by Ian D. Gordon
Librarians have bemoaned the constant clatter overheard from commentators that libraries are obsolete and no longer relevant. This observation is contrary to the lived experiences of those that serve in and depend upon public and academic libraries. A call to action challenges librarians everywhere to change this narrative by intentionally sharing stories of their essential work, service, community building… with anyone who will listen.
An annotated list of readings and streaming videos is provided that builds on the inspirational work of David Lankes, Lisa Peet, Lance Werner, Mark Smith, Shamichael Hallman, Catherine Murray-Must, Michael Stephens and others. Libraries are observed to be places of transformative change. Librarians are found to be passionate, courageous and indispensable.
Story telling is a powerful instrument for librarians and people that volunteer and serve in libraries to make the seemingly invisible work of libraries - more visible.
Outsiders assume that all librarians do is - read books, sit behind a reference desk, wear odd-looking glasses, lanyards, respectable shoes, and shhh! people to be quiet instead of actual 'work.' This stereotypic perception is evident in public libraries when librarians are not thanked for their social enterprise, commitment to community, and value to society. I also catch this discourse in academia when bureaucrats unknowingly look at libraries as overhead or additional expenses that get in the way of research and teaching. Lastly, I unceasingly read about a perceived ‘crisis’ in not-so-scholarly commentaries that claim librarianship as an honorable profession is outdated, quickly to be usurped by technology, akin to the plight of typewriter repair technicians, buggy makers, and encyclopedia door-to-door salespeople.
I’ve come to reckon that we may share some responsibility for this predicament, that in fact, it may be in part - our own fault.
Is this a crisis?
It depends on who you ask.
Mirriam-Webster defines ‘crisis’ in part as “an unstable or crucial time of state of affairs in which change is impending.”
For libraries and librarians change is not ‘impending.’ Instead, change defines who we are and what we do. In my personal and professional experience libraries have always been in crisis mode. We find ourselves continually pivoting, and at times, reluctantly meandering towards change. Most people who champion the work of libraries observe that open-minded librarians in fact ‘embrace’ change. Progressive libraries engage in continual reorganization, strategic planning, reacting, initiating, and positioning themselves ahead of the curve. Open-minded librarians leverage technology, encourage innovation, commit to renewal, collaborate, adapt, and celebrate excellence. I appreciate Lance Werner’s (2018) comments that libraries are places, spaces and people that are always responding to change when building communities through kindness, empathy or love. These qualities continue to attract many to this amazing profession.
I suggest that the public doesn’t really know or truly appreciate what librarians do and what value libraries bring to communities. There appears to be an information gap between what librarians believe about their mission, vision and values and what the world sees. A collective response to this crisis should be to intentionally make the seemingly invisible plight of libraries and librarians more visible.
Preaching to the choir is easy. Librarians see, breathe and serve to make a difference. The increasing importance of librarians plays itself out everyday. In fact, to many, “The opportunities and challenges of the data-rich information age, and why the library is now more vital and necessary than ever” (Nelson Public Library, 2020). The task at hand may be to intentionally capture and share stories of how libraries and librarians make a difference with anyone who will listen. As teachers, instructors, archivists, cataloguers, frontline superheroes, social workers, and friends… librarians make important contributions and connections every day. It is my belief that librarians bring value to everything they touch. Pundits beware - no crisis here!
David Lankes challenges everyone “To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a radical positive change agent within your community.”
It is time to raise ourselves up and find the courage to tell our stories. Doesn’t it make you want to shake your head when you overhear someone say that “…everything is on the Internet, no one reads books anymore, and libraries are no longer relevant when Google is all we need.” It’s time to get busy (not angry), stop this nonsense, change the conversation, and hit back with the truth. I truly believe libraries and librarians continue to make a big difference and change lives.
Change is not only a reality for libraries, it could be said that change is happening faster than ever before. I profess that libraries have always had to tackle change-related sticky issues. Librarians finding themselves serving through ever-present change accept this constant tension that motivates us in how we serve users and fulfil our social mandate. Change-related issues that quickly come to mind include the decline in use of print collections, reinventing services and spaces, incorporating technology, dealing with inadequate funding, competing services, library reorganisation, etc. This tension drives decision making to align library values with the allocation of staff, space and resources. The challenges are many. Yet, the opportunities to embrace change are plenty. Adjusting to change is what libraries and librarians do well. We do this for ourselves, our users, those that have no voice, and many who depend on libraries. Librarians recognize that change happens. How we move through the world continues to influence our social service.
Girl with Mask on and Backpack Reading a Book (2020)
I strangely love to read libraries’ planning reports, strategic plans, CEO addresses, and watch librarians-of-the years’ conference addresses to the faithful. These documents and speeches should capture the essence of libraries not as places, spaces and services, but as people creating communities. Yet, these reports and addresses are too often statistic-centered and created to be read by, and for librarians. They are internal looking and fail to tell stories of community, changed lives and lived experiences. I tripped across the following in my journey while reading up for this essay including Australia’s State Library of Victoria report titled “Libraries Change Lives” (2020) which is simply amazing. The Australian New South Wales Libraries’ “Building on the Bookends Scenarios” report (2015) is equally beautiful and powerful. I’m sure there are many other amazing reports that instill the passion and mission of libraries. However, these reports too often fail to engage the wider audience beyond our library’s artificial boundaries. We need to be challenged to share pictures and tell powerful stories about the essential work we do to everyone. This is a rally cry to mobilize libraries and librarians to think outside our boundaries to make our invisible work – more visible.
We are too often wrapped up in creating reports, learning from others, predicting the future, speaking to each other, and all-the-while collectively navel gazing about our future. Librarians like to do this. We need to advocate for change, make significant connections, get uncomfortable, realize bigger dreams, get out and tell stories of change with passion using our authentic and vulnerable voices.
The good news is that we are not alone. Many librarians are eager to do this work. We can do this. Telling stories to others can be fun and as a profession this brings us closer together rather than pushes us apart.
We have work to do!
Girl Reading Book (2019)
Homework for the incredulous…
I just love outwardly looking books, articles, reports, videos, quotes and stories that paint pictures of greatness and inspire libraries and librarians. More resources are included at the end of this article and cited in the list of references.
Callan Bignoli and Lauren Stara’s “Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach” (2021) is a recent ALA book that comments on the need for, and the challenge of embracing change. Authors’ comment that “Rather than being disruptive and difficult, change can also be an incredible force for good …invigorate our libraries and our lives …inspiring and really fun.” (p. x). This book provides insight and user-centred examples of how to engage in change conversations.
Catherine Murray-Must authored a current must-read ALA book “Library Next: Seven Action Steps for Reinvention” (2021). Catherine encourages everyone to stand up for the core values that all libraries share – make a positive impact by making public, bold plans, cultivate relationships, be innovative, and focus on impact. This book includes practical corporate and personal ways to help negotiate change.
David Lankes brings clarity to most issues in his self-published open text “Expect More: Demanding Better Libraries for Today’s Complex World” (2016). Expect More delivers on so many fronts. This tome hits home with libraries and librarians from all areas and challenges us to make an impact, create a platform, be creative, systematic and realize that when we tell our stories we are spreading seeds of hope. If you don’t read any other book, article, or watch another video… this is the resource to read and be inspired!
Mark Smith’s (2019) “Top Ten Challenges Facing Public Libraries” comments on how public libraries are at a critical junction. Yet, how we respond is within our control. We are the most creative, careful, and determined people. Making a change to fight this perceived crisis will ironically start with you (and me). It involves a larger community where all hands are on deck. Mark helps us to see that there are librarians and libraries stepping up to this challenge (no longer a crisis). Mark says it well and it deserves repeating “The continuing success of the institution lies in how we manage through these challenges. These larger social trends are not within our control, but how we respond is.”
Lisa Peet (2020) in ‘How to Articulate Your Library's Impact and Get What You Need” comments on different ways of thinking to be an effective library change agent. These include creating intentional well-crafted messages for specific targeted audiences. “Storytelling is a huge component …it’s important to be truthful, but you can tell the story that you feel is going to resonate most with whomever you’re speaking. Tell stories that touch your heart, things that you’re emotional about, and things that you’re passionate about.” A must read for all librarians and those working in libraries. When was the last time your library intentionally sat down and told stories that make libraries and librarians more visible?
Michael Stephens (2018) in a recent Library Journal opinion blog titled “Librarian Superpowers Activate!” commented on six qualities needed to champion libraries in a world in which things can seem so confusing and quick to change. Michael dives into qualities we should develop remembering that “confidence in our abilities is just as important as competence.” Superpower qualities of confidence include, but are not limited to, adaptability, critical thinking, curiosity, empathy, patience, problem-solving for different situations, brainstorming, and celebrating our success.
Shamichael Hallman (2020, 15:05) as a TEDx Talker shared “Reimagining the Public Library to Reconnect the Community.” Shamichael eloquently and passionately challenges librarians to reimagine your library as a means to reconnect to your community. Libraries are deeply important in the way that they shape people, illuminate ideas, and impact our shared experience. Libraries, as public assets, have the unique opportunity to bridge socioeconomic divides and rebuild trust.
David Lankes in one presentation as part of his “Expect More - Finding a Larger Vision for Libraries” (2012, 7:18) series helps to expand our world view of what academic libraries can be beyond vision of space, place, collections and service mandates. Libraries need to respond to change by opening up, be innovate, and tell our stories. Yes, I’m a David Lankes fan!
Lance Werner (2018, 44:51) at the 2018 Ohio Library Council and Convention & Expo spoke on "Better Libraries and Stronger Communities Through Kindness, Empathy and Love." Lance doesn’t hold anything back. This inspiring message is time well spent.
If you want a future of libraries, it is within you, the librarians. If you want a healthy community that seeks out knowledge, and seeks informed conversation, then advocate for it beyond your walls. David Lankes
Dogs sniff each other. Human beings tell stories. This is our native language. Steve Denning
Making a change to fight this crisis will ironically start with you. Mark Smith
Next steps, storytelling 101
Librarianship is a calling, not a profession.
We need to embrace telling stories of hope with anyone who will listen… our spouses, partners, families, friends, neighbors, board members, politicians, colleagues, even the guy waiting in line for…
Expert storytellers tell us to practice, know our audience, be direct, passionate, speak beyond numbers, and share our greatness with everyone.
Lance Werner provides further encouragement “…the possibilities for effective advocacy are wide - and can appear complicated at first. If there’s a rule of thumb, it’s to pare down to the essentials. In library land we have a tendency to over talk things …it’s important to be very simple and concise, and to be able to convey what you’re trying to say directly” (Peet, 2020).
What is your story?
David Lankes encourages us all when he stated, “Be authentic, not elitist, have a conversation.”
The way I see it – if we won’t or can’t communicate our lasting value – who will?
This conversation could be a well-planned story, but I challenge everyone to have a story ready to be shared at the tip of your tongue. Impromptu and drive-by storytelling gets the best results. The next time someone asks, “Isn’t everything on the Internet?” look them straight in the eyes and tell them a story about your library, librarians you work with, and most importantly of all about the people you’ve helped along the way.
Let’s change the narrative and stop the collective navel gazing lamenting the plight and end of libraries and librarianship.
This is not easy, but your story is - your story.
Advocating for social change in libraries can be messy. Being uncomfortable with difficult and complex issues takes courage. Finding a receptive audience is not always pleasant. Drive-by storytelling may not be you. Stepping out to raise issues of injustice, equality, inclusion… can be risky.
Because you took the time to reach out and share a story about the power of libraries and librarians – we are all changed.
Libraries and librarians are here to stay.
We can be the change we so desperately desire.
It is up to us to change the narrative and make the invisible – be visible.
Email me with your story today.
I can’t wait to be encouraged.
Libraries help us to better understand each other. People from all walks of life come together at libraries to discuss issues of common concern. Libraries provide programs, collections, and meeting spaces to help us share and learn from our differences.
Libraries are changing and dynamic places
Libraries are places of opportunity
Libraries change lives
Libraries change communities
Libraries Change Lives (ALA)
A great dream has the power to move nations. A great dream has the power to transcend differences, problems, and challenges. A great dream lifts us up out of the routine and the weight of the everyday. A dream has the ability to point us forward and to improve society. That, ultimately, is the kind of services we need from librarianship—not to be constantly reminded of
problems, but to be wrapped up in a dream of a better tomorrow. R. David Lankes
To be a person is to have stories to tell. Isak Dinesen
You should expect a great library to seek out innovative ways of supporting learning. A great library should provoke and prompt conversation. The librarians should expect you to engage in those conversations. They should expect you to question why something is part of a library, and you should expect them to come up with something more than “marketing” or “keeping up with what other libraries are doing. R. David Lankes
I am a teacher, and the library is my classroom. Irene Kistler
…let’s be honest. Some libraries close with nary a whisper. Academic library budgets are downsized, and corporations close their libraries. They close bad libraries, yes, but they also close good libraries. The difference between good and great comes down to this: a library that seeks to serve your community is good, and a library that seeks to inspire your community to be
better every day is great. You can love a good library, but you need a great library. David Lankes
Tell me the facts, and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe. But, tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever. Native American proverb
The drivers of change do not, of course, operate in a vacuum. Their relation to each other is systemic – interacting one with the other to create the complex and changing external environment [by which] libraries will be finding their way in the future. State Library of New South Wales
Stories are the way to capture the hopes, dreams and visions of a culture. They are true as much as data are true. The truth of the powerful and irresistible story illustrates in a way data can’t begin to capture. It’s the stories that may you understand. Carl Sessions Stepp
Everyone working in a library needs to be able to tell the greater library ‘story’ and understand its core values – such as the value of things shared. Angelo Loukakis
Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. Walter Cronkite
Building on the bookends scenarios: Innovation for NSW public libraries 2014 to 2030. (2015). Sydney: State Library of New South Wales. https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/building_bookends_scenarios.pdf
Change. (2017, July 5). Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/mG28olYFgHI
Cox, A. M., Pinfield, S., & Rutter, S. (2019). Academic libraries’ stance toward the future. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 19(3), 485-509. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2019.0028
Crisis. (2020, Dec. 20). Merriam Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crisis
Dorner, D., Campbell-Meier, J., & Seto, I. (2017). Making sense of the future of libraries. IFLA Journal, 43(4), 321-334. https://doi-org.proxy.library.brocku.ca/10.1177/0340035217727554
Düren, P. (2013). Leadership in libraries in times of change. IFLA Journal, 39(2),134-39. https://doi.org/10.1177/0340035212473541
Girl reading book. (2019, June 21). Photo by Jeff Cadestin on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/0XRikDOzcwA
Girl with mask on and backpack reading a book. (2020, Oct. 12). Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/r2hTBxEkgWQ
Gordon, I. D. (2020). Toughest job in the library. Library Management. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/LM-04-2020-0072/full/html
Hallman, S. (2020, Mar. 17, 15:05). TEDxMemphis Talk. Reimagining the public library to reconnect the community. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI2CLgq3LLk
Hawkins, P. (2019). Change in libraries: Directions for the future. Public Library Quarterly, 38(4), 388-409. https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2019.1595314
Hernon, P., & Matthews, J. R. (Eds.). (2013). Reflecting on the future of academic and public libraries. Chicago: ALA.
Horstmann, W. (2018). Are academic libraries changing fast enough? Bibliothek Forschung Und Praxis, 42(3), 433-440. https://doi.org/10.1515/bfp-2018-0061
Lankes, R. D. (2012, Dec 12, 7:18). Expect more - Part 1 - Finding a larger vision for libraries. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zdd9k8nkpX4
Lankes, R. D. (2016). Expect more: Demanding better libraries for today’s complex world (2nd ed.).
Libraries change lives: Declaration for the right to libraries. (2013). ALA. Libraries Transform. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/DECLARATION%20-%20TEXT%20ONLY.pdf
Libraries change lives. (2020). Melbourne: State Library Victoria and Public Libraries Victoria. https://librarieschangelives.org.au/
Mathews, B. (2014). Librarian as futurist: Changing the way libraries think about the future. Portal: Libraries & the Academy, 14(3), 453-462.
Special issue of 10 articles collectively titled Imagining the Future of Academic Libraries https://muse-jhu-edu.proxy.library.brocku.ca/issue/30352
Mossop, S. (2013). Achieving transformational change in academic libraries. Oxford: Chandos.
Murray-Rust, C. (2021). Library next: Seven action steps for reinvention. Chicago: ALA.
Nelson Public Library. (2020, Sept. 25). CBC host to discuss the future of libraries. Nelson Star. https://www.nelsonstar.com/community/cbc-host-to-discuss-the-future-of-libraries/
Pateman, J. (2020). How can libraries stay relevant in the digital age? Blue Ocean Team
Peet, L. (2016, Sept 15). Designing the future: The future of libraries. Library Journal, 141(15), 26-31.
Peet, L. (2020, Mar. 31). How to articulate your library’s impact and get what you need. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=Stats-Story-How-to-Articulate-Your-Librarys-Impact-and-Get-What-You-Need
Ray, M. (2016, June 7, 9:42). Changing the conversation about librarians. TEDxElCajohSalon Talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IniFUB7worY
Simons, M. (2018). Academic library metamorphosis and regeneration. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Smith, M. (2019). Top ten challenges facing public libraries. Public Library Quarterly, 38(3), 241-247. https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2019.1608617
Stephens, M. (2018, Aug. 7). Librarian superpowers activate! Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=librarian-superpowers-activate-office-hours
Wink, J. (2017). The power of story. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.
Thanks to librarians that step out and make a difference. Thanks to those that helped shape my service ethic, encourage others and lead change from the trenches. Thanks to Brock University’s University Librarian Mark Robertson and our leadership team who show compassion to all that cross their path. Thanks to Informed Librarian’s Arlene L. Eis, the editor of Infosources' publications for this opportunity. A special acknowledgement to Anya Falcone for her help with this manuscript and a never-ending voice of encouragement.
Copyright 2020 by Ian D. Gordon
About the Author:
Ian Gordon currently serves as a Science Liaison Librarian at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. Previously, Ian has served in different capacities and in different Ontario academic libraries.