Last Thursday, I had the privilege of giving my first keynote to the 2014 Lehigh Valley Spring Workshop. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended and many thanks to Courtney Eger and the other Lehigh Valley Executive Committee Board members for having me. Unfortunately, a family emergency arose and I could not stay to the end of the final session. I’d like to publicly thank and commend Daniel Huang for going above and beyond the call of duty in escorting me to the highways I needed to get to for the trip home. It was really appreciated and a sanity saver.
As you might observe from my blog output in the last couple of weeks, my writing efforts had been focused on this keynote. As I note early on, it was a real challenge. I wanted to convey a message that would resonate with every kind of librarian and also give some specifics for people to chew on on their way out.
In my mind, I ended up with a sequel to the “Big Tent Librarianship” piece I wrote for Library Journal a few years back. I would call this the “Little Tent” speech since it focuses on the unique nature and circumstances of every library out there as well as how our principles and ideals intersect with the needs of our communities. I had been kicking around the Little Tent idea for awhile (a long while, to be more honest) and this is how it manifested itself. Big Tent Librarianship was written when I was a bit more optimistic and still very young in the profession; the Little Tent reflects someone is a bit older, a bit wiser, but still an idealist. I think it’s a bit more pragmatic since it addresses what I think are the bigger needs of librarians: the self-confidence in their choices and the determination to follow through in turning principles into practice. To me, what matters most at this intersection of time and purpose is how we believe in ourselves.
Before I get to my keynote, the day before I was to speak there was a new post by Hugh Rundle on In the Library With the Lead Pipe. His excellent post raises some extremely thought-provoking questions about the future of the library regarding the intersection of technology and librarian values. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.
In giving the keynote some context, the theme of the workshop was “Gearing Up for the Future” and the speech was to take place during the lunch hour. I’ve taken my talking notes/script and have edited them into something coherent for the reader, adding and removing words and details where needed. It’s not an exact transcript of what I actually said, but it’s close enough. I’ve also inserted my slides as well as linked to stories that I told during my keynote.
I hope you take its message to heart because that’s where I was aiming.
Good afternoon, thank you for having me, and what an incredible workshop it has been. I’m so pleased that I was invited and the sessions I have attended have been incredible.
I’d like to tell you something about myself from the outset.
When I’m teaching a new computer class for the first time at the library, I like to tell the students this: they are my guinea pigs. They are my experimental group, the ones I get poke, prod, and test things out on. Some things work, others don’t, and we will overcome any obstacles together. It’s meant to put everyone at ease and give a casual vibe to the class, to lower any apprehension between teacher and student, and it’s a decent icebreaker.
So you know, you are my first keynote audience.
However, unlike the class, my purpose here isn’t teaching but to come up with something that would be compelling, inspiring, and wonderful as to relates to the theme of the workshop, “Gearing Up for the Future.” It was a challenge to which I had moments of doubt.
In finding the words and flow for this keynote, I had my own issues.
First, I personally loathe the question, “What is the future of libraries?”. The root of my distaste is based in the critical thinking and problem solving skills imbued in me from my undergraduate biology degree. That’s like asking the question, “What is the next step of human evolution?”, a nebulous question that could give rise to a range of answers. (Which, based on current climate change trends, I hope the answer is “gills”.)
Be that as it may, our peers do try to answer that question. But even then It tends to be brushed in broad strokes, a “one size fits all” mentality that feels more like the frustration of finding the right size between different fashion labels.
I read an article about a year or so back about a man who went shopping for a pair of pants. I don’t remember the exact detail, but let’s say that his waist size is 36. He went to one store and tried on a pair of pants which fit perfectly. He then went to another story, got a pair of a pants marked as a 36 waist, and he was swimming in it. It made him curious as to the difference of the sizes so he took a measuring tape and went from store to store. He found that not every store brand of pants that was marked as a 36 waist was actually a 36. The worst culprit was Old Navy in which the pants measured 42 inches, a full half foot larger. I mean, there are misses and that’s a big one. [The article in question. –A]
The market, society, and culture change so quickly these days combined with the disruptions of the last ten years make me hesitant to prognosticate (although I’ve been known to make a few predictions, so I’m guilty as well).
So, I tried to do what I was taught to do back in those lab days: break everything down and examine the pieces in order to come up with a possible strategy that will help obtain a solution.
My problem? Too many variables.
Personally, I believe that libraries are extremely contextual to their communities. Some of these measurable data points are the tiny variances that make the world of difference between the libraries that are represented here today.
To the outside observer, it forms the basis of review that makes people wonder why X library is thriving and Y library, a few miles or school district or college or university, is not. What is happening (or, conversely, not happening) at X that makes it a community gem whereas Y is just, well, there.
So can we begin to answer the question the looms before us, a monolithic presence that casts its shadow across our professional lives and discourse.
I had the notion of trying to make it more exacting but even that lead to it own complications.
“What is the future of your library?”
“What is the future of your library in your community?”
“What is the future of your library in your community if all current trends remain the same?”
“What is the future of your library in your community if all current community trends remain the same but library funding is increased?”
Get the picture?
In adding condition after condition, it dawned on me that this might be the beginning of a solution; that, it is not a matter about how narrowly we can tailor the question, but the question we ask ourselves. Specifically, that we need to not to ask vague questions in general, but asking the right questions of ourselves that reflect our values and beliefs. “What is the future of libraries?” will invoke dozens if not thousands if not millions of answers, but asking “How does my library show the community the value of literature or discussion or imagination or understanding?”
That brought me to another stumbling block. Even as we are changing the nature of the question we ask ourselves, what about the solution? And now THAT began to bother me. I can’t stand in front of these nice wonderful people and say, “Hey, look, let’s rephrase the question, but damned if I know what the solution could be! Enjoy your lunch, have a nice day, and, um… I need something from my car…. yeah….”
In figuring out the path to a solution, I felt limited by the libraryland data before me as well as my own professional biases. I needed a fresh start, a different perspective, and a new approach.
So, I looked elsewhere.
In imagining that the core element of libraries is built around what I will vastly oversimplify as “information storage and services”, I looked for other ubiquitous human resources. Something in which I could examine how people interact with it so as to make observations and suggest equivalents that could lead to different ways of thinking about how libraries approach their respective futures.
And I think I found a good parallel that can make answering this question more intuitive.
Consider some of the immediate common traits between the two:
- It evolved with us [short version: the establishment of agriculture was followed shortly by the invention of writing; as we domesticated crops, we also created systems for retaining information such as stories, speeches, and other information.]
- It’s a daily need. You literally cannot live without either. Food drives biological processes, information drives decision making ones [I gave an example of living in the Yukon which in calories equal life and information of finding food and constructing clothing and shelters are vital. -A]
- it is an integral part of our human experience in the world. [short version: I can eat Chinese food while watching Chinese movies and reading Chinese news. The world is connected along cultural lines in exchanging food and information. The internet has ratcheted this up to a near instantaneous experience. I mentioned a story my dad told me that a hundred and fifty years ago, JP Morgan was the richest man in the world. But for all his wealth, he could not have a fresh pineapple. Now, there are no more food seasons (for better or worse) and we can have any food we want at any time. The exchange of food and information are unparalleled.]
Let me share some of my observations that I believe can help us address the question of the future of libraries.
Food is hospitality. It is the one of the most basic social conventions of welcoming a person into a room, event, or a home. Can I offer you a drink? Can I offer you something to eat? It’s the mint on the hotel pillow, the drink placed in your hand when you arrive at a dinner party, and the offer of bread and cold cuts after a long trip.
Food as hospitality is a codified social norm in places like Iran and China in which such offers take on an elaborate ritual for both parties. It is a weaving of offers and refusals leading to an ultimate acceptance or gentle rejection. But my grandmother would put these cultures to shame with her near continuous offers of sandwiches after we arrived in Connecticut after traveling from New Jersey.
The conversations would sound something like this:
“Would you like a sandwich?”
“No thanks, Gram.”
“…well, we have some roast beef, chicken, and ham I think.”
“No, that’s ok, Gram, I’m not hungry.”
“…we have white or wheat bread.”
Yes. It was relentless hospitality.
Now, I wouldn’t say that we should start offering food or drinks (ok, maybe drinks) at our libraries, but what is in your library right now that welcomes people? A display? A person to greet them? A sign with the rules on it telling them that they can’t use their cellphone and don’t move the furniture and have your ID ready and OMG THIS IS A QUIET AREA.
In the last fifty years, the United States has moved towards a service economy. How we are treated is a leading indicator as to whether we will return to a restaurant, store, or event. Libraries, despite our non-retail purpose, are not immune to these kinds of retail judgments. Nor should we be indifferent to the physical comfort of our patrons. When your community looks at your library, what is the hospitality that you are extending to them? Comfy seating? Personal attention? Something that lets them know that they are welcome to come, to stay, and to enjoy?
When you are welcoming someone to your library, are you offering them something of yourself?
It’s only years later after she was gone that I realized that my grandmother’s offers weren’t just food, but of herself. It wasn’t simply a sandwich, it was Gram’s way of showing care and concern for her family. She wanted us to feel at home, even if it drove us nuts.
Food is a shared experience. It’s the focus of family gatherings that have become American traditions like Thanksgiving, the overly cliché ‘dinner and a movie’ suggestion that operates as many a first date between two people, the way we mark special occasions of birth, weddings, graduations, and even death. It’s one we are having right now as I talk to you while you eat lunch.
For years, starting roughly when I was in middle school, my maternal grandparents hosted my parents, my brother, and myself for Friday night dinners. And I can tell you what was for dinner just about every week: London Broil steak, steamed peas, and my grandmother’s special mashed potatoes.
Occasionally, we would have pizza. But that meal brought us together almost every Friday with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas for years on end, well into my college days. My brother and I loved it. Even when we were given the option of picking our own birthday meal, we usually asked for that. Why? Looking back, I would say that that meal was an integral part of our intimate bond with our grandparents; it was our shared experience with them.
Libraries have a leg up on the shared experience since nearly everyone can relate a story in which they were urged to read a particular book or see a certain movie. In the same way we tell our family and friends, “you simply MUST try..” this dish or restaurant or wine or whatever has tickled your palate, the same holds true for those cultural objects that move our emotions and minds from the page or the screen.
In looking at your library right now, what is the shared experience you want to your community to have? Is it between people and books or movies or materials? Is it between staff and patrons? Or what about between patrons themselves?
It was only years later that I learned that those dinners weren’t simply for the benefit of my brother and myself, but it was to help out my parents as well. My dad had been fired from his job after his bank merged with another and while we as a family were not in dire straits, those meals were how my grandparents made life a little bit easier for my parents. Through a financially troubled time, they shared some of our burden.
We are a sharing culture. It’s in our social norms, our social media, and social outlets. We lend material, but what can we do to make it a shared experience?
Food requires skill. When we think of great chefs, the tendency shifts towards the ones we can relate to immediately through pop culture: celebrity chefs such Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsey, and my favorite, Anthony Bourdain and television chefs like Julia Childs and The Frugal Gourmet. But there are multitudes of talented culinary professionals across the globe, from the local breakfast joint to the burger stands to the trendy food trucks. Television shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” take the viewer to small and medium sized eating establishments across the country to showcase local talent and flavors. The skill of food preparation surrounds us.
Despite their best efforts, I didn’t learn to cook till I moved out my parent’s place. Even then, I learned the same way my father had: I got tired of eating out and frozen dinners. Through trial and error (with lots of trial and lots of errors), I was eventually able to put some dishes into my dietary rotation. My mindset in trying was remembering that if I botched things so bad I still had the option of ordering out. That was my safety net in case of absolute disaster. Of course, having a safety net also a drawback since it let my experimental side run wild with trying out things like adding cinnamon to hamburgers. No, that did not work out well and I ate every single one to spite the comments my first wife made about them. That is not recommended either.
In making observations regarding the top rated restaurants to the best hot dog stand in town, my takeaway is that there is no one key element to offering the best collection, programs, classes, service, or ambiance to your community except the desire to do so. To invoke Hemingway’s reply to a criticism by Faulkner about his style of writing, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Do the best libraries come from the biggest budgets, the most expensive staff, extravagant programs, and luxurious classes? We tend to think that bigger is better in terms of budgets, staffing, purchasing, and programming, but it is not a silver bullet here.
Just like cooking, this is about your skills in using the ingredients available to you. This is your MacGyver moment in which you can turn papers clip and gum into a makerspace or death ray or whatever you need. With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them?
In my previous position, I had a very limited programming budget, limited staff options, and a medium sized program room. In one year, I was able to squeeze out approximately sixty five adult programs, an average of one per week, well within my budget since most were free, and with a minimum amount of staff time. Because I looked at this way:
No budget? AWESOME. No paperwork or purchase orders to fill out.
No staff? AWESOME. No payroll or scheduling to worry about. I can find stuff that is lead by others or require no additional people.
No space? AWESOME. No clean up! Ok, I had space but I was certain to make sure that my programming was relatively clean.
My programming encompassed a plethora of interests, from local history to gardening to health to authors to artists to chocolate tasting to cooking demonstrations to financial presentations to a bunch of other things I can’t remember in addition to regular monthly programs such as an adult book discussion, yoga (paid for by the friends of the library), meditation, and a crafting class. [Here is my article on library programming that I wrote for LJ. –A]
With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them? What do you pay for and what do you find for free? What needs staff to be present and what can run itself? What requires space, how much space, and can it be found in other places?
The ingredients are important, but what you do with them is even more so. It’s a skill that anyone who works in a library can develop.
Food is nourishment. It feeds the body as well as the mind, both in the most literal of senses and figurative. In the most literal sense it is the wonder of our digestion system, although my recollection of the exact processes leaves a lot to be desired: food goes in, some miracle occurs, waste is released. Not exactly the material for a Schoolhouse Rocks song.
Figuratively, food is a catalyst for healing our mental and emotional states. Think about comfort foods, a term in which actual nutrition is set aside for the benefits it brings us emotionally. Mac and cheese, sloppy joes, chicken nuggets, and milkshakes are all kinds of foods that bring us solace when we are feeling despondent. There are also foods that remind of you of people and places, so powerfully attached to our senses that even a whiff can cause a flood of memories. One of mine is for a particular kind of cookie made with chopped walnuts and covered in confectioner’s sugar that goes by a bunch of different names: Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cakes, and as they are known to my wife’s family, nutballs. (Yes, it’s a giggle-worthy name.) One whiff and it’s Christmas again, for it was the cookie of the season.
The common notion reflected in many a quotation about the library is that it is a place that nourishes the mind. This is still an important value to the library as an institution, the librarian as a profession, and of course the communities that we serve. What has changed are the delivery vectors for this kind of nourishment. People look to libraries for education, both in the passive sense from materials and in the active one from classes, talks, and workshops, as well as entertainment, social engagement with others, and a place for volunteer and local organizations to meet.
How do you “feed” your community? What do you “feed” them?
There’s a quotation for which I could not find the original source but was made in reference to Christian beliefs: “We are not called to judge, but we are fruit inspectors”. I believe that the same sentiment could be said for librarians. We do not judge people on their library material, but we do want to make sure that what we offer is meeting their educational, emotional, spiritual, social, leisure, and enjoyment needs. I acknowledge that this is a vast gray area, but one in which we rely on our knowledge and instincts in navigating.
Nourishment comes in many forms and we have many minds to feed.
Food is local. You do not get a cheesesteak outside of the greater Philadelphia area. I don’t know where the exact line is, but eventually such a request turns into a rib-eye steak with some weird cheese on it. In my travels, I have seen a Philadelphia cheesesteak described in many an inaccurate fashion, mostly in terms of the cut of the beef.
The same notion is true for the paellas in Spain, the beers of Australia, the curries of India, and nuanced differences between Kansas City and Carolina BBQ. (Kansas City: tomato based with sugar, most notably brown sugar or molasses. Carolina: thin and watery from either mustard or vinegar, noted with hints of spices that make it tangy and peppery.)
They are a culmination of the events and influences on a culture or people throughout the years. It is a sprawling picture that captures what plants grow there, what animals roam through, the kind of weather, how long people have been there, whether they have been occupied or not, and so forth and so on. It’s the history of a people wrapped up into grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats.
When I talk to people who have never been to New Jersey about the diner culture, there is a certain kind of fascination that gets invoked. You mean you can get a cooked meal any time of day? A menu that has cheese sticks, coffee, and lobster tails on it? (Although I would never ever ever EVER recommend getting the lobster tails, they are still there.) It’s a place that sits in a unique position in New Jersey culture, a hybrid between restaurants and fast food joints with an eclectic menu, nostalgic ambiance, and a loyal following.
In looking at your library and its community, what are the events and history that have brought it to this point in time? Who settled, who left, who stayed, and who is just arriving? What are the local aspects and elements that make it different than the next town or school or college over?
What is vital here is that community identity cannot be overlooked nor set aside. That which is thought of as local, be it an image, attitude, or way of life, is integral to your service population. You will lose if you fight it, but you stand to gain so much more when you embrace it, celebrate it, and foster it. This is not to maintain the status quo for your library, but to mold the changes you make along the local norms and image.
Libraries are not simply buildings surrounded by communities, but the common good a community has invested in that reflects its local values, assist local goals and ambitions, and satisfy local information needs.
And so we arrive back at the original question: what is the future of libraries?
Is the future: books, eBooks, bookless, print on demand, makerspaces, collaborative spaces, community centers, quiet zones, remote storage, coding, computer labs, programs, webinars, seminars, mobile apps, mobile websites, workshops, embedded, super PACs, Minecraft, Amazon, paraprofessionals, or self publishing, to name but a few things?
Yes… and No. It depends.
I’ve always liked this quote from Sir Ken Robinson: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” But I feel that “wrong” in the librarian world is defined as “wrong for all libraries”, not as it should be interpreted as “wrong for their community”. That ill and awful notion of the “perfect library” smothers the original ideas and concepts that would work and flourish within the unique circumstances of a single library which I will say for the purposes of naked hyperbole could be YOUR library. Lack of scaling or repetition of results is not a fatal flaw to any collection or program or service that only works at ONE library. For all the times that library science isn’t actually a science (at least by this trained scientist), this is not when it should act like one.
So, if I was forced to answer this terrible question, what would I say is the future of libraries?
It’s a nod to the past, a meeting of current demands, and room for the future. Sometimes we catch up, sometimes we follow, and sometimes we lead. And it’s the way it is meant to be.
What matters is merging our professional values with our communities.
What matters is what fits within our own set of variables.
What I ask of you here today in this room at this very moment, when you are driving back, when you arrive at your library tomorrow and the next day and the day after that is to keep this phrase in mind:
“The future of libraries is what I am doing today to best serve my community.”
(That slide should have a giant “THANK YOU” across the top, but Google Drive would not cooperate. -A)