A couple of years ago, Dave Lankes published his Atlas of New Librarianship to widespread acclaim. Motivated by the accelerating pace of change in the field, Lankes asked, “What is librarianship when it is unmoored from cataloging, books, buildings, and committees?” The answer, he contends, can be found in a new mission for librarians: to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Lankes’ book is insightful, thought-provoking, and a testament to his passion for librarianship. I also happen to find New Librarianship a very problematic framework for the profession. At the time the book came out, I criticized it for it’s social constructionism and I argued that the “Conversation Theory” of knowledge at the heart of New Librarianship impedes learning, disenfranchises minority voices, and works against the idea of the library as a valuable social institution. I won’t rehash these arguments in detail (you can go back and read them if you want) but it’s worth pointing out that even though I find fault with his theory, I still respect the hell out of Professor Lankes for his dedication to librarianship and for the passion he instills in others.
So, anyway, Syracuse is now offering a MOOC on New Librarianship…starting today! And, I signed up (along with thousands of other librarians). Taught by a team of most-excellent library school folks, this MOOC will attempt to accomplish two things. First, the class will attempt to provide “a foundation for practicing librarians and library science students in new librarianship.” Second, the class will try to “generate discussion about the future direction of the profession.” Both of these are important and I highly recommend that you join in. Seriously, go sign up if you haven’t.
I signed up mostly because I’m interested in seeing how other librarians react to Lankes’ worldview for librarians. Do other librarians have the same reservations I have? They may. They may not. But I’m willing to modify my beliefs in light of better evidence or argument. I also signed up because I’m interested in seeing how New Librarianship has evolved over the past two years. In particular, there are a few open questions about New Librarianship that I hope will be answered…
Open question #1: What about fiction?
If the focus of New Librarianship is on knowledge creation, where does that leave creative works such as popular fiction, music, and movies? To me, something just doesn’t sound right about saying that people read Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey primarily for the purposes of knowledge creation. I’m not saying that we can’t or don’t learn things from fiction…of course we do. But, I don’t think that’s the primary reason we read novels. Maybe it’s the humanities major in me, but I think New Librarianship is incomplete without an account of the role of aesthetic enjoyment, cultural enrichment, or emotional connection as encountered in creative works.
Open question #2: What about librarians who don’t work in public services?
In a widely quoted passage, Lankes claims that “I have long contended that a room full of books is simply a closet but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library” (p. 16). In other words, the library is the librarian, not the collection. This view of the librarian as a conversation facilitator is easy to accept for librarians working in reference, instruction, makerspaces, children’s libraries, and other positions where the majority of your time is spent directly interacting with patrons. But, what of the librarians in cataloging, archives, electronic resource management, web development, and other generally non-public facing roles within the library? If librarianship isn’t about collections, what does that mean for librarians who manage collections? Basically, the New Librarian can either (1) argue that things like cataloging and archives aren’t part of the future of librarianship or (2) argue that the definition of “facilitates conversation” is broad enough to include collection-oriented library responsibilities. The first response would probably entail that librarians who work strictly with the collection aren’t really librarians. I don’t have to explain how problematic that response would be. The second response would require interpreting “facilitates conversations” so broadly as to be meaningless. Where does facilitation end? Hopefully, a third alternative will come to light over the course of the class.
Open question #3: What about the autodidacts?
New Librarianship is all about starting conversations within a community, and that’s a good thing. But, what does New Librarianship mean for the person who wants to learn by themselves? Lots of research-savvy library users are perfectly content using the library without any direct intervention from the librarians on duty. Lankes does address self-directed learning insofar as he claims that conversations can happen internally for an individual. The idea being that we have an internal dialogue that counts as conversation. But, as with the definition of ‘collection’ this approach seems to strain what we normally think of as ‘conversation’. Basically, if the theory requires that even thinking is a form of conversation, then what isn’t conversation and why call it conversation at all? Why not just say that we gain knowledge through a combination of conversation, reasoning, observation, sensory-perception, reflection, and so on? Hopefully, the MOOC will offer more explanation of Conversation Theory.
Open question #4: What about non-institutional libraries?
A while ago I wrote about the DIY library trend, which I contrasted with “institutional” libraries (i.e., the places that employ librarians). If it takes a librarian to make a library, then what does New Librarianship have to say about Little Free Libraries? Should we work to convince our communities to stop calling them ‘libraries’? Who really decides what a library is? Communities? Librarians? Library-school professors? It can get pretty tricky when you start to think about it and I hope the MOOC will address the apparent tension between community beliefs about libraries and theoretical frameworks of librarianship.
Of course, there are other open questions, but these are the ones on my mind the morning before the Master Class in New Librarianship begins. It’s true: I do not identify with New Librarianship. Shoot, I actually identify with the polar opposite of New Librarianship. I hold what I’ll call the functional view of librarianship: a librarian is a person responsible for all or part of a library, where ‘library’ means a shared, organized, and searchable collection of information objects. To me, librarians are defined by their relation to a collection. To a New Librarian, that counts as stinkin’ thinkin’. But, in order to avoid the problems of social constructionism, as well as to address issues surrounding creative works, diverse roles within our profession, self-directed library users, and non-institutional libraries, I’m going to stick with the functional account. Yet, even though I’m not going to become a New Librarian, I’m ecumenical in my approach to theory-construction and I want Lankes’ vision to succeed. My hope is simply that the MOOC will offer a more robust version of New Librarianship than we’ve seen in the past. Fingers crossed and maybe I’ll see you in class!