It comes as no surprise that R. David Lankes is the recipient of this year’s Ken Haycock Award for Promoting Librarianship. The award, which will be presented later this month at the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, is given to an individual for “significant contribution to the public recognition and appreciation of librarianship through professional performance, teaching, and/or writing.” It’s hard to imagine a more worthy recipient.
For the past 20 years, Lankes has played a key role in the library world, as an advocate whose ideas about librarianship are both visionary and fundamental to the profession. Over the course of his career, he has written or edited 18 books including The Atlas of New Librarianship (MIT), which won the 2012 ABC-CLIO/Greenwood Award for the best book in library literature and was described by PW columnist Brian Kenney as the “profession’s Finnegans Wake.”
In his books, presentations, and teachings, Lankes often focuses on how libraries and librarians “improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” With the ALA Annual Conference in sight, we recently caught up with Lankes to converse about librarianship and his new book, The New Librarianship Field Guide, which was published by MIT in May.
Congratulations on the award. Tell us a little about your plans at ALA—will you be on any panels or programs?
I will be. We’re having a sort of half-day workshop on how do libraries market and broadcast the importance of librarians and libraries [Monday, June 27, 1–5 p.m., W209A–B]. And the incoming ALA president, Julie Todaro, has a wonderful theme around the idea of experts in the libraries and the importance of staff.
In your experience with conferences like ALA, where does the most effective learning happen? Do you have a particular strategy for conferences?
Well, there’s a really old line, but it’s still kind of true: the best place to be at a conference is the bar across the street! You know, there are some really fabulous panels at ALA, and people get a lot of out of them. But, a lot of what makes a good conference is just sitting in the halls or on the exhibit floor, having conversations with vendors and publishers and meeting other librarians and learning about what’s going on.
I want to talk about your latest book, The New Librarianship Field Guide, by asking you about your previous one, The Atlas of New Librarianship. How does your new book compare to, or how did it maybe grow out of the Atlas?
I’ve been very gratified with how the Atlas has been taken up. It gets a lot of people to passionately engage in the field, and it has started some really great conversations. People may be arguing and yelling about it at times, but that’s what we want. It’s something they don’t just sort of passively take in.
There was also some great feedback about how to make the content more accessible. A lot of people liked the Atlas, but it sort of jumps around, looking at some things in great depth, some things not. For the Field Guide, a number of people suggested a more linear approach, as well as suggesting some areas that really needed more looking into. So that’s sort of what I carried into the new book. Another thing is, the Atlas is very much about librarians as professionals, as individuals and people. And one of the conversations that the Atlas sparked, which I found really useful, is about libraries as institutions. Frankly, the Atlas is a bit dismissive of the value, power, and structures of libraries as organizations. So there’s a whole treatment in the Field Guide covering the institutions, systems, and platforms librarians are building, which very much comes out of the conversations generated by the Atlas.
The Field Guide is dedicated to the librarians of Paris, Ferguson, Alexandria, Baltimore, Beirut, and New York City, calling to mind some of the tragic events of recent years. Why?
Because, if you’re going to throw out a mission that librarians are about engaging their communities and improving society, what do we really mean by that? There are really thorny, passionate, difficult, but ultimately rewarding conversations to have around everything from terrorism, to race, privilege, and what we mean by service. That has definitely been a strong theme for me ever since the Atlas was published, and the Field Guide begins to address or at least to engage with some of those concepts.
You start the book with a link to and a note about The New Librarianship Field Guide website. How do the additional online resources complement the book?
One way is just to make the materials more available and to create a place where we can offer additional details. But there’s an underlying ideal—I call it a sort of pragmatic utopianism. The ideal is that there is this lovely, Socratic dialogue going on in the library profession, where we sit around all day in the salon and have discussions about the nature of our work. And that would be lovely if we had the time to do it. Some of us do have a chance to do that from time to time, but most of us have day jobs. So, we wanted to look at how we could capture the conversation generated by the book, and get different perspectives, and ideas. And because most of the dialogue around the book is happening online, we needed the tools to match. So, with the online component, we are really looking at how we can expand the dialogue. But, also, I think the book form has really evolved, too—when we published the Atlas, the first comment we got back was, “Where’s the e-book?” And the answer then was, “Well, we really don’t know how to do this as an e-book.” Now, there is an e-book version, but there’s also a sense that we can offer so much more than just text in electronic form. We can insert comments and include dialogues and discussions.
That brings up an interesting thread in the Field Guide, on the library as publisher. Could you talk a little bit more about how you see libraries evolving in the publishing realm?
The larger concept there, I think, is the library being a publisher of the community. The notion being that if we’re working with a community—be it an academic community, a geographic community, a business community, a government, what have you—there are all these conversations going on. And there’s a great opportunity for libraries to capture and disseminate those conversations, which is a role that we’ve seen publishers fulfill in many forms over the years. As I see it, libraries used to be about storing and disseminating ideas and conversations, and publishers used to be about fostering and distributing them. But those functions are really converging, and as we pull down the walls between producer and consumer, or author and reader, it makes sense for libraries to grab on to this. And we’re seeing this happen. For example, as local newspapers shrink and go away, some of the hyperlocal “what’s happening in the community” stuff is coming into and being distributed as well as archived by the public library.
In the book, you go as far as to propose the idea of the library as the new university press. Tell us a little about how you see that developing?
University presses traditionally had pretty specialized concentrations and areas where they would get information, print it, and send it out. And they became fundamental to scholarship. Today, many university presses are looking around going: “Why are we here? Where’s our audience? And how do we continue to support publishing topics where there may be 10 people in the world that really care, but they really care and really need this?” And that’s why we’re seeing university libraries and university presses increasingly looking at how they can do this together.
But this is not a matter of university presses looking for a quick retreat, but a chance to really rethink the entire academic publishing process, so that we can dig down deeper into the thinking and discovery process, in addition to documenting and distributing. The university is a place to generate ideas and thoughts, and that happens not only in laboratories and professors’ offices, but in classrooms, when students are experimenting, for example. Or take blogging, where faculty aren’t necessarily putting out a fully thought-out, vetted, peer-reviewed piece but are maybe just getting a conversation going. Libraries can be instrumental in not only supporting and documenting, but also in inviting participation in the publishing process. For the Field Guide, we had a series of conversations where we started by having a dialogue with a panel, and then we put that online for people to comment with links to additional resources, and a lot of that material eventually ended up in the book. So, I think there’s an amazing opportunity for libraries and presses to rethink publishing and to really capture everything, from crazy arguments over a beer to the next great magnum opus book.
Another strong thread from the book is the idea of librarianship building a shared sense of ownership with the community, which you illustrated with Sue Kowalski’s iStaff program. Talk a little about that concept.
What we’re finding is, again and again, whether it’s a piece of print or a person, when librarians ask “how do I integrate that into my library?” really interesting things happen. For example, just outside of Florence, Italy, there is a community that’s building an American-style public library, and they have a staff of something like 14 librarians. But on some weekends, they have 50 different programs running, with people from the community teaching how to cook or do ironwork, psychologists, and all these other people. And that’s because they went to their community and said, “What do you know and what do you want to share?” In Fayetteville, N.Y., that question brought in people who love sewing and led to six computerized sewing machines in their makerspaces—which, by the way, some of the librarians are terrified of.
The point is, it shows up differently in every community, but it all comes down to the common idea that when community members present themselves as having value to share—not just their things—librarians need a way to take advantage of that, just like we do when we get donations of books and materials and other collections. The way I always put it is: if someone with a book walked into your library and put it in front of a librarian and said, “I think this is a valuable bit of information that should be in the library,” the librarian wouldn’t bat an eye. We have a process for that. It would go through some sort of evaluation process. And if we like the book, it would go through an acquisitions process and be put on a shelf. But, if someone walked in and said, “I am a valuable piece of knowledge, and you should include me in your library,” would that librarian know what to do?
You write that the most gifted librarians are the ones who take advantage of the community to engage in “authentic learning.” Can you explain that?
So, I grew up in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, and came to Syracuse as an undergraduate student. And the New York State Fair is in Syracuse, so I went to the fair, and the first thing I saw, as this sort of suburbanite 18-year-old kid, is a cow, from like a foot away. Now, I had seen cows before. Ohio has cows. But we always drove by them at 65 miles per hour as they stood way off in the field. But, when you actually see a cow a foot away from you, you realize how damn big these things are. I know it sounds weird, but for me that was a transformational moment. Being there and seeing that cow, which was unique to this place and that point in time—I could read books about cows until the cows come home and never get a true sense of how big and strong these animals really are. The point is that I believe libraries need to become more about transformational exchanges than transactional exchanges. That’s authentic learning. As librarians we should be more focused on how we can help change people’s perceptions than whether they took something out and brought it back on time.