I mentioned in my last post that I have been in a long phase of non-writing, so in order to clear a backlog of matters undiscussed I’m now taking (literal) pains to re-engage the habit.
The break has been welcome for purposes of battery-recharging, but a subtle sense of disjointedness has been one of its unintended effects: I have found that it has taken longer to meaningfully parse and process patterns that arise in the course of my working experience. It would then seem that one of the virtues of regular writing (blog-based or otherwise) is to provide a space in which to draw composite and superficially unrelated things to better examine their junctures. In the absence thereof, connections can go unnoticed until a moment of eureakish revelation.
Case in point: during a speaking trip to Oregon in late October I discovered that one intersection I had been searching for was hiding in plain sight. The pieces: a) the ongoing library crisis narrative in media and professional discourse, b) the memory (collective and individual) that comprises our institutions, and c) advocacy, the near-constant task of justifying our own existence in the face of said crisis narrative. Their juncture: quixotic ferocity, that most useful of qualities which compels the library-minded toward the increasingly difficult work of holding it all together.
Quixotic ferocity (i.e., idealistic determination, visionary stubbornness) is the impulse that has long motivated the unarguably daunting work of organizing/preserving cultural memory and facilitating its access, which is as given to change, deprioritization, and disaster as any greater good. It is also the quality that we most need to cultivate among those who are entering the field in such (euphemistically) interesting times, when “Libraries in Crisis” gets its own HuffPo section, and a search for “library closure” in the now defunct Google Timeline produces a rather sobering graphic. The crisis narrative (e.g., the library oh-shit narrative) is coming through loud and clear, and we’re all going to have to deal with it. The question is: head-on, or ass-over-endtable?
Which is where quixotic ferocity comes in. My perspective on the necessity of this quality to the survival of our species crystallized in a series of amazing conversations with current and future information science students I was privileged to meet on my Oregon trip and recent elsewheres,¹ who will all (nature willing) help stem the tide of doomcrying from within and without.
I often field inquires from those interested in pursuing librarianship, from undergrads at Claremont and other schools to old friends/acquaintances looking for first or second or third professional paths. I won’t deny that one of the persistent challenges of mentorship in this field is how best to respond to them. I am torn between caution and enthusiasm, left brain seeing the job market and organizational shifts for what they are, right brain compelled to build a viable generation of librarians to be. The upshot is that this is such a good and important path that it’s impossible to be completely discouraging. My advice: to a) fully believe in the work and engage an activist heart, b) develop a broad skillset, moxie, and creativity, c) know well that the “traditional” library market is very, very tough, and d) understand the wide range of information and design work you are actually training for. Thankfully, most of those who proceed embrace all points.
Unfortunately, I have observed that in recent years one offshoot of the aforementioned crisis narrative is a particular strain concerning library/information school students being hoodwinked, undersupported, overenrolled, and underprepared. Perhaps this is so in some cases, but it is also a vexingly disempowering, lambs-to-the-slaughter type of perspective on a cohort of individuals who in my experience know exactly what (and why) they are getting into, and who need all of the support they can get to help funnel their visionary stubbornness into the places that so desperately need it. Not only that, they are drawn to the work with an advocate stance and enough courage to confront a struggling profession in a struggling economy in a struggling information context. I hardly need to point out that those who thrive will be well equipped to make us all stronger.
In addition to renewing my hope for the next wave of librarian and infoworkers, my October trip was significant as a fully circling remembrance of things past. After many years away, I was invited to give a talk at Reed College, my alma mater, on Reedbrarians: Activism, Advocacy, and the Future of Access (slides and audio). Shortly thereafter, I spoke among excellent company at the ACRL-OR/WA conference on Revaluing Libraries: Content, Container, or Concept? (slides and video).² In the spirit of backlog transparency, here are both presentations side/side, mutual borrowing in full glory.
Despite their visual similarity the talks are quite different. The former focuses on why the Reed library produces a disproportionately large and characteristically boundary-pushing cohort of librarians from its ranks, and how libraries themselves are pushing the boundaries of authority and openness in scholarship and publishing. The latter deals in more depth with the crisis narrative in libraries and its implications for our cultural, institutional, and personal re(e)valuation.
The two themes are closely tied. My experiences as a Reed student helped define what I believe libraries can and should be across the human spectrum (i.e., individual, social, organizational, cultural), and fed directly into the spirit of quixotic ferocity I try to engage in my own librarian life.
Another theme runs throughout both presentations: memory, which will help me circle back to crisis and quixoticism. I’ve long invoked memory as a means to compel audiences and learners to examine how deeply ingrained their mental models (e.g., schemata) of various objects and concepts are; from libraries and librarians to educators and learning.
We build these concepts experientially throughout our lives, but they begin in childhood. Which begs the question: What library memories are being built today, in this moment and in this society? Particularly in places like California, the certainty of forming one’s initial library/librarian concepts in primary and secondary school is increasingly uncommon, as is the public library branch to a lesser extent. Academic librarians should therefore consider that we may form among the first direct library experiences many (of those privileged enough) in our culture will have, a reality thick with implications.
I have argued that libraries are essentially comprised of memories; from the cultural record we collect and organize to the individual perceptions that shape how and when and why and if we are used. And collective memory feeds cultural narrative, crisis-based or no.
Collective memory only resonates among those who share compelling enough mental models, experiences, and convictions to be interested in their (re)definition. Otherwise, what remains is a series of foregone conclusions hardly worth fighting for. In other words, libraries mean only as much as they meant when first encountered divided by how they shall be redefined. The two should not become so distinct as to be dissonant, which can give rise to the conceptual polarizations of nostalgia and indifference. Nostalgia is memory that regrets perceived loss, whereas indifference is schemata un(derin)formed or forgotten. Those of us who facilitate the construction of personal, cultural, and institutional library memories must achieve a flexible familiarity so resonant with existing concepts that it continues to shape and challenge them.
Thankfully, library memory is still strong in many places. Our organizations, when threatened, are often fiercely (if not always successfully) protected, as evinced by to the massive advocate energy directed toward the salvation of services in the past several years. But in regards to the library crisis narrative and its more positive analog – the future of libraries narrative – beyond the clear imperative for funding viability in this modern age, library memory turned protectionism (aka nostalgia) comes at a price. When the more challenging and perhaps less resonant measures of our evolution are perceived as threatening (read: technology, digital content, deaccessioning, restructuring, etc.) we risk fostering stasis in systems that should be shifting. Which is, of course, as dangerous as its opposing threat: reactive and ill-conceived change masquerading as progress.
If we lose our agency as shapers of library experience, we risk self-perpetuating the dominant cultural/media refrain in the US and so many other hyperdeveloped cultures that we are being outmoded, displaced, and in decline. Which is precisely why it is incumbent upon us to remember that the library crisis narrative is not only not new: it is constant, eternal, natural, inevitable, and – bear with me – necessary.
Part of the role of the infoworker now and in years past has been to steel oneself to the reality of our own precariousness. The indicator species metaphor I’ve employed in posts and presentations past argues that free/open cultural institutions are often the first targeted in times of crisis; in other words, museums, schools, and libraries. Throughout history and into the present, libraries in particular have been threatened and protected, razed and rebuilt, whether by conquest or defunding or a combination thereof. This targeting occurs in several forms, from deliberate destruction to incidental decline to the more recent (perceived and actual) displacement by digital/electronic information modalities.³ Whatever form our crisis may take, libraries are embattled precisely because our value is both ephemeral and vulnerable.
There is no faster road to complacency than comfort, and the Carnegie century was a time of uncommon plenty in the historical trajectory of libraries. In other words, we have passed “peak librarianship” in the sheer volume sense. Rather than causing us to despair, this knowledge can help make us sharper, leaner, and more able to redefine and articulate what future, precisely, we think is worth fighting for. I’m not advocating that we celebrate unemployment, cuts, layoffs, and other depredations – what I’m suggesting is that instead of interpreting these realities as a new and improved form of decline, that we accept them as yet another spoke in the cycle of our perpetual redefinition.
Which is another way of saying that this work is not supposed to be easy; if we assume that, we have lost perspective on our own history. This is why so many of us come equipped with loud voices and sharp minds, ready to employ each in good measure to re-articulate the role of libraries in preserving and providing wide and open access to the greatest good: information autonomy and intellectual empowerment in the face of bias and the knowledge-for-profit imperative.
My final point: libraries have never and will never be “safe,” but they have always been dynamic and founded on conviction. Therefore, it is high time to recast crisis into the library change narrative that has existed all along, and to celebrate those who tend libraries as innovators and advocates.
Exhibit Library Bill of Rights, created in 1948 and a perfect example of quixotic ferocity in action. The LBoR points to those concepts which should undergird our transition in all its forms: access, intellectual freedom, advocacy for self-directed learning, democratic inquiry, and open public space. At the intersection of crisis and future, our first imperative is to support and sustain these foundational contributions of librarianship and kindred pursuits in information altruism, all of which run counter to the powerfully unpleasant alternatives being offered up.
In sum, may we tilt ever onwards/upwards against the forces that challenge us (ourselves in particular).
¹ Big shout to Eli Gandour-Rood, Lauren Woody, Melissa Lewis, Peter Vanderhooft, and Erin Gentry.
² Many thanks to Dena Hutto for inviting me to Reed and Anne-Marie Dietering for the Menucha invitation.
³ I owe decline and displacement to the excellent works of R. Knuth.