Book Review – Expect More: Demanding Better Libraries For Today’s Complex World
Posted by CLA Govt Library and Info Mgmt Professionals Network on 2012/10/29
By Ross Gordon
First things first. Mea culpa.
I was offered the opportunity to write a review of this very recent work on libraries and their place in our fast changing world, and the book itself arrived as an epub. I have to say up front that while I spend hours a day reading from a laptop and a phone screen, things like reports and articles, the news etc, I am still not a huge fan of ebooks as they appear on product specific e-readers. Which makes me of course a huge hypocrite. I am always selling the benefits of all things “E”, especially at budget time when the libraries future is once more under analysis. I believe in the medium, and how it offers equitable access to our clients, and portability etc. I will read a long document happily on my monitor, but put an ereader, with a grey screen, low lighting, in my hands and I revert to geezer status pretty quick. But I say here that it in no way influenced my review of this book, except that it took longer to find information in it as I fumbled with the ‘search’ and ‘options’ commands more than I should have.
At a brief and breathtaking 124 pages, it was still a slow process to get through it all in any orderly time frame.
So I apologize to the library for keeping the reader (a Sony) for so long.
Professor R. David Lankes is a professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship at Syracuse University and this work is aimed directly at the librarian community, something of a rarity. Considering how many excellent thinkers and writers reside within the profession, and especially how many Library Schools there are in existence, there is a real paucity of solid work on the stated of the profession and what kinds of solutions we should be considering to not just survive, but blossom. I read articles on the future of libraries, (Starbucks, wifi, ipads on loan etc.) and I have sat through, and given many presentations on the subject. It is not as though there is no critical thinking being done in this field. And yet, books that seek to synthesize that thinking and propose paths of growth are fairly rare. Or perhaps just not well marketed.
In this book Prof. Lankes argues for the creation and maintenance of Better Libraries, not just libraries that survive the waves of technology and budgetary challenges. Those are not new for libraries and should not be the sole focus of their planning.
He begins outlining his thesis with the intriguing story of the Arab Spring in his first chapter is Expect the Exceptional. When the surprising revolution took hold in Cairo and the winds of violence buffeted the city, anything could happen. And when it became apparent that the great Library of Alexandria was in danger of being sacked and burned by the mob, a wonderful thing occurred: a crowd formed to surround the library and protect it! And in the end not a window was broken.
This is not a one off story, he finds examples in multiple locales where the community has risen up to prevent the closure or severe debilitation of their libraries. The key point he is making is that it is truly Their libraries. And in short the point of the book is that without true integration into a community, whichever community the library was created to serve, then it doesn’t deserve to exist or be saved. It is the librarian who has figured this out who will have a thriving clientele, whether physical or virtual is not important, it is the fact of being a part of and serving a community that is of import here. For every library that is closed or cut to the bone, he finds another that seemed to overcome great odds and was saved because the community served recognized its value and rallied around. Now let me add here that this is not, to my point of view, something that always has a happy ending, there are some organizations that are too disconnected at the decision making level to even here an outcry when one occurs. He is talking broad strokes here. In general. He is also talking, I believe, to his students, preparing them for an uncertain world.
A history lesson learned over 3,000 years tells us that “to forge a new librarianship based not on books and artifacts but on knowledge and community…..The librarians of today are radical positive change agents” in every community within which they are present.
Here librarians get a lot of back patting and self esteem boosts, which frankly, we deserve but sometimes spend too much time chanting amongst ourselves: we invented the Web before there was a Web; Crowd sourcing before Google; before Facebook etc etc. Thing is, hearing it from him that we are information geniuses ahead of our times does not make me any happier with the current state of affairs. However, he does add a lot more to the debate. Firepower: librarianship is an investment worth $7 billion in the US and $31 billion worldwide and “In an age where traditional institutions are declining, library usage has grown…last twenty years…there are more public libraries than McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. and that Americans go to libraries nearly three times more often than they go to the movies?” (I suggest you slip these into your next elevator chat, or just say them really loud next time you at a cafe or pub.)
Now without going through the entire book, which is a good read, if somewhat repetitive and cheerleading, let me zero in on how he presents and reinforces his thesis and let me say that I agree with him entirely. He states boldly that: Too many librarians are about books; are reliving the past that “favors what they do over why they do it. Too many librarians see their collections, not their community as their jobs.”
So his recipe for success? Starting with the Mission Statement for a good library he guides the reader, using real world examples to cement the need to think constantly about the milieu in which the library exists, and not the collection itself, and certainly not what the community used to be like in the good old days. He shows us both the good libraries, where librarians bring in exciting new programs and technologies to address real problems for their clients, the librarians who go a step further to make themselves a part of the whole service of whatever law office or company they belong to, and then the bad libraries that think a room full of books and good wishes will be enough to count as a service.
Librarians are Facilitators not just fact checkers. And since we already invented the Web and Social Networking, we must be attuned to whatever the next great thing is and provide it to our community before they even know it is coming. We are beacons of light and knowledge. Which of course is all true. His example of a public library that has new 3D printers for people to learn and experiment upon shows the shrewd side of using technology as an enabler and a marketing tool.
His book ends with an Action Plan for Great Libraries, which again gives a pep talk about the greatness, and modest ambitions of librarians, and follows up with examples from great librarians who ‘get it’ and use new ways to speak to and learn from their clients. Well he doesn’t actually give us an Action Plan, just examples of people who did good things using their own plans, and he handily adds an Action Plan for Bad Libraries, which frankly is less a plan than a series of anecdotes, but I get his point. He isn’t just writing for people who have been around awhile, but for his students who may not have any idea what a really good, or bad, library looks like, other than a URL to click on when it is time to do some homework.
Should you read this book? Absolutely. Support the Professor in his efforts to develop an architecture for libraries that is not just based on budgets and survival tips, or tales of happy situations that sound like a cross between Best Buy and Starbucks.
It is a short read and full of good, repeatable anecdotes and I hope to see more of this type of work in the near future.
Ross Gordon is Director of Library and Records Management Services at Environment Canada.
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