Text by: Chris
In this post I'll share in a bit more detail one of the (many) highlights of the conference - the first keynote on Day 2 by R. David Lankes, director of the University of South Carolina's School of Library and Information Science.
Lankes is kind of a big name in the library world, and I have followed his work for some time. My own copy of his seminal 2011 work The Atlas of New Librarianship takes up a large amount of space on my desk - though I confess I haven't read all of it! So I was eagerly anticipating his keynote - even though he was doing it via Skype from the United States and was not at the conference in person.
There was a lot packed into the fifty-minute talk, and I strongly encourage watching the whole thing for yourself. I won't try to summarize the entire presentation here (you can find the script Lankes used on his website), but instead highlight those parts that particularly resonated with me.
The first relates to the idea of abstractions and narratives. Early on in the keynote, Lankes references John Palfrey's observation that many in our communities hold out-of-date notions about libraries as "quiet book palaces". These ideas are often formed in childhood, and thus may be decades out of date. In my experience, many students and faculty in Hong Kong certainly view the library in this way. I agree that there needs to be a new narrative, although I sometimes feel that changing the ideas that our communities have about libraries is an overwhelming, almost Herculean task. I will keep trying though!
But before starting to think about changing the narrative and nostalgia for libraries, Lankes reminded us that that we need to think carefully about the new abstractions that we adopt. He highlighted the fact that many libraries refer to their community members as "customers", reflecting our commercial societies where people are either sellers or consumers of services. Do we really want to have that sort of relationship with our communities? Another common term (which happens to be preferred by my own institution) is "users" - but as Lankes asked during his presentation, do you love being "used"? Words matter, and will shape our future relationship with our community.
Lankes argues that we have both the opportunity and the obligation to shape emerging nostalgia. However, we are in danger of embracing a new "data'ist" approach that puts information and data processes at the centre, rather than people and their aspirations. When we assume that data are neutral, having more and more data can actually cause us to lose sight of complex realities.
The alternative nostalgia that Lankes proposes is knowledge, in the sense of truly knowing our communities. This will require librarians to proactively seek out conversations - he talks about reference librarians being in classrooms and laboratories, not to promote the library but to find out actually what is going on. I thought that this was a great reminder for us to try and understand the people and organizations that we are trying to serve. Rather than telling folks what the library can do for them, we should listen and engage to find out what they need us to do for them. This is a necessary first step before we can contribute to the improvement of our communities.
Apart from being informative, the keynote was also hugely entertaining. Lankes is an excellent presenter, and he expertly handled the long-distance format. This inspirational presentation was one of the most enjoyable parts of my NLS8 experience.