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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2012

The Atlas of New Librarianship

R. David Lankes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011; 408 pp; ISBN: 978-0-26201-509-7, cloth $55 USD.

Reviewed by Karen Jensen

It’s not surprising to uncover a book on reinventing library science, given many fields are currently facing difficulties. But this author has big ambitions: “This Atlas, although not an encyclopedia, tries to capture the whole of librarianship … The primary audience for the Atlas is practitioners; librarians in the field.” (p. 11) Lankes begins with a mission statement for the profession, perhaps believing that if we can agree on the purpose of the profession, we will all come together with a renewed sense of cooperation that will rescue us from oblivion.

Library schools are also implicated: “The bottom line is that just as our new mission must change the worldview and activities of libra­rians, so too must it change library schools.” (p. 178) Lankes, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, director of the library science program for the school, and director of the Information Institute of Syracuse, is well-placed to bring about curriculum change.

He notes that we have been debating new librarianship for many years, and he quotes Joan Bechtel writing in 1986: “Perhaps it is an overstatement to say that academic librarians are drifting in a vast sea of information and technological advances, searching for an appropriate course of action. Nevertheless, we appear to have lost the stabilizing rudder of confidence in who we are and what we are to do … I suggest that we begin to think of libraries as centers for conversation and of ourselves as mediators of and participants in the conversations of the world.” According to Lankes, “Academic libraries are … well situated for their next step of evolution to conversations and new librarianship.” (p. 198)

His book determines the course of action and is issued with enthusiastic endorsements: “The Atlas is not a book; it is a manifesto, a set of principles and convictions aimed at shaking new life and belief into a field that too often fears for its own future. Read it and be prepared to act,” and “Deep thinking, beyond brands, down to the core concepts and competencies that define librarianship.”

There appears to be a cottage industry de­veloping that bemoans the future of the profession. Now a perennial topic at library association conferences, the Canadian Library Association has a session planned for next May entitled “Is There a Crisis in Academic Librarianship?” This presentation will explore the concerns, examine the implications, and present a perspective of how academic librarianship needs to evolve in order to sustain its fundamental role and provide crucial leadership in the transforming academic enterprise.

Permit me to also mention CAUT’s October 2012 Librarians Conference, entitled “Contested Terrain: Shaping the Future of Academic Librarianship.” And it is indeed librarians who shape the future of libraries, services, and the profession by working with all the players. Certainly, contesting the terrain fits in with Lankes’ mission statement: The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities.

Lankes utilizes a good term for library users (members, not patrons or users) and describes how the unhelpful term “customers” developed from an inappropriate understanding of facilitation. (p. 66) For someone who seems to have little interest in controlled vocabularies, the author devotes much space to ter­mi­nology. He contends that the words “library” and “librarian” are powerful ones, evoking a romantic and long tradition, entwined with the concept of knowledge and learning. (p. 115) Library schools aim to widen the field and make the degree more marketable by training students in the relationship between information, people, and technology (rather than librarianship).

The iSchools website notes “The iSchools take it as given that expertise in all forms of information is required for progress in science, business, education, and culture. This expertise must include understanding of the uses and users of information, as well as information technologies and their applications.”

Much is made of the “Atlas” and the “Map,” yet this book does not qualify as an atlas in either sense of the word; the Map does not meet current standards for illustrations, much less maps, and could be improved by a graphic designer. Lankes says: “The Atlas is a combination of topical map, scho-larly theory, practical example, persuasive argument, textbook, and inspirational sermon.” (p. 3) Although he seems to like the idea of an atlas, he raises questions about genres (“… a genre approach is an artifact approach”), saying problems arise by growing, radical shifts in the publishing industry and the eclipse of traditional forms of editorial control. Genres influence the ways in which reference is taught in library schools. (pp. 156–157) However he overlooks that genre has a deeper meaning than publication type and that it remains an important aspect of information.

Some ideas are odd: “The most amazing library directors I have met are gamers. Their playing fields are universities, municipal governments and bureaucracies. Their pieces are services and budgets. Before they begin negotiating with unions, they devour collective bargaining agreements like rulebooks and see the union representatives as respected players, as both challengers and fellow gamers.” (p. 76) If collective bargaining is viewed as a game, then the desire to win at all costs becomes a factor. I’ve met library directors who can’t tell the difference between winning and losing.

The rhetoric can be over-the-top: “None of us is born speaking Boolean or Dewey. We learn it.” (p. 34) “So, too, can librarians overcome the crushing forces of mediocrity and cynicism, but we must believe that we can.” (p. 135)

Views of librarians and librarianship are bleak at times. We are warned about annoyed librarians and that the “others” (presumably those who disagree with the author’s thesis) may not always be easily identified: “There is and shall continue to be what Karen Schneider calls bibliofundamentalists. They are educated and dedicated to service. They will not show up in buns and comfortable shoes shushing like some stereotype. Rather they will come with calm voices and talk about tradition and social obligations … There will come a point when the debate must end … We will have to leave them behind.” (p. 172) At the Canadian Library Association’s conference in May 2011, a speaker wondered why librarian stereotypes persist while other professions are able to move on from their roots (few references are made to barber-surgeons today).

Fitting in with the “librarians are not nice” theme, we get Lankes’ view of the differences between para-professionals and librarians: “It is reprehensible for a profession about service to create a class system within their services and institutions.” (p. 177) I am unsure this is the case across all libraries, and, realistically, there are many service-oriented professions where this phenomenon occurs. In Canada, librarians and paraprofessionals often work according to different collective agreements, and there are pay equity issues. But, should there not be a distinction between those with credentials and those without? Bestowing credentials is one of the driving forces of academic institutions.

The author appears to have scars from his activism: “… librarianship is also prone to the cult of personality. Those who are willing to stand up and who can speak well tend to get a lot of attention. You must guard against the visionary without reality and those who put mottos in place of intellectual signatures.” (p. 185)

In summary, Lankes’ intention is to invite debate; topics are presented with enthusiasm, we see someone who cares about the profession and its future. I enjoyed reading about Conversation Theory, Artifacts, Source Amnesia, Death of Documents, Scapes, etc. and was amused to see bibliographical references labelled as “Related Artifacts.” I enjoyed the author’s easy, conversational tone, intermingled with humour. Good point about too many books (Artifacts) in some library spaces, as demonstrated by the before-and-after photo of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Music Reading Room. I think, however, that a subsequent edition would ben­efit from more careful editing and a traditional index.

I wonder why the author is wary of the sorts of responses his work will engender, “An important thing to remember as you read through the Threads is this: to question something is not to seek weakness but rather to seek fitness. If an idea is good or an approach is valid, it should not only stand up to scru­tiny, but it should also welcome it. A major reason for the Atlas is to get the library community to ask hard questions so that we are fully ready for hard scru­tiny from our members and beyond.” (pp. 11–12) “Where you find error or can disprove an assertion, do so. I would only ask that if you negate a portion of the Map, you suggest an alternative or a replacement.” (p. 186)

Perhaps that is too much to ask of libra­rians in crisis.

Karen Jensen is an associate librarian at Concordia University and a member of CAUT’s librarians