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; if 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.
In the “Improve Society” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship (2011), R. David Lankes described the shared values of librarianship as “a dedication to learning, a commitment to openness, a provision of intellectual freedom and safety, and a dedication to intellectual honesty ” (p. 120) and referred to librarians’ commitment to these values as a “pressure for improvement” that acts to amplify or, more rarely, oppose the other “pressure[s] for participation” in their communities (p. 119). So far, so good, right? But I had a lot of trouble with this thread. Not because I don’t believe in trying to change the world, but because every time I saw the phrase “improve society” (and, as you might imagine, he used it often), suddenly the textbook in front of me would turn into a red flag, and, bull-like, I would widen my nostrils, stamp my feet, and start muttering things like “Mao was a librarian, too,” under my breath. That response is, of course, a cheap shot. There have been lots of famous librarians, and many of them did improve society in useful ways. I have no problem admitting that I want to follow my conscience even if it puts me outside community norms, so why did I have such trouble with those two simple words?
The best way to explain it is by considering the ideas of personal experience and bias that Lankes touches on elsewhere in the thread. When I read “improve society,” my mind immediately reaches back to the uses of those words I’ve most often heard before. My personal experiences include a background in evolutionary biology and a lifelong interest in world history, so for me that phrase conjures up a murky blend of social Darwinism, eugenics, colonial powers, and the Hundred Flowers Campaign – not exactly the right combination for feeling optimistic about doing good. Rather than giving up on the conversation entirely, I started casting around for a different phrase, one that could help me stay open to the thread as a whole. Soon enough, I remembered The Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck.
“Decreasing worldsuck” might sound a little silly, but for me it’s downright liberating. As an idea, it grew from the minds of a large number of warmhearted human beings who aren’t afraid to look foolish in the service of their ideals, anchored by my favorite YA writer and his brother. I also like the term because its coiners explicitly acknowledge that you only know it when you see it; everybody’s idea about it is a little bit different, and yet most of us can agree that hurricanes involve a lot of worldsuck, whereas a charitable microlender has no worldsuck at all. The effort to decrease worldsuck focuses on small, incremental change: what can I do today to make things a little bit better for someone else (or even myself) than they were the day before? Maybe it’s helping a library member find a book to read to their kid, or maybe it’s rewriting policy to strengthen services for the library’s most vulnerable members; either way, there’s a little bit less trouble, and a little bit more happiness, in the world than there was before.
“The mission of librarians is to decrease worldsuck through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”? That’s a mission I can make my own.
Lankes, R. D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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