Librarianship, Redefined?

“The mission of libraries is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the past four weeks participating in a free online Master Class on New Librarianship, offered by Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. The professor, Dr. R. David Lankes, has authored numerous books on librarianship, such as Expect More: Demanding Better Libraries for Today’s Complex World and The Atlas of New Librarianship (the book upon which the course was based). I’d say it’s pretty clear that the man knows his stuff.

Prior to taking this course I didn’t have the slightest idea as to what New Librarianship was, which is why I don’t expect any of you readers to know anything about it either, so I’ll give you a brief summary. The main idea of New Librarianship is that the library isn’t just a place to store materials, but a place to facilitate the creation of knowledge. The librarian’s job, therefore, is not just to preserve materials and then go find them when they’re requested; the librarian’s job is also to provide patrons with the means necessary for them to develop their own understandings through conversation and reflection. After all, according to New Librarianship preachers, books and other media only help people create knowledge – they do not actually contain any knowledge themselves.

Now, I was skeptical when I first heard this but it all started to make sense as the course progressed. What this actually means is that the information contained in a book (or any medium, for that matter) doesn’t necessarily provoke the same understanding and knowledge-formation in everyone. After all, if you only speak English and you’re trying to read a German book, it doesn’t matter how much information is in that baby – you’re not going to understand it, and thus you’re not going to gain the same understanding of the book’s material as a German reader might. Cool, eh? I mean, it may seem obvious, but contemporary libraries don’t typically seem to operate this way. Instead of trying to help people make sense of materials, contemporary libraries still seem stuck in trying to build their collections. They seem to believe that a larger collection means more usefulness.

But it’s about quality over quantity, my friends. A library could have all the materials in the world, but if no one knows how to use them then they are effectively rendered useless.

Maybe there is something to this New Librarianship thing.

So how does the shift towards New Librarianship impact those of us in Book History? A part of me thinks that it impacts us very little. A part of me thinks that I’m only writing this blog post because I’m really excited about the course and I can’t wait to learn more about the future of librarianship. But I had to find some way to make this topic seem relevant to this blog.

New Librarianship focuses on the idea of knowledge creation as opposed to the idea of knowledge being inherent in books. However, my concern is that New Librarianship privileges the text; New Librarianship preachers seem to believe that it is primarily the text that prompts both internal conversation and conversation with others. Contrarily, codicology privileges the book as a material object; codicologists believe that books in special collections (and other collections too, although maybe not so much) are not just intended to be appreciated for their textual value, but also for their physical value. Codicologists recognize that sometimes knowledge can be inherent in a book in that there is much that can be learned by looking at a book’s materials or at the way a book was produced. So perhaps New Librarianship, with its focus on textual analysis, is not much in line with codicology, and may not influence book history for the better. But perhaps it will. It’s up to codicologists to ensure that the important information that comes from physical observation isn’t lost in the scuttle, and to ensure that library patrons also recognize the importance of physicality in their research.

The video below was the first course lecture to be released. It’s a great place to start if you want to get a taste for what New Librarianship is all about, and you’ll also get to see what a fantastic lecturer Dr. Lankes is. The entire course has been made hackable if you’re interested in learning more.

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