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, 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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26 responses to “Book Review: R. David Lankes – The Atlas of New Librarianship

  1. MLS degrees are a good fit for some librarians. Our branch is more diversified, including staff with a degree in Theatre, History, and an MA in Anthropology. We also have staff who are taking ongoing classes. This makes us more rounded in our knowledge and the help we give to our patrons. So what if 40% of library workers have an MLS; there are not enough upper management jobs anyway, and we lowly “clerks” with or without degrees provide ample support for our patrons.

    • What I wrote was; “about 40% of “librarians” are not MLIS degreed … making up the core of an even larger percentage of non-degreed library workers.”, but that was my point exactly – “Not every person who works in a library really needs a masters degree in library science” in order to provide excellent customer service, which they don’t teach in SLIS anyway.

  2. Tess

    Connie, you seem to be extremely negative in all your comments. Do you ever have anything positive to say? This is the way my Niece used to talk about not having an MLS before she went back to college and got one. LOL
    And I think you could make more of an effort to understand what is written before you comment. REALLY. And honestly I don’t care what you have to say so don’t bother coming back at me which is your norm as I only check blogs once, so I won’t see anything you write.

  3. Charlie Leckenby

    Thank you for your review. I might have bought the book, but now I’ll look for something better.

  4. Greetings,
    I appreciate your comments on the book. I wrote the Atlas to start a conversation and get smart folks like you to respond and think critically. I hope you don’t remind if I respond.

    First you are absolutely right that the book stresses theory, but I think you are stretching the word a bit…I would use concepts. The book is in fact a deliberate focus on deep concepts around the “why” of librarianship, not just practice. I think we sometimes forget to ask the why question and focus on how we do something. Speaking of theory I am a little confused about the comments on the age of the underlying theories used. After all evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, and germ theory have been around for over a century and they still seem to be applicable.

    A few specific comments:
    “Is looking back really even relevant in a concept of ‘new Librarianship’ where everything is in a constantly changing future?”
    This is hardly a history book, and hardly calls for a return to some quaint time when everyone loved libraries. Rather it is more about returning to the fundamentals of the profession – service and knowledge. I frankly think we’ve gotten a bit too entrenched in books and artifacts over the past 100 years, I’d like to get past that. I don’t want to look back for practice, or even theory, but for what has made the profession endure for 3,000 years which is an acceptance of constant change. I may have gone a bit overboard on pushing the continuity of my worldview with the past, but it isn’t a call to return, it is to remind folks that librarians always push forward, and that conservatism and dedication to a certain format is what is new.

    It is true that I don’t see the millennials as some radical new form of life, but youth growing up in a new context, like youth have always done. I also would ask you to look into research showing that youth today are more comfortable using technology, but not in shaping it, and that scares me.

    You are also right that I don’t think we should sweat the small stuff…at least until we get the big stuff in order.

    A quick word on tools “but without tools of some kind all we are left with is theory.” You are right, but this book isn’t a cookbook. If you want tools I’d be glad to show them to you beyond the example programs, software, and services discussed in the book. However, what I really want is for folks to develop the right tools for their communities (I’d point you to page 83). What does your community need? A building? A collection? An app? Build it, but know why you are doing that. You may think it is a cop out not to say “now do these things and here is the software suit you need,” but that is kind of what got us into this mess. I attribute it to a legacy of Dewey and the emphasis on efficiency. We think that one way of doing something or organizing things will fit everyone, but that has turned us into cookie cutters often strange to our communities.

    “How is adoption of Conversation Theory, Motivation Theory, Learning Theory or Postmodernism supposed to make that reference interaction MORE successful?” Because we will finally understand that this is a learning event and that if we focus on helping people learn and understand rather than throwing materials at them we will do a better job. We understand that the reference desk today is the equivalent to the lectern of yesterday’s classrooms. We need to go to people and see their problems. We need to stop assuming that simply amassing information is sufficient for people to learn or understand.

    “If they don’t want to be ‘improved’ we have no mission to ‘improve’ them.’ End of conversation. Move on to something else. Seriously?” Seriously. Don’t get me wrong I would (and do) fight like hell to improve communities, and help them see how they can make better decisions, but at the end of the day, if someone doesn’t want it, you can’t force it upon them. It is like all learning, you can’t force it. That’s why librarians must be activists and not simply sit back and feel like they are nice quiet places with books.

    “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?” Nope, I am advocating that librarians must campaign to change the value system within our communities so that they appreciate the value of knowledge and better decisions. Libraries need to stop arguing that communities need to appreciate them, and focus the communities on what librarians value – knowledge and learning.

    I also don’t believe I argue that it has taken millennia to create the existing social compact. I would argue that over the 3,000 years of libraries that social compact has changed within communities often and sometimes in major ways. The compact used to be access to information for the rich white male for example. It used to be only to preserve what the church dictated. Those compacts have changed. What has remained a constant is librarians dedication to knowledge and community.

    In you last comments you raise a really important issue: what makes a librarian. I don’t believe anywhere in the book I define a librarian as someone with an MLS, quite the opposite really:

    “This identity has even affected the relationship between librarians and other professionals and paraprofessionals. I can’t tell you the number of talented folks I meet in libraries that if hit by a bus, would stop major library operations dead, and yet who are not afforded equal respect by librarians with an MLS. Can’t there be a way to earn entrance into the club outside of a large student loan? Librarians must start to think of themselves as a meritocracy where we take on the power to expand and collapse our social group; to include members and other people in order to extend our power – our power to do good, to affect technology, to further the needs of the community, to increase our ability to facilitate knowledge creation.” (pg. 77)

    I never EVER have said that to be a scholar or a librarian requires a degree. It is true that I teach in a MLS class, and that the degree is important not only for what we teach, but also for the job opportunities it opens up to our graduates. I believe in the degree we put out, but I also believe in the continuing education that I do, and my call for a bachelor’s degree, and other means of getting accredited.

    The problem is that if we can’t define a librarian outside of a degree, or a building, there is no other way into the profession. We must know what a librarian is, not by what they do, or the degree that hold, but by WHY they do what they do. That is the realm of concepts and theory. We have a lot of great practice. From this blog post alone it is clear that you have thought deeply about what good service is and how to push forward. Have you put an equal amount of thought into why you are doing it? If yes, than I ask that like me you share it. I find it in all too limited quantities in a less advanced members of the profession driven by practice only.

    Once again, thanks for the conversation. Sorry this is a bit long winded, but you gave me plenty to think about.

    • Thank you for taking notice and time to read my assessment, and reply. I too am interested in expanding the conversation about the future of librarianship.

      I am partial to the “So what?” question myself, but I hope you’ll understand my perception of your “worldview” as very theory heavy, because of your explanation and review of the numerous theories you propose that inform librarianship. You wrote; “There are a host of these theories and concepts that inform new librarianship.” (pg. 25). I accept Conversation Theory, Motivation Theory, Learning Theory, etc., as exactly that – theory. And, I assumed a book that was about “new librarianship” might be based on new theories. I could be wrong, but I am interested in your perspective on Discontinuous Thinking.

      So, does your reply mean you think maybe the library science degree with all its theory and tools has promoted all this focus away from the real meaning of librarianship? Prior to that wasn’t the service and knowledge passed down from one generation of librarian to the next generation of librarian. Or is it the advancement of technology that has offered up a false compass?

      I happen to think that youth becoming more technologically literate than librarians is a HUGE deal. Like I’ve Posted, the advent and proliferation of the Internet that caused so much stir in the librarian community in the mid-90s turned out to be nothing because librarians retained their status as the “information literacy” experts. This is changing with 21st Century Skills in education and advancing technology that youth are using to take upon themselves that skill set – which leaves librarians as no longer the experts. THAT is a big deal for the future of librarianship.

      I suspect that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and a whole host of other tech companies would take exception to your perception that youth are not shaping technology. And, youth today are such a major economic market segment that companies are catering to their wants more than other segments. That seems pretty significant to me.

      I totally agree that one solution that one library uses to address their community’s information needs is not necessarily useful for a different library in a different community. That has been one of librarianship’s failings in recent past. But, as I quoted J.R. Kidd; “Theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind.” Librarians must have some kind of practical “tools”, whether they are physical, digital, or mental, to apply to the theory to make it useful.

      The point I was attempting to make by stating more theory won’t improve the reference interaction was that too much theory simply confounds many workers within the profession, because they don’t know how to implement it, or they are not in a position to be able to implement it into practice. If today’s reference desk is yesterday’s lectern, what is the skill set that somebody should be teaching reference librarians in order to be that teacher/lecturer/expert? And, who should be teaching them that skill set?

      Again, I totally agree that librarians can not afford to sit back and passively allow society to marginalize them. As far as being “activists”, that term has too many variations in meaning to be useful. I personally oppose your use of the Saul Alinsky argument as inappropriate and grossly misplaced.

      I stand corrected. What I meant to say was that you acknowledge that the social compact has taken millenniums to forge. But, I still think it will take decades to refine a new social compact that will sustain libraries in the long term. I hope we survive in the interium

      I understand what you are saying about the importance of “other professionals and paraprofessionals” within the profession, and I totally agree. My point was, that you seem to be advocating that “librarians” must understand all the theory and concepts that form your “worldview of new librarianship”, which in my interpretation means that they must become scholars – degree or not. This seems to be an accurate interpretation, especially in light of your reply that “I find it [deep thinking about the WHY of librarianship?] in all too limited quantities in a less advanced members of the profession driven by practice only.”

      Much of my frustration with the profession is the lack of wide-spread discussion of 21st Century Library issues, and a seeming lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the difficulties that we face – NOW. Thanks for the dialog.

      • In a way it is based on new looks at theory. Rather than looking for a theory of librarianship, I am saying we should look at more fundamental theories of learning and knowing. I am not familiar with discontinuous thinking, but from reading your post it looks very promising. My own approach looks at thinking and learning as relational verses old school reductionism that has pervaded the field. I absolutely agree we need to look for lateral thinking and out of the box ideas.

        I don’t believe that degrees lead librarianship away from the more core values, I think a whole host of issues did not least of which was a push for efficiency and standardization across libraries, rather than deeper embedding in our communities. Copy cataloging, for example, is based on the idea that all communities look at a book the same way. We also can’t ignore an explosion in publishing (number of titles available, and mass production). It fed into a good idea – collect books that are rare because they have value, and blew open the proposition. When books weren’t so rare, we still treated them like they were.

        I agree that youth, and all of society becoming increasingly networked and digital is a HUGE deal. I think it is a major driving force for change now…just like the printing press and universal public education were before. Please don’t think I would say that each of these changes required the same response – I’m simply saying the require a response.

        I also agree that information literacy skills have become far wider than librarians. However, just as Google took tasks away from librarians, we need to adjust, and the core of what we do remains…facilitation by providing access, base knowledge, a safe environment, and motivation. I also fear that information literacy is going to become a sort of list of tricks, when it is in fact a way of life.

        I very much appreciate that youth are helping shape the market through demand. My worry is not that folks won’t cater to youth, it’s that youth will see others catering to them as sufficient. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, until very recently, were all run by Baby Boomers, and now Gen X’ers. I want youth (and adults, and seniors) to shape and design, not want and buy. If the millennials become a consumer-driven group that buy the right thing, that is bad. Information literacy and 21st century literacies are not about being good consumers of technology, they are about controlling the world and working with others towards outcomes. I think we’d agree on that.

        On librarians skills we are in total agreement. People often ask me if librarians need technical skills, and I say yes. Not sure if you made it to the Thread on Librarianship, but on page 167 I hit pretty hard on librarians (like I argue millennials) need to be tool builders, and digital tools in particular.

        In terms of theory, I hear you. But I would remind you that most of reference practice is a translation from theory. Take the reference interview. It starts with Taylor ’68 and the ideas of the compromised query, and goes through Dervin’s work on neutral questions, up to Radford’s work on the communication aspects of the reference encounter. Most of my career with the Virtual Reference Desk work, and AskERIC before that was in developing practice from good data and theory…that wasn’t the point of this book.

        I understand Alinsky is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’d love to hear why you think them inappropriate and misplaced, but that is probably happening in other comment threads.

        I think you and I are in sync on how long the octal compact will take to forge and the fact that we had better get started. The good news is that we have some really good examples of libraries of all stripes who have already made the leap…we just need many more of them.

        I would love it if every librarian had a equal proficiency with theory and practice…but I’m hardly that naive. What I wanted to show that there is importance in developing a larger worldview beyond assigned tasks. Many many folks will do that through reflecting on what works and what doesn’t in what they do. I just want to make sure folks take the time to reflect. Also, the Atlas is my worldview. There are those who arrive at a lot of the same ideas of practice from very different (non-constructivist for example) ways.

        “Much of my frustration with the profession is the lack of wide-spread discussion of 21st Century Library issues, and a seeming lack of appreciation for the magnitude of the difficulties that we face – NOW.”


        Thank you for the dialog as well. It is how I learn.

        • Using Alinsky as a positive example of being an activist, or to insite people to be radical librarians (as you say in the talk you referenced in a previous comment), is like using Hitler as a positive example of leadership.

  5. Tess

    Mr. Lankes,
    A colleague told me that you advocate some of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” principals in your book, specifically about obtaining power. I was wondering how you can apply a radical’s views in relationship to librarianship, why librarians need power, and what are they supposed to do with it?

  6. Three part answer (specific, short, reference to longer):

    1. Here’s the relevant quote from the Atlas:

    “Power is not bad or evil. Alinsky would say the evil is when you don’t have power. Without power you don’t make decisions, things are decided for you. Librarians need to be powerful. They need to be able to shape agendas, lead the community, and empower members to do the same. We seek out power not as an end, but as a means to make the world a better place. To serve, to truly serve, you need to be powerful so you can steward the community.” Page 74

    2. Short answer is that librarians facilitate knowledge creation, and therefor help shape the knowledge acquired by our communities. That is both power, and an obligation to get it right.

    3. I spend about 30 minutes on this topic here:

    • Tess

      The first thing I saw when I followed your link was so offensive I actually had trouble going ahead to listen to your presentation. Saying that you are a radical and promoting others to become radicals and then displaying an image that invokes memories of the old Soviet Union communism and Black Power movement, that red rays behind closed fist poster of yours, should be disturbing to everyone not inspiring! You are an excellent motivational speaker, but anyone who is old enough to remember either of those periods in history will recognize it as I do.

      I was taking you seriously until I visited your presentation, but I can’t take anyone seriously that invokes anything by using communism, socialism, radicalism or any other form of militant action to achieve their goals. I saw firsthand what Lenin’s communism was like in the Soviet Union when I visited there in the late 70s. The people were rich in mind, but poor in spirit and soul. Everybody in that society made the same income, whether doctor, lawyer, professor, street sweeper, or maid was $235/month American equivalent. The older citizens of the cities I visited expressed to me their love of Americans for the help we gave them in WWII, as well as for our freedom.

      The new world order that everyone seems to be advocating now days is what the Soviet people were living under with communism, socialized medicine, fixed incomes, food lines and government owned G.U.M. stores with empty shelves, sharing the wealth turned into sharing the poverty. I can’t exchange with anyone who is filling the minds of unsuspecting librarians or prospective librarians with visions of radical ideology, and militant activism. That is not what librarianship is about!

      • I can certainly appreciate your perspective and value your experience. The image was meant o be ironic, but I don’t want to dismiss real feelings people have attached to these images. You are absolutely right to be vigilant against those who seek to stifle society in order to save it.

        I also want to make clear, however, that I am hardly calling for a new world order or a return to communism. I am, however, promoting librarians to be radical positive change agents. I feel librarians work within their communities to define a brighter future the community seeks, and then work toward that future. I am not seeking to suppress individuality (quite the opposite).

        I also am not going to be dishonest and try and walk away from my comments. I do believe that much of what we hold dear in the profession was once and still is quite radical. At a practical level the idea of the free public library, unchaining the books, and the adoption of popular media into the library were once considered heretical. Intellectual freedom, privacy, social safety nets, provision of safe environments, and even the perpetuation of democracy were also also seen as radical positions. Remember James Madison was considered radical by many when he wrote:

        “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

        I am calling upon librarians to “arm” their communities with knowledge.

        I can appreciate that many look upon librarianship as a gentle profession. One that seeks to “enrich” and “inform.” But if you dig to the core of this, there is a quest for the empowerment of the individual – to succeed in business, to realize some inner passion, to be a great student, to be a decent human being. To, as Andrew Carnegie said “to do real and permanent good in this world.” The same Andrew Carnegie, steel magnate and one of the richest men in the country in his day, who said “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

        By the way, the militant activism phrase was Melvil Dewey’s: “The librarian must be the librarian militant before he can be the librarian triumphant.”

        Thank you Tess for your comments and sharing your experience.

  7. Tess

    I have to ask – Who imbued librarians with the wisdom to use this power appropriately and effectively? “We seek out power … to make the world a better place. … to truly serve, you need to be powerful so you can steward the community.” is probably the most arrogant attitude I have ever heard. Sounds like some kind of ‘Big Brother’ society – not librarianship.

    Who in any community would hand over that kind of power to a librarian?

    • I suppose it certainly would be arrogance to believe that we know better than the communities we serve what is best for them. This is the problem with condensing a book down to a post and response. The determination of better is ultimately one the community makes, and the librarian is part of that community. We are part of deciding that vision. But only a part. It all comes back to community.

      It is not arrogance to have a stake and position. Is it arrogant to think that literacy helps individuals better navigate the world? Is it arrogant to work for equitable access? If yes, then guilty. If the opposite of arrogance is passivity and irrelevance for fear of taking a position, I’ll take arrogance.

      In terms of who embed us with this wisdom, I come back to lessons learned over a long time about values like intellectual freedom and values like privacy. We are a principled profession in that not only do we hold our values, but broadcast them. Could we misuse any power? Of course.

      The fact is that librarians could have become big brother. We know what you are looking at, we can follow you online, we can find all this information about you, but we don’t. As a profession we counter ability with responsibility.

      In terms of who would give us this power? Well many already give it to libraries, and teachers and doctors if they perceive value.

    • Sam

      I agree with you. It sounds creepy and cultish.

  8. Kay Dee

    I whole heartedly disagree with Lankes assertions. Specifically his statement “The problem is that if we can’t define a librarian outside of a degree, or a building, there is no other way into the profession. We must know what a librarian is, not by what they do, or the degree that hold, but by WHY they do what they do.”


    First-lets stop mixing wording and meaning. Profession and Professional are two entirely different and separately defined things. Which are you attempting to define?

    To avoid our personal bias and emotion about our own profession- best to illustrate my point by using doctors instead of librarians as an example. A doctor is a professional in the medical profession. So if Lankes is referring to the ‘professional’ (the doctor in this example) then the degree is what defines them as such. If Lankes is referring to the ‘profession’ then we must now include nurses, dietitians, chiropractors, x-ray techs, medical records supervisors, physician’s assistants, etc. They are all members of the medical profession, what they do is heal, and why they do it is to help people. The WHY of what they do is all the same “To heal and help.” But they are defined differently by their degrees and education.

    So- Let’s take his statement and transfer it to the medical profession. “The problem is that if we can’t define a doctor outside of a degree, or a building, there is no other way into the profession. We must know what a doctor is, not by what they do, or the degree that hold, but by WHY they do what they do.” Sounds rather silly in that context… Who wants to see a doctor without a medical degree and license? I’ll pass thanks… it IS EXACTLY the degree that makes them a doctor. WHAT they do is to heal and treat. WHY they do it is to help people (presumably). So Mr Lankes is asserting that the “WHY they do it” is what defines them as doctors? I help people every day. At work, at home, at the grocery store, and anywhere else I can. Does that mean I’m a doctor?? Lankes statement would imply that yes…it does. (Yipee! My parents will be so pleased!!)

    A Librarian is a professional in the profession of Librarianship. And, just as in the medical profession, there are many ways in -shelver, librarian, webmaster, academic, cataloger, etc. So, No Mr.Lankes, there are many ways into the profession of Librarianship without the use of the MLS degree…but to BE a professional librarian many of us would still argue that the degree “is the definer”. Can you be hired into the title of Librarian without the degree…in some places yes. Does it make you a professional Librarian? Simply put…NO it does not. Unfortunately, this fact goes unstated too often for fear of making those who chose a different path (one without so many big student loans) feel somehow “less”. But I will say it again, holding the title or working in the profession without the degree does not make you a professional librarian. They are professionals working in the profession; but NOT professional Librarians. Just as a nurse does not become a doctor no matter how long they may work beside them.

    Why is this important as we proceed in defining the future of our profession? Let me put it this way, if you were gravely ill and you could go to one of two hospitals. Both are state of the art and fully staffed with medical professionals…the only difference? Hospital A has doctors. Hospital B has none. Which would you chose?

    We should never define the future of our profession by undermining the professional rudder that guides it.

    • You make very good points, and I fear I was a bit too terse in my comments before. I believe it takes three aspects to make a library professional: Knowledge of learning and conversation; the skills and ability involved in facilitation; and the ethics and values that guide how we put this to use. However, the glue that holds these together is a why issue. There are plenty of people with medical knowledge that didn’t seek to heal, but rather to experiment and hurt. Doctors in skills and title, but hardly in ethics.

      There are also many people practicing medicine without a degree in this country and outside of it. They learned from mentors, or through books, or other ways. Many are invaluable to the communities they serve.

      I will grant you that there are folks working in the library field that are not, nor have any desire to be a librarian. I have worked with many paraprofessionals that are happy to not be librarians and are well aware of the service they provide. I have no problems with that.

      The introduction of the MLS was a relatively recent phenomena. 50 years ago people became librarians with a BA degree, or even a Ph.D. in another field. There are still many countries around the world with such programs. The masters degree allows us to codify and speed up this process, but to think that it alone grants professional status is a stretch – competence and skill do that. It is not the degree that makes a doctor, it is a licensing process held by peers. Same with lawyers. In fact you can become a lawyer by passing the bar and never had a law degree.

      Even in the US a master’s degree alone does not invest you with the professional recognition as a librarian, it must be an accredited degree, that is recognized and validated by the profession. It is the community defining itself, and this is good.

      I believe that librarianship is a profession. I believe it takes a unique combination of skills and values, and knowledge (and dedication) to become a professional. I do, however, believe that if we reduce the definition of a librarian to a given degree and not respect the spirit behind things like accreditation, we diminish the profession. Why not let in people who are willing to learn these things through hard practical work? Why not co-opt brilliant people with differing degrees? Why not acknowledge the resident expertise of people in areas too poor to support college debt?

      You ask which hospital would I want to go to? The one that makes me better.

      As an aside I did a comparison between the medical profession and librarianship in the first 10 minutes of this talk you may (or not) find useful:

    • Thanks for taking up the notions of profession vs. professional. The comment from Mr. Lankes earlier in this thread “but for what has made the profession endure for 3,000 years … is an acceptance of constant change” struck me for its conflation of the term profession with the institution. Not to play chicken and egg, but with the emergence of the institution, did a profession immediately follow? I don’t think so.

      Having researched the influence of the German university and library on the American academy in the 19th century, I would posit that the profession is really at best a product of the late 19th century. At the end of the day, however, this is hair splitting, and my only point would be that we would do better to seek our justification and motivations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and leave Alexandria out of things.

      Incidentally, I wrote a review of the Atlas that will be published in October in portal. Space limitations there will truncate my arguments, but I express serious reservations about this work and its place in our profession.

      • I appreciate the comments about professionalism, and certainly the rise of professions as we know them today coincides with guilds and the increased boundaries of many fields. However, I have a hard time thinking that librarianship as we know it simply popped into existence in the 19th and 20th century. Even if you limit it to the last 200 years you can’t ignore that the library of Alexandria, and those in the arabic nations had a profound impact on what is now the profession.

        I will look for the review in October, but am always open to talking about your reservations in this or another forum. As I have said, it is ultimately the future of the profession that is my main concern, not simply whether folks agree with me or not.

        • I don’t doubt that there was the loose practice of librarianship before the 19th century, but the profession of librarianship is a creation of the latter 19th century. The individuals who staked it out certainly saw it that way, as they struggled to define a professional librarian vis-a-vis what people knew at the time as a librarian, which was a scholar placed in charge of a collection, which has a long tradition. This is a topic one could discuss/debate at some length.

          What I appreciate in this comment thread is that some fundamental disagreements are being articulated, but being discussed in relatively dispassionate terms. What I lament as a librarian is that our discussions are too often either variations on the theme of Kumbaya or vitriolic spasms where individuals are summarily pilloried (e.g.- Stephen Abram). Your book has encouraged a great deal of discussion and debate, most of it respectful if often quite pointed. Perhaps depersonalized is the better word.

  9. I too appreciate the discussion. I am thrilled to see us talking about core issues. I am very much a product of a Socratic “argue to the truth” approach where ideas can be debated fiercely and with personal malice.

    By the way I would really appreciate your perspectives on the professionalization of librarianship…do you have some resources you could point me to?

  10. Pingback: ReadingPower1 10/10/2011 « READINGPOWER

  11. Sam

    Geez, is Lankes trying to develop a cult? Seems like a lot of pompous BS.

    • Sorry to take so long with a reply.
      It is unfortunate that a prominent figure in the library profession would espouse such a radical approach to our basic philosophy and mission. Also that he is indoctrinating new librarians in such a radical approach to what used to be a service oriented profession. It is most unfortunate, in light of today’s political climate of extremism, that librarians are being indoctrinated to promote such extremism – rather than uphold the principles of providing unbiased information for patrons to fulfill THEIR information needs.

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