Four Lessons of 2010

I’ve been asked by a couple of good friends for my thoughts as to what lessons I have learned in 2010. So, without further ago, here we go.

Lesson #1: “The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library”

Forget what libraries are doing here in the United States and other modern technological countries and look at the new libraries they are building in countries that have never had a community library. In building and placing a library into these communities, it begs the question, “what is the most basic and important function a library should serve in a community?” For me, these new libraries offer two answers to this basic query: literacy (through books) and information/educational opportunities (through instruction, books, and internet access). It represents the importance of the quality of information that is available as well as information access. As the world’s output of data (raw data, moreover) increases at rate that is nothing short of staggering, there is a rising need to ensure that people are literate in the information that they receive as well as creating and maintaining unfettered access to it. In building libraries in Bhutan, it is a reminder of the importance of the fundamental mission of the library in the digitized world.

This is a not a rejection of the other services and materials that libraries currently offer; in fact, it is meant to embrace them as the tools to further these goals. The world interacts in so many ways in this digital age that there are a plethora of communication channels to utilize. There are more webtools and software that can be used to make that remote connection between the library and the patron. It is a cliché but when it comes to reaching out to our patrons the only limitations we have are the ones we place on ourselves. We have the means and the skills to reach our patrons in the spaces outside of the library walls on any budget or staff size. While funding is a overt concern, the constant truth is that you can get around most obstacles with a little ingenuity, some proverbial elbow grease, and the determination to make it.

On the other side of this coin, it is a matter of looking for other engaging ways to bring patrons into the library building. It is a synthesis of crafting the user experience in tandem with a constant self-challenge as to what constitutes the optimal collection for the patron community. It is a shifting mindset that continues to consider the kinds of programs that interest patrons, which lending materials will bring in different patron types, and how everything that the library offers can be used over time to convert people into a lifelong users and advocates. In my thoughts for the road ahead, there must always be a destination, a place for people to go to come together and explore the world together. That place can be the library, but it is a destiny that will not be given but must be taken by the current and future generations of professions.

Lesson #2: “There is no spoon.”

While this quote refers to a line about the nature of the universe in the movie The Matrix, for myself it is an important lesson as to what can be accomplished in this new communication and networking reality. There are few if any barriers to broadcasting, collaborating, or connecting with others to facilitate the dreams, designs, and ideas that one has. The Library Journal article started as an email; the t-shirt idea started as a Facebook message; and the chance to present at ALA came from a chat message from a friend who passed on the opportunity. I’ve been lucky enough that some of my personal library heroes have taken to reading my blog (and even commenting) while getting some notice in AL Direct as well as some blogs that I admire greatly. Just like there is no spoon, there is no longer a set path for one’s professional ambitions and inclinations. The bottom line: if you have the urge to create, work, or collaborate on something professionally, there is essentially nothing stopping you from doing so.

I think this is an important lesson as to encourage people to try out their ideas, especially in this profession. As I look around as a relative newcomer to the library field (this is my third year working), the feeling I get from the professional literature and blogosphere is that we (the royal ‘we’) mercilessly squander the creativity of our peers. The opportunities to flourish, to explore, and to innovate are limited, whether it is by funding or lack of administrative will. And for those who do rise to these positions on the creative edge, they are subjected to a torrent of proverbial slings and arrows that nip and pick at their creations. Not simply a matter of constructive criticism (a perfectly acceptable, expected, and anticipated reaction), but a full blown storm of cynicism borne out of self-doubt and (inexplicable to me) self-loathing that makes all but the strongest of thinkers question as to why they would dare to share their visions. It’s a shame, it’s a real damn shame, and it needs to stop.

Rather than leave this lesson on that note, I will simply finish by saying that it is a glorious age to think, experiment, and create in the library world now. Now, go forth and prove it.

Lesson #3: “███████████████████”

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One day, I will redact this passage. But today is not that day.

Lesson #4: “All Together Now”

For myself, the other bookend to this year has been the publishing of my Backtalk piece, “We Need Big Tent Librarianship”. After watching the library funding crisis in New Jersey play out from a front row seat, public libraries got some money back, academic libraries got some programs and funding back, and school libraries completely got screwed. It does not take an extensive leap of logic to figure out where the loss of the school library is going to be taken up; it will be in the public library for research and projects, more instruction required at the academic level, or worse a generation that does not utilize either. It is Jim Rettig’s “library ecosystem” concept where the demise of one part has ripple effects on the other parts. Librarians cannot pretend that it is anything less than this shared bond between all types of libraries.

Comprehensive library advocacy needs to become a shared purpose across the profession. Not simply for your type of library, but for any library that needs a voice. When the disappearance of one library in your community will have an effect on another library in the same community, it matters. And it needs to be treated as such. And as we move into 2011, I have one thing on my mind:

Advocacy is an ‘all in’ prospect.