarians through these discussions about electronic reserves, I’ve never found one I wanted to emulate. On the other hand, I’ve learned plenty from librarians who sharply disagree with cavalier attitudes toward the artifacts they treasure, and plenty more from librarians who gleefully display cavalier attitudes about almost everything. Lankes talks about librarian credibility, our “enduring value”, in terms of our willingness to be the ones who “openly and transparently guid[e] members through multiple sources seeking consistency” (p. 24). In my own journey through the opinions of my librarian heroes, the one consistency I’ve identified is closely related to that willingness: a common understanding that their own rules, missions, visions, and worldviews must remain subject to change.
Lankes, R. D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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