R. David Lankes
Keynote, New England Library Association
Burlington, VT, October 2, 2011
What follows is a word for word transcription of the keynote speech. No attempt has been made to correct grammar, or remove repetitions. Needless to say it ÒlistensÓ much better than it reads. You can find the original speech here: http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/blog/?p=1258
Special Thanks to Joan Laskowski and Mikal Salaam for the transcription
Before we get involved in the feedback issue, as a loud professor from New York, I normally donÕt have problems being heard. I can do this tone or I can put on the microphone. Folks in the back? Perfect - All right. There you go. Unless you like feedbackÉ In which case, we can all pretend that weÕre at my 7th grade dance. So before I begin, I would just like to point out the most wonderful introduction to this, which is Killing Librarianship, but I donÕt know if you noticed on the way in through this door. This is the sign thatÔs telling you what was coming up. So I know where I will be at 2:15. That was good.
What will kill our profession is [sic] not e-books, Amazon, or Google, but a lack of imagination. IÕve looked through the program and you guys have a great couple of days ahead of you and they are full of content of everything from social networking, collection development and change management, dealing with unruly patrons, and apparently a whole section on dealing with unruly keynotes and as a keynoter this is fabulous because when you are part of such a strong presentation, there is absolutely no obligation to have content in your presentation. So I am going to take advantage and not have any content in what IÕm going to say.
But what does this mean? What this means is that, I was in the midst of a wonderful talk, it was in Edmonton, Alberta and this line came out. And people seemed to like it but no one quite knew what it meant. But what it means is that we live in an era when we need to think big. So what I would ask you to do for the next forty-five minutes or so is take advantage of the fact that you are not sitting in a library trying to figure out where the toner cartridges are, or pointing to where the bathroom is, or I understand the number one question has now been replaced. It is no longer where is the bathroom, itÕs now, have you found a USB stick?
LetÕs take advantage of the fact that we are in lovely Burlington – and it's 43 degrees outside we donÕt want to go anywhere -- and spend some time thinking big because we are in a time where we desperately need to think big. We are in a time when everyone uses the word unprecedented after every other statement. Somewhere someone is talking about an unprecedented challenge in accountancy or something of that nature. Everyone sees unprecedented change, great change or whatever. And itÕs true. ThatÕs the worst part of it. The worst part of it is that we do live in an era where we are faced with enormous challenges, where we are faced with big problems. And this is not the time to shy away from them. This is not the time, if we are going to talk about what the Ònew normalÓ is; the new normal canÕt be introversion, hiding in our shelves, hoping it goes away. We deal with this in higher education. ItÕs not like once this whole economic thing shifts out people will be willing to spend $3 million a year in tuition, weÕll just have to wait it out. If you look at some of the reasons we need to think big -- this is from the Adult Education Commission, and what it does, itÕs a graph, by country. Each line is a country -- the red dots, these are 45 to 54 folks; the green dots are folks 25to 34; and what you are seeing, is the percentage of folks who have I believe high school diplomas. So you can see for example, in Poland, you can see that what happens is [sic] generational differences. Kind of what you would expect. The young are getting more educated than the adults.
But, I want to point out this particular line which happens to be the United States. And you will notice something interesting about this chart which is that the red square is above the green diamond. Now, itÕs not way above, and frankly weÕre way up at the top so we should be happy with ourselves until you look over at something like Korea. Korea is way above us and they started much farther behind us. One of the big challenges where we need big ideas is in how we educate ourselves, how we prepare for this world. We hear all the time that education is vital, that college education is important, that college is the key to innovation, economic development, la, la, la, la, and IÕm a professor so I throw that line out whenever I can, except that what happened in 2010 is that it was the first time where academic debt surpassed credit card debt in this country. And it is not because we have been paying our credit cards back so well.
According to these lines weÕve been doing pretty well, and it turns out that when you donÕt eat you donÕt charge a lot of things, but that graph is going down inch by inch and the academic one is doing this.
This chart shows since 1982 the percentage of growth in different areas. College tuition is at the top at 450%; medical care is only 250%. ItÕs costing us more to get healthy, but itÕs costing us a heck of a lot more to get smarter. Supposedly. This in midst of the most dramatic wage and wealth distribution in this country. We see that the top 5% control something like 60% of the wealth in this country. WeÕre dealing with the shrinking middle class, we are at almost 10% unemployment, over that in certain sectors so that one out of ten people you know has been laid off.
WeÕre in an era of great division in our politics. Where weÕre just sort of figuring out, ÒHey, do we really need a Federal government? LetÕs seeÉ.Ó
The point is we have big challenges before us. We are living in interesting times.
We live in Shakespearean times; we live in a time where we could be writing those dramas. WeÕre talking about regime changes. And weÕre talking about population growth.
WeÕre talking about a massive demographic shift. WeÕre about to go from a country with a white majority to a plurality. WeÕve got many states in which now Hispanics represent a larger part of the population than all other demographics combined and soon than Caucasians. I think thatÕs a good thing. I think diversity is interesting, but I think itÕs a challenging thing when we deal with languages, when we deal with collection issues. When we deal with all these issues we are living in that time.
I got to thinking about all of this because Neal Gabler wrote this wonderful article in the Sunday Review of The New York Times, talking about the elusive big idea. IÕll put all these slides online and you can copy and paste to your delight. He talked about where weÕre at the death of ideas -- we are in a post idea economy. Now itÕs sort of interesting to think about that. Now, he sort of overstates some of the issues.
His basic line is we used to think big thoughts. We used to make celebrities out of our thinkers. And now we make celebrities out of people who are celebrities— who forgot their underwear when they went out to a bar. Really, Einstein, Lindsey Lohan? I donÕt know. So you can challenge it, but it really did get me thinking. And what it got me thinking about is that if libraries and librarians are in the knowledge business, in the learning business, if weÕre in the education business, we actually have two rather amazing challenges before us.
The first one IÕm going to pick on is the obvious one. So, if you havenÕt seen it, go read this lovely article, ÒSave Our Library[sic], Fire the Librarians[sic].Ó It was in the News Leader, FloridaÕs oldest weekly newspaper, right up there with the Old Gray Lady. Mike Thompson wrote this. ItÕs just lovely. ÒWhy do we need new libraries?Ó I donÕt know how old, but Òwhy do we need new libraries?Ó ÒGet those kids out of my yardÉÓ Whatever it is. And itÕs deadly to bring up large blocks of text, but itÕs so worth it. Stick with me for a moment.
ÒWhile local taxpayers pick up the biggest tab for AmericaÕs libraries, most librarians are little more than unionized pawns for the social-activist bosses of the American Library Association (ALA)ÉÓ Wow, all right! ÒToday 136 years after its formation, ALA controls 62,000 members and through its czarist accreditation program of many libraries, largely dictates what books are available for the most impressionable members of the U.S. society, our children.Ó I hear you, comrades. I really do! I was called a communist for the first time the other day. I thought itÕs interesting when someone does that. You have an interesting reaction. ÒBut I buy stuff!Ó And the second one is, ÒWhat are you wearing a leisure suit, communism?Ó Really, come onÉ
And when that person hears this webcast I canÕt wait for the comments.
And so we have this line. We go and talk to the librarians. And many, many a-librarian come up, ÒThe Tea Partiers are destroying us.Ó I get people who donÕt understand. People donÕt believe in libraries anymore. People are small-minded.
IÕm not going to be here to argue that everyone has an equally valid thing to say about the world. So we have this sort of anti-intelligentsia, anti-library feel out there. And it is very real. We are dealing with that and we have to deal with it. And I think thatÕs kind of interesting.
But what really got me thinking about the big idea one is I think we have a rather interesting second front thatÕs opening up; a second problem. And it can be represented by this. I donÕt know if you know what Cloo isÉCloo is the next big thing. What Cloo does, you can go with your smartphone and walk through New York City and when you have to go to the bathroom--I am not making this up--you can rent peoplesÕ bathrooms. I donÕt know if itÕs by the hour, I donÕt knowÉ
And if you donÕt like this one hereÕs another one: Fake Girlfriend.co. You are welcome to try it out on your phones. You save this number, it says girlfriend. You send a text to this number and what happens is you will get responded with a random girlfriend-esque message. About a minute later the fake girlfriend will call you with a prerecorded message and after you hang up tell everyone how great your girlfriend is. ThatÕs just so sad. The reason I bring this up is that this is a startup and by God someone will probably give them a check.
The opposite side of this equation from people who donÕt necessarily believe in library missions and knowledge and education are those who seek to take ideas and monetize them as fast as they can. What we have is a plethora of small ideas. And the small ideas arenÕt bad, itÕs just the matter that thereÕs this drive to monetization. That the way that all economic development is going to happen in Connecticut, or Rhode Island, or here in Vermont is that everyone is going to start their own business. And I think thereÕs actually a lot of valid--and weÕre going to talk a lot about valid things, entrepreneurship, innovation, startupÉ
But the problem is that it quickly becomes, why think about it if you canÕt monetize it? And what you can monetize tends to be a lot smaller than the issues that weÕre facing. We can do moped delivery of cat food. Get me to a venture capitalist and let me patent that before anyone does it. This doesnÕt say, ÒHey, we can solve democracy!Ó How do you monetize democracy? Once again, monetizing democracy--we have the Federal government. But weÕll keep going. What we have are things like this Òme tooÓ mentality. That we go in and well, itÕs Facebook, but itÕs not exactly Facebook. ItÕs like when Google Plus came out. WhatÕs Google Plus? Facebook with circles!
How many of you, you donÕt have to admit if you started the conversation, but how many of you at one point were in a meeting where you said, ÒBoy the library could start its own Facebook for (enter city here); we could do our own social network.Ó And the answer is why? ItÕs there. But this shows up in things like patent trolls. There are huge industries, huge companies who do nothing but own intellectual property for the only purpose to go sue people who are actually producing things.
Google recently bought Motorola. They didnÕt do it so they could bring back the little TracFone. They did it for their portfolio of IP. For their portfolio of patents that could help them defend against Apple, fight against AppleÉ
When you look at what Apple is doing with its market, with its iPhone and its iPadÉtheyÕre now in Korea, and theyÕre now in Germany. TheyÕre actually trying to prevent competitors from putting tablets on the market. TheyÕre not doing it by outbidding them, theyÕre not doing it by out-pricing them. TheyÕre doing it by suing them. TheyÕre saying this is too like our IP. Sue them. Now, I want to be really clear. I am not a Communist. I believe in intellectual property. I believe there is an appropriate use of intellectual property but we are getting to the point when Amazon can patent one-click purchasingÉweÕve gone a bit too far.
So you have this opposite pressure on libraries. Why go to the library when I canÕt monetize the library? Why think about these big issues of education, why think about these big issues when I can make a heck of lot more money with renting out other peoplesÕ bathrooms?
Neal Stephenson wrote this wonderful article where he talks about how we donÕt get anything done anymore. He talks about as a child watching the moon shots. We built an interstate system around this country. We shot to the moon, we cured polio. WeÕve developed the computer. And what have we done recently? Not much. Where are the big ideas, where is the new thing? With the end of the space program, what replaces it? We talk about going to Mars, but letÕs face it. We talk about going to Mars with this wonderful little statement, that then disappears and then, right MarsÉ ThatÕs very different than ÒweÕre going to the moon.Ó And we did it! If youÕve seen the latest Transformers movie, we know why we did it. If you havenÕt seen the latest Transformers movie, donÕt see the latest Transformers movie. ItÕs a movie without any ideas, including a plot. But I digress.
What does all this have to do with libraries, he says, 10 minutes into the presentation? And youÕre wondering.
Libraries are no strangers to big ideas. WeÕve moved from chained books to open stacks. Now for some of you thatÕs a recent development. Others of us about 200 years ago we said, you know what, maybe the chain doesnÕt add aesthetic value to this. WeÕll take it down. But what that really was was a huge idea. Taking the chains off the books says, in RanganathanÕs terms, books are for use, books are part of the public. We moved to open stacks. Many countries on this planet donÕt have open stacks yet. We believe in browsing, in free access to information, simple discovery and serendipity. That is a huge idea.
The public library was an enormous idea. There is a flavor to the American public library that doesnÕt exist anywhere else. Even in the Nordic countries where they have brilliant and wonderful libraries, itÕs just not quite the same texture to it.
From Benjamin Franklin creating the Library Company to Andrew Carnegie building libraries all over the world to Dr. Pepper--no not the soda--Dr. Pepper in case youÕre wondering was the person who created the first public library in Philadelphia. Not the first public library—the people from Massachusetts will throw things if I say differently, but in Philadelphia.
People will say Benjamin Franklin created the first public library. No he didnÕt. He created a subscription library. You had to pay to get into it. Dr. Pepper created the first one in Philadelphia, and he did it for the social good. He did it for the same reason that Carnegie said he did it, which is to make information a public asset, a public resource that should be accessed without barrier, without censorship, without surveillance. ThatÕs an amazingly big concept.
World Wide Networks of Services: when you look at what weÕve done in sharing information--Interlibrary loan, copy cataloging, databases online. Tim Berners-Lee wasnÕt a librarian but he should have been because when he developed the World Wide Web, he was trying to solve, IÕm not making this up, citations. He was solving a bibliometric problem, which is, I have all these physics papers, I see a citation, wouldnÕt it be cool if I could just click on it and bring up the paper. The CERN library is the one that helped him develop it.
These are huge ideas. The library, your institution, your role, your profession is an enormous idea. And we are the house for these ideas. We are the ones that when we talk about the grand challenges of our society, when we talk about what we want to do, when we talk about the role of the library, we have a space and a reason and a precedent and a mission in big ideas.
So while you are going around today, while you are learning about anger management, while you are learning about social networking, while you are learning about collection development, learn. Absolutely! You guys have an amazing amount to share and understand with each other, but always keep it in perspective with what is the big idea.
So I want to just walk you through a couple of what I consider some very important big ideas for you to think about. The first one is innovation. Innovation is a big idea. And you hear it all the time. ItÕs a word that we throw out. We donÕt necessary know what it means but weÕll innovate that. ItÕs like marketing.
Marketing is fairy dust. No one is coming to the library. What shall we do? Quick, market it! We have a collection that we havenÕt added anything to in 30 years and half of it is Dick and Jane novels and the other half is racist. ThatÕs all right, weÕll market it. Is that any different than a politician of choice getting up and saying the economy sucks. We must innovate. What does that mean? I donÕt know but IÕm sure it will create jobs and stuff. Really?
What does it mean to innovate? A very interesting thing happened. A brilliant librarian whoÕs at North Onondaga Public Libraries, Meg Backus, she went out, she was talking with public libraries about entrepreneurship. How public libraries could help in business development. And what she did is she called up libraries, ÒDo you have something to help entrepreneurship?Ó And a huge percentage of the libraries she called said, ÒYes we do.Ó Now they varied from everything from chamber of commerce, to having some workshops, to bringing in an accountant or a lawyer every so often. But then she asked the question, ÒSo did it work?Ó And the response she got back was ÒumÉÓ
Did you start any businesses? Well, what were they supposed to tell us if they started businesses? Yeah, really. Maybe. Marketing, back to that.
What she found was that all these people were coming into the libraries with these great ideas, but they were running into a roadblock so that many of the people with great ideas never moved to start up a company.
And what she said is there is a difference between innovation and entrepreneurship. We tend to use those words together, but theyÕre not. To be an entrepreneur means you are willing to take on risk. And you have a relatively high tolerance of risk and the primary risk that youÕre willing to take on is assuming capital. In essence you are willing to spend your own money to go into debt, to spend other peoplesÕ money, to work to get other peoplesÕ money to bring an idea to market. And that is an enormous barrier.
I was at a great meeting where they talked about how librarians should stop helping people get jobs and start helping people make jobs. And I told this to a friend because it sounds great, doesnÕt it, thatÕs Twitter right now, go for it. I was talking to a friend who started up a business and he said, and how many librarians would quit their jobs to start their own? Well, we have some. We have plenty that have gone and made lots of money and raked us over the coals for some subscriptions, but generallyÉ
As a professor, peoplego , Dave, start a business. And IÕm like, tenure, hellooooo! This is a big barrier and what she was finding was that in entrepreneurship this makes sense. ThatÕs necessary. ThatÕs where the cat food and all that stuff comes in.
But innovation is now different. Think about all those people that show up at your library with good ideas. And good ideas can be that big, or that big. And think about what you can provide to them that you couldnÕt 30 years ago. In fact, the last time I was here in Vermont, we were talking about broadband and the idea that thereÕs an amazing project in Delaware taking broadband all over the country where theyÕre bringing GigaPoPs to local libraries in rural areas. Cool idea. ThatÕs different. Because now what happens is, take those people with the good ideas, itÕs not a matter of buying the dog [sic] food service or surfing, they can take those ideas right to the masses. Back to Comradeville. Right to the proletariat. They can go back in and they can say, through the Internet, ÒIÕve got a great idea and does anyone else want to play?Ó Through the Internet they can get access to expertise, they can get access to time and they can make that idea happen. This is the whole idea behind the open source movement. Someone had an idea, someone couldnÕt program the whole thing or couldnÕt program part of it, a friend helped out, and pretty soon thousands of people are helping to develop and work on that idea, for 5 minutes, for 10 minutes, but suddenly their access to capital is no longer the limiter because theyÕre getting what they need. What they wanted was to get the idea implemented, not necessarily to make a million dollars off it. If they can make a million dollars, thatÕd be fine. But thatÕs not the main point.
Now whatÕs interesting about this dichotomy is I think that libraries, academic libraries, special libraries, public libraries, school libraries, any sort of libraries; librarians can play in both spaces. But, we have a special presence in one. This is the marketplace of capital, this is where we go to buy and sell and people consume; but this, this is the marketplace of ideas. And if thereÕs someone who can handle the marketplace of ideas itÕs librarians. We deal with the free flow of information; we deal with access to that information. We deal with coordination activities. We deal with discovery. We deal with everything we need to get the masses working on brilliant ideas. We can service them, we can prepare them. We can pull people together. Imagine that instrument for economic development. It may not turn into a million dollar company but maybe it turns into a better community. Maybe it turns into a whole new infrastructure. Maybe it turns into new opportunities, whole new industries we havenÕt thought of.
Because every so often, those people seeking monetization have a really big idea. A couple of guys created something called Google. But if you look at Google, itÕs not a small idea. ItÕs not weÕre going to make a search engine that searches only for cat food. They said, ÒWe want to organize the worldÕs information.Ó LetÕs start small. Big ideas are important. This stuff can lead to it, but the point is we donÕt have to talk about someone with a great idea from our community walking in and the first thing we ask for is a credit card. The first thing we ask for is a credit check, or a gut check.
The first thing we ask is, ÒwhatÕs your idea and how can we help?Ó ThatÕs a radically different thing. Now I want to be real clear before I leave innovation. When many people think of innovation they think of things; in a couple of days, they think of replacement, but in essence, that innovation is this god-like quality that only three people in the world can do. That we set innovation apart, like if youÕre not into the fancy ones, Newton was an innovator of mathematics; youÕre sort of a nerdy innovator, youÕre sort of a historian, youÕre like this guy, Edison coming up with innovation, and these are great innovators. They changed the world.
But when I think about innovation, I think about this guy. This is Danny Biasone, right? Now you probably have no idea who Danny is. Danny is dead now, but anyway, Danny owned something called the Syracuse Nationals. Now the Syracuse Nationals you also may not have heard of, but if youÕve heard of the Philadelphia 76ers, thatÕs what they became. It was a professional basketball team back in the Õ50s. And whatÕs interesting about basketball is that basketball when it first came out it was the most boring game you could imagine. It was a game of defense. What happened was that you got the ball, you scored two points. If you could get the ball back you would just sort of sit there and try to keep them from taking the ball. Right.
So the idea was, they got scores of like 20 to 10. These were the scores they were getting. These were not exactly rippinÕ games. And Danny looked at this, he looked at the audience and everyone was yawning probably including the people on the court, and he said, ÒThis sucks.Ó I really wish they could score 80 points. So he took 80 points divided by the number of minutes in a regulation game and he said, ÒTo get 80 points you have to score every 24 seconds.Ó And he looked around and it turned out this college coach had come up with the idea of a Òshot clock.Ó And so Danny took the shot clock and implemented it in the professional basketball leagues. Now this had very unintended consequences because what happened is the minute you have 24 seconds to score, you no longer sit, you have to shoot. It turns it from a defensive game to an offensive game. Not only that, but you have to shoot fast. And so that led to being aggressive, that lead to things like slam dunks, that lead to a whole new dynamic of the game where it was much faster paced.
Now at the time the television networks were looking around for things to follow baseball, which was also a really exciting game to watch. By the way, I quite realize that coming from New York into New EnglandÉand the Bills beat the Patriots too. But I digress. EveryoneÕs now erasing their evaluation cards.
They looked around and found basketball and put it on, this led to multimillion dollar contracts, led to a major $8 billion a year industry. It totally changed the game, but Danny didnÕt sit there and say this is an $80 billion idea. He looked at this and said IÕm bored. Innovation is everyoneÕs job. I had this discussion with library science students who IÕm converting over to the dark side as well, and they said, ÒYou know, I donÕt want to be an innovator, IÕm a really good worker bee. When you tell me what to do I do it well. Do I have to innovate as a librarian?Ó And I said, ÒYes.Ó Everyone here who calls themselves a librarian, and by the way, I use librarian as a broad brush, I donÕt care if you got it because you went to a great masterÕs degree [sic] at Syracuse University, I donÕt care if you got it from a substandard other school, I donÕt care if you did it by getting the job, I donÕt care if you did it by apprenticeship, I donÕt care. If you are committed to knowledge, if you are committed to making your community a better place, if you understand and see knowledge and openness as enriching, you are a librarian to me. Right.
To be quite clear, I donÕt care if youÕre sitting on the reference desk, I donÕt care if youÕre sitting on the circulation desk and manage to shave 5 seconds off circulating a book, or if you say we donÕt use a plastic bag because we have to help the environment, and we do that, thatÕs innovation. Innovation doesnÕt have to shift the world on its axis. Because hereÕs the trick: you never know which innovation will shift the world on its axis. Do your best job. Innovate within the task you have. DonÕt think you have to set up a committee for innovation. DonÕt think you have to have a VP of Innovation, donÕt think you have to have Innovation Day. Every day is Innovation Day. Every minute is Innovation Day. Everything you do you have to think about continuous improvement. ThatÕs what it means to be an innovator, not that you thought of the iPad recently. That would be goodÉ But thatÕs not the only thing.
All right. Second big idea I want you to think about: participation. You are not a user, you are not a consumer, or a customer, you are a participant in control of your world and able to shape your own learning and so are those we seek to serve. We can see this in Òwhat do we call them,Ó those people that arenÕt us in that building. Are they readers? ThatÕs delightful. How many academic librarians? IÕm guessing you kind of already hope they are readers by the time they hit where youÕre working. Law librarians, equal amount of hope I would hope.
Are they patrons? Do you do oil paintings? Are they customers or are they users? I love users, right. What do you do for a living? I use people. Good Lord, if you were on a first date and you said, I use people, would you get a second date? And this is a term we use endearingly for these people who walk through our doors. IÕm a user and abuser, yeah! The drug dealers and computer programmers have users. Are they information consumers? ThatÕs another great one, I consume. Forget about us being the best search engines, come to the library. WeÕre like a smorgasbord of all you can eat crap. Grrrrr, Jane Austen, Danielle Steele, grrrrr.
Are we preparing our communities to simply take and not give? Are we preparing our communities to simply be informed consumers? Are we the mall training ground? I worry about our youth. When we look at our youth, do we say, ÒWhere can they go to a place where they can develop their own ideas of community, where they are taught to participate in whatÕs going on?Ó Where if I make jokes about the Federal government their answer is, Òwell, weÕll change thatÓ as opposed to Òyup.Ó Are we preparing people who simply take and do not give? That arenÕt citizens but are consumers, are customers.
I would argue that what we call them are members. Joan Frye-Williams was part of a strategic plan; they got to a point in the strategic planning where itÕs like Òwhat do we call them?Ó And she said, ÒWait a second, IÕve got an idea,Ó and she walked out onto the library floor and said, ÒWhat do we call you, what do we call you, what do we call you?Ó And the overwhelming answer, and this has been replicated in many libraries is members. IÕve got a card. I pay dues in the form of taxes or tuition, or whatever it is. IÕm a member. And what I love about this is thereÕs a sense of co-ownership with that community.
The destiny of our organization comes from how we work with our community, not how we serve them. We are of the people, not for the people. So members. By the way, in the Dallas Public Library theyÕre using the word neighbor. I think thatÕs even better for a public library. I had someone from an academic library say we kind of like faculty and students. I said, ÒYeah, me too.Ó But think about that. Think about your alma mater. When you graduated from your college or university, or high school, I donÕt care where you did it, when you got your first job you were almost completely dependent upon their reputation. In essence, you were using their reputation. Now, 5, 10, 20 years out, they are dependent upon your reputation. You are the alum, you are the one who dictates it. This is not a consumer relationship. This is an intricate, life-long, complex relationship of which we are both a part of. We both shape, and we are both shaped by this relationship.
Participation is urgent for us to understand. When people walk into your library, do you have librarians and non-librarians? The definition is those who can change the catalog record and those who canÕt? Or do you have members who can come in and talk about things like, baby steps, member-driven acquisition. Maybe if five people ask me for this book I can go ahead and buy it as opposed to waiting to see what the jobber ships me. This idea of maybe we can have them put information into the catalogs. Maybe we can understand it.
Participation. If you have a focus on teens, we want to serve teens. How many teens do you have on the board that can make decisions? Why the hell do they want to help you if you donÕt trust them? Participation. Belonging. Working together.
Last big idea: democracy. ItÕs a little one.
Arthur Schlesinger: ÒThe public library has been historically a vital instrument of democracy and opportunity in the United StatesÉ Our history has been greatly shaped by people who read their way to opportunity and achievements at public libraries.Ó
We have these lines that we use with ourselves to tell us we are doing good things.
Andrew Carnegie, patron saint of libraries around the world: ÒThere is not such cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth received the slightest consideration.Ó
Or, our favorite: ÒA democratic society depends upon an informed and educated citizenry.Ó
Now let me ask you, ÒIs democracy an easy thing? Is democracy a neat and tidy thing? Is democracy something that is handed to you?Ó And I know you are sitting there, whenever I bring up the word democracy, youÕre sitting there going anger managementÕs next, collection managementÕs next, youÕre sitting there going I have to worry about toner cartridges, and my democratic folks are about to slash my budget, what the hell! But thatÕs the point. If you donÕt think about it, if you donÕt contribute, if you donÕt understand at the level of this big idea, why are you there? If democracy is not what you are about, why are you there? Is it entertainment? Well, good news, Borders is out of business so that gives you at least four more months. Why are you there, because Thomas Jefferson didnÕt just say this about democracy, he also said this: ÒAll tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.Ó In essence, if you look at democracy as something -- IÕm part of the bureaucracy, IÕm part of the town division, IÕm part of this -- and you donÕt look at yourself as actively informing citizenry, actively developing voters, actively helping them to understand the intricacies of the issues, we end up in a world of diatribes and demagogues sitting there talking about the left and the right and youÕre a Marxist and youÕre a socialist, and thatÕs crap.
And, we canÕt let that continue. Think about this for a moment. As libraries, we are civic and civil organizations whether we are in the academe, whether we are in public, whether we are in commercial spaces, it doesnÕt matter. We seek to create a platform for all to participate and involved in [sic]. We do not devolve into socialists and these kinds of name tags, name calling. CanÕt we help society in general figure out how to disagree in a civil way? CanÕt we help society figure out how to wrestle with issues? CanÕt we help society understand that really social security is a complex issue. That when you go down to a sound bite youÕre sacrificing fidelity of understanding. And that is not OK. ThatÕs the level in which librarians can participate in democracy actively.
In Egypt, in Egypt when they saw tyranny and they overcame it. When the Arab Spring spread throughout the Middle East, libraries were an important part of it. This is actually outside of the new Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, as most of the protests in Egypt actually began in Alexandria, and then moved to Cairo in Tahrir Square. And what is interesting is that as these protests in Alexandria got larger and larger with more and more people involved and then the security forces and the police started having to manage the protests, looting broke out. People started breaking into businesses, people started breaking into institutions, people started acting in a lawless way. The youth in Alexandria, when they saw this happening joined hand in hand and surrounded the Library of Alexandria to protect it. Not one rock was thrown at it, not one window was broken. They defended the library. They did it not, in my opinion, because it was a pretty building. They did it not because it was actually some sort of symbol of freedom. In fact, MubarakÕs wife was on the board of it.
They did it because to them it was an aspirational organization that represented what they thought was the best of their culture in society. When they looked at the library, they saw history, they saw knowledge, they saw learning, they saw openness. They saw a library. In the UK and in the United States people have tried to close branch libraries. People have talked about [sic] we donÕt have the money for it. And they have stood up. They have stood up and fought for their libraries. This did not happen when Blockbuster closed. When Borders closed, the only signs you saw were 30% off and sorry but you cannot use the bathroom. But they fight for the libraries.
You are not in the book business. YouÕre not in the media business. YouÕre in the aspirational business. Your kindred spirits are not people who sit there and sell books. They are people who fight for freedom. This is New England. We know a thing or two about revolutions. We know when itÕs time.
So when you take these big ideas and combine them, when you take innovation and participation and democracy you come up with librarianship. ItÕs in our DNA. We were founded in the idea of supporting these institutions, we were founded by the people, for the people. We were founded and nowhere can you seeÉ I mean, in New England, good Lord, in rural Vermont, in New Hampshire, in MaineÉin Connecticut, in Rhode Island, in Massachusetts, you have library boards that are people you have known all your life. You have the people who stand and donate these books and fight for these things. You have people who walk in every day who you know by name. Good Lord, you have direct democracy. Where you vote on budgets and you vote on things as a group together, this is a model for the rest of the country and the rest of the world. This is democracy. This is a big idea. And we need to not shy away from it because ultimately it talks about why are we here and why are we librarians.
The mission of librarians, the missions of you, whether you hold a masterÕs degree or not, whether this is a part-time job or a full-time job, whether youÕre doing this for extra time, I donÕt care. I donÕt care why you became a librarian. I donÕt care if you did it because you loved books. I donÕt care if itÕs because youÕre good at crossword puzzles. I donÕt care because people said, ÒOh, youÕre going to be a librarian.Ó ÒHow did you know?Ó ÒShe loved to read as a youth.Ó I donÕt care. You are one now.
This is your mission. Your mission is not to maintain the building. Your mission is not to shelve. Your mission isnÕt even in having a building. Your mission is to improve society. How do we improve society? We do it by facilitating knowledge creation. We donÕt do it through circulation, we donÕt do it through access, we do it by helping people learn. And sometimes that means talking to them, and sometimes that means doing things online, and sometimes that just means being an ear to listen to. We do it in an active way to create knowledge in our communities.
Now, some people have taken me to task for this Òimproved society.Ó They say who are we to know how to improve society? Who gives librarians the right to tell you what society should be? And the answer is no one and we donÕt have that right. We work with our communities to define what improve means. What improve means in Westbury and what improve means in Stanford and what improve means in Ogunquit and what improve means in Burlington can be radically different things. But once we as a voice enter into that conversation and ensure that our values of openness, of sharing, of transparency are part of that vision, then we work like hell to improve that society.
Other people will say that these statements of improving society, this discussion is radical. IÕm seeking to radicalize librarians. IÕm seeking to foment a revolution. Let me be very clear. They are absolutely right. I am seeking a revolution in librarianship not to take up arms but to arm ourselves and our communities with knowledge. Not to overthrow the government but to overthrow ignorance; to bring back big ideas; to talk about what we can be. Horace Mann, another famous New Englander, once said, ÒBe ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.Ó I donÕt care if that victory is that small, I donÕt care if that victory is that great. It is the struggle for that victory that defines our profession, that sets us apart from small ideas, that sets us apart from small ideas; that sets us apart from those who reject science and ignorance, that sets us apart from those who seek dollar signs instead of community improvement.
We are a profession that is here to serve and we must seeÉthat is an activist profession. That is a profession that is not liberal, thatÕs not conservative, thatÕs not communist, thatÕs not fascist, thatÕs not any of these simple terms that we throw on it. It is a profession of great complexity and caring, it is a profession that is unusual in the history of mankind. For 3,000 years librarians have been debating what makes the world better, have been experimenting, have been taking the chains off the stacks, have been spreading the word and believing in knowledge. And that discussion, that conversation, that inheritance is now yours. That inheritance is now yours. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to simply continue what is being done, because that is not what this conversation is about. Melvil Dewey and the person who took off the chains did not sit there and go, ah, this is what weÕve always done. Instead, they said this is what we need to do.
The conversation, the power of librarianship is not in reifying tradition, itÕs in tearing it down and coming up with something better, not to dismiss it. To understand that what weÕve done in the past was important to get us here, but it may not take us into the future. That is the conversation that we must have. That is why we are a noble profession and that is why we have every liberty, every right, and every obligation to think big.
Thank you very much.