Something is going on in librarianship. Of course it is, right? In a profession as sprawling and multifaceted as ours, change always seems to be upon us. But what I’m seeing in 2018 feels different—deeper, more substantive, and driving closer to the heart of what the work of libraries should be, and the ways we as a profession should undertake it, recruit and prepare people for it, and think about it.
For years, it’s been easy to put the myriad conversations about the “future of libraries” into a technological bucket. But the technology conversation is only part of the story, and too often it overlooks the other forces shaping the work of libraries today—economic, social, demographic, cultural, political, and policy based. As librarians head to Philadelphia for the 2018 Public Library Association Conference, the conversation is clearly, at long last, expanding.
Just take a quick look through this year’s PLA program and you’ll see what I mean. There are workshops and sessions listed that I could easily have imagined going to when I was in library school, back in the day: programs on literacy and on working with friends groups and foundations, and naturally a number of programs on books and reading. And then there are these: discussions with titles such as “Understanding Identity” and “Dismantling Institutional Racism in Public Libraries.” Sessions that focus on supporting patrons of color, reaching low-income audiences, and programming for today’s contentious political climate.
Many of the topics to be discussed at this year’s PLA conference are topics you wouldn’t have seen even a few years ago. Obviously, these are subjects and issues that have arisen in our broader society, so necessarily they should arise in the context of libraries as well. Their inclusion represents progress. But I think the issues covered in this year’s program also reflect a generational shift in our ranks. The median age of students in library-science programs is younger than I can ever remember it, and this next generation of librarians is more keenly aware of, and motivated by, matters of equity and inclusion.
Of course, there has long been a streak of social justice in libraries and librarianship. For decades librarians have fought hard for equity of access, the freedom of thought and inquiry, privacy, and the development and empowerment of our communities. But librarianship also has its own legacy of sexism, racism, and discrimination—a legacy that isn’t as well understood or as discussed as it should be. In recent years, those discussions have grown more passionate, and more pointed.
By the way, these conversations and explorations are not limited to big conference sessions at major library meetings. They are taking place in classrooms and in staff meetings across the country, as well as in the press and on social media. And yes, these discussions can get contentious, twitchy, and occasionally nasty, as difficult and long-overdue conversations often do. But these conversations are more than just talk—they represent the voices that will shape the next generation of libraries, and library leaders.
What impact will these discussions have on library services, programs, collections, and even building designs and purchasing decisions? What impact will they have on recruitment into our professional ranks? And consider, too, how this will all be perceived by our various constituencies, including the communities we serve, our funders, donors, and supporters, especially the people who haven’t seen themselves reflected in their libraries, or in librarianship, as much as they should? What about those people who think that libraries are just fine the way they are, thank you very much, and that all of this is a waste of time and energy? Not to mention the fact that there’s always that vocal minority who don’t think libraries are even necessary.
As there often is when delving into territory too long unexplored or ignored, there is uncertainty. Deeply embedded structural problems are rarely undone quickly or easily. I encourage my colleagues, including those in Philadelphia for the PLA conference, to listen and participate in these discussions with open hearts and minds. As the program at PLA suggests, librarians are striving to forge new visions and models for our rapidly and ever-changing world—a world where libraries must be seen as true, authentic representations of our manifold communities.
Joseph Janes is associate professor in the University of Washington Information School and author of Documents That Changed the Way We Live.