21st Century Librarianship – Part 1

Obviously, I’m assuming that there will be several parts to this subject (since I didn’t actually get too far “on topic”), so there will be more.

I have NEVER considered myself a “progressive” and certainly not an “activist”, both terms with unpleasant connotations to many in my generation. But, I am seriously upset and concerned at the lack of conversation among the librarian profession in general regarding the 21st Century Librarian, and by a lack of leadership of this conversation within ALA specifically. The justification for my upset and concern was borne out by a recent speech at “A 21st-Century Vision for Libraries” conference held in Islamabad, Pakistan last month.

The Keynote address by Leonard Kniffel, Editor and Publisher of American Libraries, addressed Libraries Now More Than Ever.

He began his speech with the opening remark that “The message of the American Library Association can best be summarized in one word, a word we all understand, a word that holds us together as librarians. That word is “Read.”


He followed that with:

“Why do we need libraries when all the information in the world is on the internet?” It’s a tiresome question that American librarians are still being asked despite all our efforts to explain that libraries are needed now more than ever. It’s a tiresome and irritating question. It is especially exasperating when the question is being asked by an agency that is funding the library. [Emphasis added.]

IMHO this is a painful admission (that unfortunately Mr. Kniffel doesn’t even recognize as such) that ALA is not only NOT answering the question (otherwise it wouldn’t be constantly being asked), but that ALA’s “message” has not changed in over 100 years. My first ALA conference was in Chicago in 1995, and my last ALA conference was Washington, D.C. in 2007, and the session topics and general topics of conversation had not changed! In 12 years – NOTHING HAD CHANGED! STAGNATION!

From Mr. Kniffel’s remarks, it sounds to me like ALA doesn’t even recognize that we are in the 21st Century, or that current environmental factors have changed the way libraries MUST do business to remain relevant and survive. Totally unlike IMLS, “an agency that is funding the library” with MAJOR $$$$, that has already recognized that “… the delivery of library … services will be impacted by technology, education reform, and societal … changes …” (Dr. Anne-Imelda M. Radice, Director, Institute of Museum and Library Services) and that has published The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide. IMLS wants to help GUIDE the discussion!

Out of over 3,500 words, Mr. Kniffel’s only 21st Century words of wisdom were; “Information specialists can no longer afford to operate passive repositories. They must be aggressive navigators and aggregators who anticipate the needs of their clients. Our schools cannot be only schools of LIS, they must be schools of LIST: Library and Information Science and Technology. No librarian can afford not to graduate from an LIST and know how to create a website, how to publish an e-newsletter, and how to utilize social networking to deliver library service.” OK. And, which graduate schools are offering that education TODAY?

Mr. Kniffel speaks as if he is revealing a great and wonderful unknown treasure stored within your local librarian when he attempts to visualize the future library.

So what is the future for libraries? What is our vision for contemporary libraries going to be?
Stop for a moment and imagine something. Imagine that you have a personal librarian, one who can tailor a daily reading delivery to your specific tastes and needs, showing you the latest and most interesting writing on your work and for your pleasure and delivering it in a format that allows you to read it onscreen, download it to an e-book, or print it out. The day is coming for us all. In fact, you can start planning now for how you are going to actively deliver information in various media to your community of users before they even know they want it.

He is obviously unfamiliar with “push technology” (explained WAY back in 1997 by Dr. Kenneth W. Umbach, California Research Bureau, for the California State Library), or publish/subscribe news aggregator services like Google Reader, or HyperSuper personalized news aggregator, or any of a myriad of aggregator technologies listed at NewsOnFeeds, NOT to mention simple RSS feeds, and other basic technologies already in fairly wide use in local libraries.

Mostly Mr. Kniffel’s speech included more justification for the 19th and 20th century librarian role:

Let me give you 12 timeless reasons why libraries are good for the country and why librarians cannot be replaced by search engines:
1. They inform citizens and help them find not just information but accurate and authoritative information and knowledge.
2. They break down social boundaries by being open to all.
3. They level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor.
4. They value the individual and independent thinking and learning beyond the classroom.
5. They nourish creativity.
6. They open children’s minds to the world around them.
7. They return high dividends on a relatively small investment.
8. They build communities and can be the intellectual centers of the communities they serve, whether that is a town, a university, a school, an organization, or a business.
9. They challenge you to examine controversies, to understand, and to make your own decisions.
10. They offer opportunities for lifelong learning.
11. They provide a safe haven, a sanctuary.
12. They preserve the past, the record of human existence.


He apparently is also unfamiliar with the “education reform” (to which Dr. Radice refers) in the form of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, because he offers justification for the indispensable librarian as educator by saying: “Try this experiment: Sit down with a 10-year-old and do some Googling. Ask the child to analyze, interpret, and assess the results of a search. Will the child know what to do with the answers that come up? Can children explain a play on words? Can they identify internet myths? Scientific lies? Medical scams? It is essential that they learn how to tell the difference between a fact and a hoax.”

The answer is: “Maybe not all 10 year olds today, but VERY SOON!” And how is ALA preparing librarians to deal with that new wave of information literate customers? With a pat on the back and saying “Keep up the good work. You are very valuable.”? WE KNOW WE ARE VALUABLE! WE NEED SKILLS TO PROVIDE 21ST CENTURY SERVICES TO 21ST CENTURY CUSTOMERS THAT DEMONSTRATE THAT VALUE!

Clearly Mr. Kniffel is out of touch with the 21st Century Library requirements or 21st Century influences driving those requirements. sad……………….

I much prefer progressive lists of 21st Century librarian skills like AASL has offered ( 21st Century Skills in Action in School Libraries), like SLA has offered (Special Libraries & 21st Century Competencies), and EVEN 23 Learning 2.0 Things. I also prefer to listen to implied experts who know what they are talking about in today’s reality, not yesterday’s glory.

So, I never saw myself as a “progressive” or as an “activist”, but I’m committed to this 21st Century Library effort.


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4 responses to “21st Century Librarianship – Part 1

  1. Thanks for the critique of my speech in Pakistan. Although I cannot agree with some of your analysis, I am happy to see it. Why don’t your write an article for American Libraries about what skills the 21st-century librarian needs to have?

  2. It’s interesting that this critique of a talk delivered several years ago to librarians in Pakistan, who were very much stuck in a 19th century library model, still serves in this context as my last word on 21st century librarianship. Where is your thinking taking you these days?

    • Hi Leonard,
      Thank you for your comment, and please accept my apology for the excessively slow response in responding to your comment. Life causes some things to get placed on hold now and then.
      Actually, my thinking is taking me in support of my daughter who is now the curator and author of this blog. Following her activities and innovations at Trenton (NJ) Free Public Library keeps me abreast of many 21st Century Library issues. That and still curating my 21st Century Library Scoop.It account headlines.
      I would be interested in your thoughts on the subject.
      Best Regards,

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