Final Review: The Atlas of New Librarianship


Final Review: The Atlas of New Librarianship

Continuing on with more review of Lankes, R. (2011). The atlas of new librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. I was still reading out of curiosity as to how Lankes believes his theories contribute to a practical progression of the profession, but what I found was something I never expected, can not recommend, and, in fact, explicitly oppose. I now regret stating it was a good textbook, but I still suggest that all serious professional librarians should read Lankes’ book and make up their own mind if his worldview of a new librarianship is the profession they want.

When Lankes gets into “Scapes” (pg. 53) he is theorizing quite well. He builds a “conceptual digital reference software system that embodies concepts of Conversation Theory” that is both impressive and futuristic. But, I couldn’t decide whether he was describing how he thought a software system could facilitate real conversation and then store it (oops, is that a bad word – one of those tools we focus on too much – since Lankes finessed away from using it by writing that the community’s conversation “would still be available three years hence” pg. 60), or whether he was describing how he envisioned the ideal human interaction and collaboration in some future existence – theoretically.

I have a hard time believing that Lankes seriously believes that “It is time for librarians to be there at every step of the knowledge-creation process. Just as with the community example, they need to be there helping the community formulate their agreements, helping them discuss it, helping them document it, and then helping them implement it.” (pg.60) Does he seriously believe that librarians should be all that – when he admits that our social compact is virtually non-existent?

One “Thread” of Lankes is “Facilitating”. (pg. 65) (“Threads are a construct – a way of explaining the arrangement and logic that sit around the agreements.” pg. 13) He outlines how your interpretation of the term ‘facilitate’ defines who you are as a librarian, which harkens disturbingly to images of the emperor’s new clothes.

If you are for the people, you are a tool and separate [from the community]. To facilitate is to act on a population. You have users and customers, not members. If, in contrast, you feel as I do that the library is of the people, then to facilitate is to engage and help the community because you are helping yourself. You have members. If you see yourself as a tool for the people, you have a job. If you see yourself as a member of the community, you have a vocation – a calling – a mission. (pg. 66)

I must admit that I like Lankes’ notion of “members” as opposed to either patrons or customers. I agree it does seem much more participatory and partner-like – sorta like SAM’s Club and COSTCO. But, by common connotation ‘membership’ implies exclusivity. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take for the term ‘member’ to mean something other than “one of the individuals composing a group” in common usage, the way language is constantly changing along with everything else.

And, unfortunately, some of that exclusivity creeps into Lankes’ description of his “new librarianship” mission. Still in the Facilitating thread, Lankes describes how libraries of the people provide Access, become “publisher” of communities, share shelf space, and provide meeting space – of monumental importance.

Bringing people together for conversations, particularly the right people, is how things get done…. … [Independence Hall in Philadelphia] was a Spartan room with simple tables. No more than 50 or so people could cram themselves into the space, …. Yet in this small space something remarkable happened. A few of the right people came together and changed the world. Librarians must use this power of convening to improve their communities. They must provide access to the right members.” (pg. 69-70)

I’m compelled to point out that this was not the best example for the importance of meeting spaces, because this analogy seriously breaks down his previous assertions. I can’t help but wonder whether there were any librarians among the delegates who drafted, discussed and adopted the Declaration of Independence, and whether they truly “need[ed a librarian] to be there helping the community formulate their agreements, helping them discuss it, helping them document it, and then helping them implement it.” (pg. 60) Seems like they did OK without one.

And his contradictions continue with his conclusion of the Access Thread. Using a basketball court analogy, he explains the value of the court to the game, but then states;

By knowing how to structure the court, you have no idea how the game will end up or even how it will be played (strategy). What’s more, you don’t even need the court to play the game. On asphalt parking lots and driveways around the United States, kids play just fine. Around the world, they play with literal baskets on hard-packed earth.

Build meeting spaces. Build physical ones with comfy couches and huge displays. Build virtual meeting spaces and host blogs. But remember that by doing so you have simply painted the lines on the court. For your members to play, they need coaches, referees, and even an audience. They also need to know the rules of the game, ….

So, kids can play basketball just fine without a court, but your library members can’t accomplish anything worthwhile unless you provide coaches, referees plus an audience – and rules. Does anyone else find this confusing and contradictory?

I was still hoping for something practical and useful in “The Atlas” when I came to the Knowledge section in the Facilitating Thread (which includes access, knowledge, environment, and motivation) where Lankes begins to develop the foundation for an argument in favor of all kinds of literacy. However, for librarians “To be ‘literate in’ means to be able to use something to gain power.” (pg. 75) Excuse me? Did I read that correctly? Unfortunately, YES! Lankes then continued on down a path I could not have imagined, and hopefully, neither could the vast majority of professional librarians. Please excuse the lengthy quote, but it is well worth the read, and essential not to break context.

Librarians can impart all the instruction they want on how to search and evaluate sources, but if we don’t also facilitate the knowledge of transforming all of that new knowledge into an effective conversation …, we have created a closed loop with limited benefit to the community in general. So information literacy must include the idea of conversation literacy. Indeed, concepts of new librarianship call for a host of expansions in all sorts of literacy.

… Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a handbook written by a far left radical during the unrest of the 1960s … is a fascinating read.

What I want to point out, however, is Alinsky’s take on the word “power.”

    There are a number of fundamental reasons for rejecting such substitutions [for the use of the word power]. First, by using combinations of words such as “harnessing the energy” instead of the single word “power,” we begin to dilute the meaning; and as we use purifying synonyms, we dissolve the bitterness, the anguish, the hate and love, the agony and the triumph attached to these words, leaving an aseptic imitation of life.


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.

Why this trip through radicalism and political protest? Because it lies at the heart of how we are to interpret the role of literacy in librarianship. If we see the role of librarians as supplementing other educational processes (teaching reading in schools or literacy organizations, or supporting parents), then literacy is a somewhat limited concept. …

However, if we look at literacy as empowerment, literally to gain power, then we have a different take on literacy altogether. Librarians, I would agree, need to view literacy as a means of acquiring power – more often than not, power for the powerless. (pg. 74) [Emphasis added.]

WOW! I did not see that coming. Is Lankes advocating a radical librarian workforce whose main goal is to achieve power through literacy? To be used “more often than not, [as] power for the powerless”? Sure makes me wonder about those other occasions Lankes alludes to when librarians will use that power for other than the powerless.

As was asked in a previous post comment by a reader – 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 arguably the most arrogant attitude any profession could conceive. Then couple that power with Lankes’ idea that librarians should be present for ALL knowledge creation within the community and you have what sounds like some kind of socialism or communism – certainly not librarianship!

If the librarian’s power will NOT be used for “teaching reading in schools or literacy organizations, or supporting parents” because that limits the whole concept of literacy, what should we stand up and tell our community we are acquiring power to accomplish? How are we going to convince community leaders to give us that power? Are we simply supposed to take it – regardless of who agrees or disagrees? How do we convince those community tax payers that we are acquiring power for their own good?

Authors should write what they mean, and mean what they write. Readers can not be responsible to apply any assumed motivation to what has been written. I can’t help but think that Lankes didn’t think this whole ‘power through literacy’ concept through to some logical conclusion, or reasonable implementation.

It is unfortunate that anything useful Lankes proposes – which I was still searching for – is now tainted by his “far left radical” “worldview of new librarianship”. I have no intention of being part of a profession that radically advocates for power to improve society in whatever image it creates.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Final Review: The Atlas of New Librarianship

  1. Hi Steve,

    I have a feeling this conversation isn’t going to go much further, but you raise some important issues, and possibly I wasn’t clear.

    Let me take the far leftist communist thing (that’s a first for me by the way, being called a communist, so thanks for that), the assumption here is that librarians are seeking all the power in a community. Like somehow we will trick the community into giving us supreme control so we can distribute the wealth and such. There are many, many groups in any community seeking power from politicians, to industry, to teachers, to children. If librarians don’t participate in this process then we will be allowing all of these other parts of the communities decide the future of libraries with no input by librarians. I’m not looking to set up a politburo, but instead get a seat at the table. I don’t see that as different from your other blog posts where you say that as librarians we need to, with some urgency, envision 21st century librarianship.

    Also, I think you missed some interesting parts in the notion of literacy. For example, I ask do we promote reading to pacify our communities or to empower them to help shape their worlds (like vote, secure a place in the economy, etc.).

    You ask who will give libraries power, and the answer is if you believe that the public library (as an example) is a stewart of community resources through tax dollars and such, then the answer is the community has already given the library power – often in the form of a charter and such.

    I would also ask, that if we don’t seek to empower our communities what do you see as the purpose of the library? To entertain? To take up space? You seem to be mashing up the fact that librarians seek power to give it to the community through services, and resources with some blind power grab by librarians. The notion of expanding the concept of literacy beyond reading and writing wasn’t to discount reading and writing, but that our members need more than that to be successful in today’s world. What’s more that all librarians are in the literacy business including law librarians and medical librarians where we hope their members can already read just fine.

    Also the idea that I am promoting jackbooted librarians who force their way into everyone’s complete knowledge creation process uninvited is simply disingenuous. Libraries must be prepared to support the full knowledge creation process at the behest of the community.

    What I said, with admittedly some more heated language, is that librarians must help shape their own destiny, they need to do so by preparing their members to function in a world more complex than the written word, and that to help create knowledge we must know more than how to hand them a book. That is the basis of the 21st Century Learning Skills, transliteracy, critical thinking, etc.

    As I said in the previous thread I will not step away from calling for librarians to be radical positive change agents within their communities. They must be agents of innovation. I will also not step away from what I perceive as a social responsibility of librarians to serve all parts of a community – call it compassionate conservatism, or social justice, or simply being a good neighbor. If you feel it is sufficient for libraries to stand by and wait to be told what their future is, or sit back and allow parts of the community to be discarded, I will not call that librarianship.

    I suppose we will simply have to agree to disagree. I do have to thank you for taking the time to read the book, and more importantly to think about it and share your thoughts. We need more of that in the field.

    • Seeking power “more or less for the powerless” may simply be your assertive way of stating what you explained in more detail here, but on its face it sounds militant, especially when coupled with Alinsky, and your militant comments in the presentation you cited. But, the more serious issue is who decides. No librarian should even be in a position to say “OK, this is enough power for me for the sake of my library and my community.”

      You are totally confusing literacy with power. OK, being literate is empowering for an individual – IF THEY CHOSE TO MAKE IT EMPOWERING. People who are very literate often chose not to exercise any power, whether they feel empowered from that literacy or not. IT IS AN INDIVIDUAL CHOICE! It is not the librarian’s right to tell anybody they MUST exercise power.

      Apparently, you don’t see the potential danger in promoting the whole idea of power seeking, or a presumed power through literacy that must be exercised. Librarians do not have a right to either pacify or empower their communities. That implies that librarians determine the purpose of the literacy – we clear and simple do not have the right! You also agreed that we can not force any community to improve. “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.”, but apparently this is a concept that sticks in your craw, and I think you would change it if you could. Reality is librarians do not have the right or responsibility to decide how a community should change.

      Trust me! You can claim anything about me except that I am “disingenuous”, because I am totally serious that your methods are way too heavy handed and promote power seeking simply for the sake of having power “more or less for the powerless”. People use heated language for a purpose. I don’t think it takes heated language to instill an understanding in librarians that they must take charge of their future. I’ve been writing that in my Blog for months without any heated language. Feel free to explain the other uses you had in mind for power when used for other than “the powerless”.

      You say that librarianship is “what I perceive as a social responsibility of librarians to serve all parts of a community…”, yet you go on to define that social responsibility in terms “call it compassionate conservatism, or social justice, or simply being a good neighbor.” which is blatantly defining the librarian’s mission in terms of “I decide what’s best for my community.” That is not their right or responsibility, and yes, we can agree to disagree on that point.

      I have advocated for many months that librarians can not afford to sit back and allow other agents within society to define their future. Librarians MUST take action and have a voice in defining the future of librarianship, but in terms of how libraries provide services and how to remain relevant to their community, not in grabbing power to decide what services communities should have, or what individuals should do with any power they may or may not gain from literacy.

      Something we can agree on is the value of such exchanges, for which I appreciate your replies.

  2. Jennifer

    Hm, seems like your interpretation got sidetracked by this notion of radical leftism but that doesn’t seem to be the point. How is Lankes’ definition of power any different than all the lofty quotes floating around out there about knowledge and libraries as being foundations of democracy? Thomas Jefferson is the one who said “A democratic society depends upon an informed and educated citizenry. ” Only people who are properly informed can participate in democracy. Public and school/university libraries are part of the education system in America that produces an educated citizenry, so don’t libraries contribute to the highest of democratic ideals? THAT’S providing power to your community, including the parts of it that may not have access to other modes of power.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, libraries do contribute to the highest of democratic ideals, and providing literacy is providing power to the individuals within your community, but I doubt Jefferson thought of librarians when he made that statement, and there are appropriate ways for librarians to ensure their citizenry is informed that don’t involve librarians being militant about seeking power “more often than not for the powerless”.

      Apparently you glossed over the long quote that I included in the Post where Lankes wrote on page 74; “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.”

      If one hasn’t listened to Lankes’ presentation at the link he provided at http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/blog/?p=1203 or seen the militant theme of his website, then they might be able to miss the militant element that I find totally inappropriate. Librarians militantly seeking power for any purpose is not what librarianship is about.

  3. I am still working my way through this exchange, but via a quick reading the use of “members” caught my attention. We recently polled 200 of our constituents on site, and the vast majority preferred the term “member” to such appellations as cardholder, constituent, client, patron, reader and user!

  4. Good question Steve,
    As it happens I am also inquiring of other area libraries. I will let you know the results.To be precise, 70% of those we polled preferred “member”.

  5. Pingback: Librarian as Power broker | Waycross Librarian

  6. Pingback: Criticisms of the New Librarianship Approach « Libera Libro

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