Daily Archives: August 30, 2011

Book Review: R. David Lankes – The Atlas of New Librarianship


This is a first for this Blog – a book review. But, I felt it was necessary because of the thesis that Lankes puts forth regarding the future of Librarianship, and the obvious impact his work will have on the profession. It is a good text book, and every serious librarian concerned about the future of their profession should read it. But, they should also question whether they buy-in to Lankes’ “worldview” of a “new librarianship”. I agree with much of what he writes, but I also have serious reservations about much of what he writes.

Lankes, R. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. R. David Lankes is Associate Professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, and Director of its Library and Information Science Program. His main theme throughout the book is a new mission for librarians – “The Mission of Librarians is to improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities.” He has also created a companion website at “The Atlas of New Librarianship“.

This companion website serves 3 purposes:
1. As Companion to the Book: additional materials, extensions, and navigation tools are online and can be used to update content in the book and help you get the most out of the Atlas.
2. As Classroom: online videos, links, and activities help make the concepts of new librarianship real.
3. As Participatory Space: the Atlas is not complete, and will never be. New librarianship is a dynamic and expanding concept, and it requires your input.

He has attempted to make the book more graphical, but my assessment is that it simply transforms lists and hierarchy into images with links – which is a nice break from the traditional “text book” – but was used to an extreme so that it doesn’t really help the reader with better comprehension.

[A hierarchy by any other name would still be recognizable.]

One should rightly be impressed with Lankes’ resources for this book. “The Atlas is the result of more than 100,000 miles of travel to 29 locations on three continents, input from hundreds of librarians and professors from 14 accredited library programs, 25 formal presentations to more than 50 conferences, and 14 publications.” (pg. 2) In fact one should be so impressed as to not take exception with anything Lankes writes at all. I’m sure hundreds of students feel the same way. But, being the critical thinker that I am, I thought I’d take a chance, and raise some questions I hope will resonate with other library professionals. (Not to mention that the words of my major professor occasionally ring in my head; “Once you have your doctorate, you can teach anything just by reading a book.” I suspect that was an exaggeration, but it probably has a long lineage from one Ph.D. to the next.)

My first exception to Lankes’ perspective is that he seems limited in his assessment of the impact of the changes in the 21st Century that affect libraries. In “Finding A Center In The Dynamic” section (pg. 3) he writes; “Is today’s youth culture any more radical than the counterculture of the fabled 60s – or the beatnik generation?” Nowhere within his book did I read anything about the Millennial Generation, and how Digital Natives are becoming more technologically literate than any previous generation, more technologically literate than most librarians, or of the education reforms taking place that are making future generations even more information literate, or the impact of that paradigm shift on librarianship. His overall perspective seems to be “Don’t worry about the small stuff.” – the monumental changes in technology, education and society – and suggests that we should just “… look to the history of the field for the core and constant while looking to even deeper theory of how people know to help shape the future.” HUH? Is looking back really even relevant in a concept of “new Librarianship” where everything is in a constantly changing future?

If we grant that it might sound good in theory, that brings me to the next observation – Lankes calls on a LOT of theory to create his foundation for his assertion that “… this entire Atlas is intended to make clear a worldview of librarianship not founded on materials, but outcomes and learning. … The worldview of librarians has become so fixated on artifacts (books, CDs, etc.) that they have a hard time separating out their goals from the tools that they use to achieve them.” (pg. 15) He goes on for some pages explaining the need for this worldview of librarianship that “… must be independent of any given set of tools and/or technologies because we know they change rapidly.” (pg. 18) Granted, change is the only constant, and granted, we often become fixated on tasks over mission and goals, but without tools of some kind all we are left with is theory.

He states that “There are a host of these theories and concepts that inform new librarianship.” (pg. 25), and by this point one is left wondering if there is anything in his concept of a worldview of new librarianship that is NOT theory. Plus, all the theory to which he refers is old theory (Conversation Theory – his major foundation, Motivation Theory, Learning Theory and Constructivism, and Postmodernism) that he is adopting to create a “new librarianship”. I had to ask myself; “How is any working librarian professional supposed to gain an understanding of all this theory?”, let alone develop a working knowledge of it to apply it to just one of his “numerous methods for determining how library members [customers] perceive problems?” (pg. 26) OK, so we’re already advancing reference practices to accommodate younger library customers who don’t know what they want, or how to ask for it using their different means of communication, and using technology to make reference librarians more accessible to these Digital Native customers. How is adoption of Conversation Theory, Motivation Theory, Learning Theory or Postmodernism supposed to make that reference interaction MORE successful?

By this point the reader has to recognize that this is a graduate school MLIS text book. There is no other explanation for so much theory. As J.R. Kidd wrote; “Theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind.” I’m still searching for the practice to accompany all of Lankes’ theory. His book is very long on theory, but very short on practice.

While much of what Lankes writes is true, it is not especially useful. To state that; “If we expect support from our communities in the form of taxes, budget lines, or endowments, we must not shy away from negotiating the terms on which we are supported. If we allow the funding to continue based on old perceptions of quiet book repositories, we will soon find that funding going away. People will say that they don’t need book warehouses and cut us. Then it will be too late for us to show what we have really been up to: knowledge and empowerment.” (pp. 28-29) obviously holds truth, but skips from Lankes’ fundamental theories of “new librarianship” straight to convincing funding decision makers that the library is now (and apparently in his opinion always has been) all about “knowledge and empowerment”. If I was a funding decision maker my first question would be; “Knowledge and empowerment is what our school systems are about, so why do we need public libraries?” – that age old question that is the bane in a librarian’s side. I’d then follow with another question; “Can you show me how you are providing knowledge and empowerment?” These sound extremely like questions that are currently being asked, and we have no answers now. Lankes doesn’t provide any new answers, so, how does this “worldview of new librarianship” help keep the doors open?

What really threw me over the top on this ‘all theory’ perspective were his ideas of Social Compact that seem to me to cancel out all his other arguments for any kind of “new librarianship”.

Although I have attempted to show you the importance of having a mission, and how the particular mission of improving society through facilitating knowledge creation in our communities is grounded in deep concepts of worldviews, this is still only half of what we need to succeed. Just as knowledge comes from a conversation between at least two parties, a mission to improve society is only effective if it is mutually agreed on by two parties: the party doing the improving and the party being improved or, more accurately, the two parties that must work together to improve.

My point is that having a mission is important, but if it is not supported by the larger community served, it is useless. There must be a social compact between the community and the librarians. (pg. 28)

“OK, we’re finished here.” was my reaction upon reading this. That is exactly our problem, communities DON’T support libraries. Likening the librarian’s mission to one teaching perspective – I can only be a successful teacher if students are successful learners – might as well be stating; Don’t worry about accomplishing your mission if the public doesn’t support you in achieving it. If they don’t want to be ‘improved’ we have no mission to ‘improve’ them. OK End of conversation. Move on to something else. Is it seriously that simple?

But then Lankes makes the hole even deeper for his no-win argument by admitting that there is essentially no social compact any more and that there may well be a harsh disparity in values systems between librarians and their communities.

In many ways, this Atlas is in response to a current social compact that is fraying, with librarians seeking to either reify [make tangible] the old or push the new, and a community that is all too often unaware of the debate.

It is one thing to say that librarians are now central and that the role is in learning not collections and books. It is quote another to have academies, municipalities, schools, corporations, and governments agree. In some cases it is simply bringing stakeholders up to speed with a new situation and reality. In some cases, it is a true clash of value systems. (pg. 28)

Is Lankes suggesting that the librarian profession must now campaign to change the value systems within our communities so that they appreciate the value of their libraries? He admits it has taken millenniums to create the existing social compact, so why should anyone expect it not to take as long to forge a new one? Again – how does this “worldview of new librarianship” help keep the doors open?

Lastly, Lankes appears to be proposing reinventing librarians into scholars. It might be highly desirable to some minds to have a library staffed only by MLIS degreed librarians (clearly ignoring personality and ego issues), but the fact of the matter is that about 40% of “librarians” are not MLIS degreed, according to CareerInfoNet.org, making up the core of an even larger percentage of non-degreed library workers.

This is a condition that has existed since the MLS was invented, and it is not likely to change. Not every person who works in a library really needs a masters degree in library science – or maybe Lankes advocates a master of library arts degree, if it’s not a science anymore with tools to manipulate. All of the ramifications of theory without material tools, working knowledge of a multitude of theories, and a new social compact are ripe with foreshadowing of mission impossible. One of the first rules of management is to set achievable goals. Lankes’ “new librarianship” with a “worldview” fails that monumentally.

My only disclaimer – I have not read the entire book cover to cover – but I’m working on it. Maybe I’ll have more observations after that.

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