Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Still More Thoughts on New Librarianship, Week 4: Elitism

Though I completed R. David Lankes' New Librarianship Massively Open Online Course in early August, many people did not, so I saved my thoughts on the final week of the course until now.

Lankes begins with a discussion of lending versus sharing, and though he does not explicitly mention economic terms, he hints at them. Sharing, according to Lankes, will allow a library, and a community, to, in the words of former President Bill Clinton, grow the pie.

Via Giphy, as always.
Present in the tension between lending and sharing is the debate between libraries as organizations that are collection-centric versus those that are community-centric. A collection-centric library is less of a public good than a community-centric one, because in the former a lent item benefits one or a few people at a time, whereas a shared item, be it physical or digital or metaphysical, has the ability to effect a larger number of people at a given time. I could bring in John Stuart Mill here, as well as a discussion of rivalrous goods and excludability (both those pages need work, by the way), but our eyes might glaze over.

Slide from the course.

To Lankes, while the collection of items is shrinking in many libraries, it is, as a concept, not going anywhere. The roles of libraries are changing, and the community is now, in many ways, the more important collection. Thus librarians should move away from the word "user." People are members of a community, they're doing more than checking out books, more than receiving lent items. Call them members.

The Grand Challenge to librarians, according to Lankes, is "how to coordinate a knowledge infrastructure (technology, people, sources, permissions) to unlock the potential and passions of Society."

But the death of the user also means a death for libraries. Lankes seems to have forgotten that the modern history of libraries is founded, in part, upon a patron (yes, that word)-client relationship. That is to say, we librarians have something users want. We are in a position of authority and power. The elitism present in this relationship is not something that is going to die easily. It is ingrained into libraries. While discursive structures can be made and unmade, as is the potential with all social constructs, it will not be an easy task.

The library, then, should be a focal point, a place where the community comes together to create and share. The mobilization, however, of the community by the library makes me a bit uncomfortable. Although the library is a platform, the existence of a platform is not enough. If you build it, people won't just come. They need a reason.

There is something statist, corporatist, about the library-community relationship that I would like to see fleshed out. As I librarian, I want my building, my online space, to be a third place, but it is a slippery slope from collaboration and sharing to extraction. We do what we do to benefit a community, not to benefit a library at the former's expense. Would Lankes, or any other librarian, be happy if a community realized its full potential, its aspirations, without a library, through some other means?

Though Lankes outlines the relationship between the library and the community, and though he says the library is a part of the community, Lankes himself uses binary language when discussing this. Old habits, old discourses, die hard.

More thoughts on previous weeks of the New Librarianship MOOC here.

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