A 21st Century Library Model – Seriously!


I now realize that the 21st Century Library Model in my last Post may seem like just more of the same and nothing really new. Where this 21st Century Library Model drastically differs from any previous model of libraries is in the contents and context of its tenets.
• The contents present a different definition of librarianship in order to confront the changes and challenges of the 21st Century. The contents were fundamentally outlined in the three Posts last week previous to the Model Post.
• The context of the Model is all the 21st Century change that is unique to this century and time. Technology and society are making a totally new environment in which libraries must change to survive.

The context of the 21st Century Library Model may be more clearly explained by Charles Handy’s concept of discontinuous change.
“… the changes are different this time: they are discontinuous and not part of a pattern …; discontinuous change requires discontinuous upside-down thinking to deal with it ….” Handy wrote this as part of the Introduction to his 1990 book THE Age OF UNREASON. I read it during my MLS program, and recently began a re-read.

In the Foreword, world renowned billionaire businessman Warren Bennis praises Handy for writing “eloquently and movingly about some changes that seem as minor as the little butterfly wings, but with profound effects on our weather systems, to blockbusting changes that directly influence the ways we think and the ways we live. He writes about changes in technology, changes in patterns of work and social institutions, changes in our social relations …”.

Any futuristic predictions that get Warren Bennis’ attention MUST be taken seriously! This was 1990 – 20 years ago – that predictions about dramatic changes in technology and society were seen to be poised to impact everything. (The only thing Handy apparently didn’t foresee, or maybe just didn’t discuss, was the dramatic impact of technology on the development of the next and future generation – The Millennials.)

It seems to me that Handy’s observations are more true today than 20 years ago. He was obviously very much on the cutting edge of his time. No doubt the course and progress of technology change was not clearly in focus in his envisioning, but time has given us the perspective to recognize that Handy was 100% Correct!

Handy begins his book with a fundamental example and observation to begin Chapter 1 – The Argument. “A speaker from the floor of the Chamber spoke with passion, ‘In the matter,’ he cried, ‘as in so much else in our great country, why cannot the status quo be the way forward?’… ‘If change there has to be, let it be gradual, continuous change.’ … Continuous change is comfortable change. The past is then the guide to the future.”

He explains the relevance of this example.

For many years, we have viewed change as within our control – more of the same only better, and, if possible, for more people. It was a comfortable view of change, one in which, in the growth-heady days of the sixties and seventies, allowed so many to marry idealism to their personal prosperity. … It was the view of change which upset no one. The only trouble was that it did not work. It never has worked anywhere for very long, and even in those societies in which it has seemed to be working, … [they] are about to see that it does not work forever.

Handy points out that “It is not just the pace of change has speeded up, which it has done, of course. … Faster change by itself sits quite comfortably with the ‘more only better’ school. It is only when the graph goes off the chart that we need to start to worry, because then things get less predictable and less manageable. Incremental change suddenly becomes discontinuous change. In mathematics, they call it catastrophe theory.” [Emphasis added.]

But, Handy has a positive outlook.

I believe that discontinuity in not catastrophe, and that it certainly need not be catastrophe. Indeed, I will argue that discontinuous change is the only way forward for a tramlined society, one that has got used to its ruts and blinkers and prefers its own ways, however dreary, to untrodden paths and new ways of looking at things. … If we want to avoid the fate of the … boiling frog we must learn to look for and embrace discontinuous change.”

The boiling frog reference is to the illustration of a frog placed in a pot of cold water that slowly is brought to a boil, but the frog is “too comfortable with continuity to realize that continuous change at some point may become intolerable and demand a change in behavior.”

Hopefully, it has become obvious that I am citing Handy’s observations to emphasize the need for altering the 20th Century librarian mindset that the 21st Century is more of the same only better, through continuous change that we can control. Technology advances, education reforms, and societal changes are NOT within any librarian’s realm of control, or even within any one profession’s control. The changes are advancing so rapidly that “discontinuous thinking” is the only way forward.

Handy offers the following advice.

In a world of incremental change it is sensible to ape your elders in order to take over where they left off, in both knowledge and responsibility. But under conditions of discontinuity it is no longer obvious that their ways should continue to be your ways; we may all need new rules for new ball games and will have to discover them for ourselves.

Do we always need a painful jolt to start rethinking? Did we need the Titanic disaster before it became compulsory for ships to carry enough lifeboats for all the passengers? Did the Challenger have to explode before NASA reorganized its decision-making systems and priorities? …

Do we really need thousands of libraries to close in order to recognize that we must re-evaluate the core business of libraries, and change our organization and services to retain our relevance in our community?

Handy asserted that,

It is the combination of a changing technology and economics, in particular of information technology … and the economics associated … which causes this discontinuity. Between them they will make the world a different place. Information technology links the processing power of the computer with the microwaves, the satellites, the fiberoptic cables of telecommunications. It is a technology that is leaping rather than creeping into the future. … These … technologies are developing so fast that their outputs are unpredictable, but some of the more likely developments in the next ten to twenty years could change parts of our lives in a dramatic fashion.

WOW! It is even more impressive to realize that Handy was writing 20 years ago. How much farther down that road of “discontinuous change” have we all come, and yet there has been no corresponding conversion to discontinuous thinking within our profession.

Discontinuous Thinking

It is the argument of this book that discontinuous change is all around us. We would be foolish to block our eyes to its signs as those Peruvian Indians did to their invaders’ sails. We need not leave it too late, like the frog in boiling water, nor wait for a revolution. There are opportunities as well as problems in discontinuous change. If we change our attitudes, our habits, and the ways of some of our institutions, it can be an age of new discovery, new enlightenment, and new freedoms – an age of true learning.

Handy refers to discontinuous thinking as upside-down thinking.

Discontinuous change requires discontinuous thinking. If the new way of doing things is going to be different from the old, not just an improvement on it, then we shall need to look at everything in a new way. The new words really signal new ideas. … The creative upside-down thinking of such people [Copernicus, Galileo, Freud, Marx, Einstein, etc.] is the premise on which this book is built. New ways of thinking about familiar things can release new energies and make all manner of things possible. Upside-down thinking does not have to aspire to the greatness of Einstein or to the all-embracing doctrines of Marx. It has its more familiar variants. The person who decides to treat every chore as an opportunity for learning discovers that cooking can be a creative art, chopping wood [can be] a craft, childcare an educational experience, and shopping a sociological expedition. … Upside-down thinking changes nothing save the way we think, but that can make all the difference. [Emphasis added.]

Handy’s conclusion to The Argument for the need for discontinuous thinking to address discontinuous change is speaking to many in the librarian profession today, in IMHO.

It is the time for new imaginings, of windows opening even if doors close. We need not stumble backward into the future, casting longing glances at what used to be; we can turn around and face a changed reality. It is, after all, a safer posture if you want to keep moving.

Some people, however, do not want to keep moving. Change for them means sacrificing the familiar, even if it is unpleasant, for the unknown, even when it might be better. … Sadly for them a time of discontinuous change means that standing still is not an option, for the ground is shifting underneath them. For them, more than the movers and the shakers, it is essential that they understand what is happening, that they begin to appreciate that to move and to change is essential, and that through change we learn and grow, although not always without pain. [Emphasis added.]

This 21st Century Library Model is far beyond Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science published in 1931. But, it is not contradicting Rubin that these five laws “have remained a centerpiece of professional values…”. [Rubin, Richard E. (2004) Foundations of Library and Information Science. 2nd ed. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.] In fact, these basic values are still a part of this century’s librarianship, especially “5. The library is a growing organism.”

I consider Handy’s perception of the future to be our 21st Century librarianship “WAKE UP” call if we want to reinvent the LIBRARY as we want it to be within the realities of this 21st Century.

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  1. Pingback: The Power Of Positive Habits E-book. | Apple Ipad for Education

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