Alvin Toffler is often quoted as writing: “The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those that cannot read or write, but those that cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” (Forward, Rethinking the Future, 1999) There is much debate over the “unlearn” concept he proposed, whether that’s even possible, but I think it’s reasonable to recognize what Toffler meant (in his own futuristic manner) was what Mark Twain wrote way back in the 19th Century: “Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was, that in order to be a [river boat] pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours.” (Life on the Mississippi, 1883). When I came across this Twain quote, it seemed to me to be an apt description of today’s librarian. Actually, today’s everyman.
Change in technology and education and society and business and virtually everything is happening exponentially as all the “Did You Know?” videos are proclaiming. So here’s one that I think will demonstrate the point. (Don’t stop watching the one below before the end because you think you’ve seen it all before. Unless you’ve watched this video, you haven’t seen what’s happening exponentially in education. It comes after the 3 minute mark if you want to FFWD.)
What does this have to do with libraries? In my opinion, libraries are an essential part of the social fabric of America (and should be in every part of the world). But, the more society changes and the more rapidly it changes, the character of the library MUST also change in order to maintain that vital role it fills – FREE ACCESS TO INFORMATION for every citizen.
You say “OK, I agree. So what?”, and that should be the question on every librarian’s mind – So what? The answer to that question is the motivation for every step of progress for all of mankind’s history. Early man said to himself; “Dude, this firewood is really heavy and it’s a long way back to the cave.” So what? Viola’ – the wheel! (Odds are he didn’t actually exclaim – viola’, but you get the idea. Maybe he said eureka, who knows.) You think Gutenberg didn’t ask – So what? You think Bill Gates didn’t ask – So what? YBBI
I think the answer to “So what?” regarding libraries will lead to a more customized library for your community, or school, or university, or organization, or whomever you serve. (Re-read Getting deeply local at our libraries 2009 June 24 – Librarians Matter Blog by Kathryn Greenhill) In library history, the means of providing services were pretty standard for centuries – collect, organize, and make available “books”. In 21st Century libraries, the “collect” and “organize” services have become more difficult in many respects because of the technology, rapidly changing tools for doing so, and massive volume of information.
The inability to keep up with technology’s rapid change (and inability to influence it in any way) essentially causes librarians to focus more on the “make available” service – a primary core service. What you make available, how you make it available, when and where and all the other Ws of providing access to information are driven by your patrons’ needs, capabilities and interests.
So, in order to remain relevant and indispensable, librarians will customize their “make available” services to fit their patrons. In order to do that, librarians will learn, reassess, and relearn (I’m sure it will feel like you have to “learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours”) how to navigate the muddy waters of 21st Century librarianship. AND, because the patrons you serve are unique to your community, so too will your services become unique to your library – more customized!