Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What Being a Librarianarchist Means to Me

A couple of days ago, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin posted an entry on his blog that discussed the future of the library, and in doing so, ruffled a massive amount of feathers across the librarian community. I saw a lot of derision towards his post, sparking statements like:

It’s always a little galling when a non-librarian tries to tell information professionals how to do their jobs. (from this post by Katy Stoddard)

or another zinger from Bobbi Newman:

But honestly I wish he’d just stop writing about libraries. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a great writer, I think I own all of his books, but I think he should stick with what he knows, and clearly that’s not libraries.

Each blogger goes on to argue against Godin's apparent misperceptions of the basic responsibility of libraries to provide equal access to all types of library materials (and yes, the rabid defense of the book comes up yet again here), and each make some decent points. I saw a similar reaction from many of the librarians and library blogs I follow, and while I do understand where these sentiments are coming from, it was absolutely staggering to me that so many people that reacted in outrage missed the point of his post entirely.

P.C. Sweeney's post on the issue comes the closest to summing up my own viewpoint on the controversy raised by Godin's writing. I too think Godin hit the nail right on the head with his article, and while I would support some of the opposition in its defense of physical artifacts as valuable (and remaining so), I felt myself thinking Yes! Finally! Someone that understands that libraries are in a critical position right now, especially in the public eye, and that there's so much to look forward to in their future if people are willing to shift their perceptions of the function and purpose of a library! And what lends extra weight to his arguments, in my opinion, is the fact that he isn't a librarian. Like Sweeney wrote:

Remember that this guy isn’t a librarian at all. He is library user and an advocate for libraries. He is exactly the kind of person who should be telling us what a library is.


Godin's vision of the future of libraries is immensely exciting to me, and very much in line for what I picture in my own future as a librarian and information professional. His prescription?

The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.
The next library is filled with so many web terminals there's always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don't view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight--it's the entire point.

He paints a picture of libraries as the "local nerve center[s] for information," which is a picture I've held dear to my heart since I was a kid, and one that gets even more vibrant the more time I spend in libraries. I see them as not just an institution to preserve the collective human body of knowledge, but as the keystone of any community and as a societal institution in the best place possible to promote the evolution and exploration of new and innovative ways for us as humans to interact with each other. The vast majority of the articles and blog posts and uproar I've been seeing about the death of the public library in the modern age has been primarily fueled by nostalgia - people that remember how libraries changed them as a child and want to preserve the same feelings of excitement and discovery they felt for future generations. This is all well and good, and I share in that nostalgia myself. But what I'm afraid of is that people will be so tied to that idea as solid grounds for the defense of libraries that they'll fail to see what Godin presents in his article - a widely shared public perception of libraries and librarians in the modern age that doesn't give two shits about your sentimental arguments.

Upon acceptance to the UW, I took on the Librarianarchist persona as a bit of a joke - I wanted to be the most badass librarian on the block, and help destroy the stereotype of librarian as fuddy-duddy. But now that I'm starting to understand where society stands on the role of libraries and how divided we as librarians and info professionals are amongst ourselves on where our efforts should be directed in the face of dramatic social change, I'm thinking Librarianarchist is starting to feel like more than a tongue-in-cheek moniker. The way I see it, in branding myself this way, I'm branding myself as someone that does have a deep appreciation for where things have been, but who is primarily concerned with shaking up those old perceptions and expectations and looking forward to where we could go. And that is immensely exciting to me.

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