“New” Librarianship?

Library of Celsus, Turkey c. 135 A.D.

When I first heard the term “New Librarianship,” I was understandably  skeptical. How could a profession as old as the Library of Alexandria credibly be considered “new”? (And no, it’s not just about the “advent of the information age” Not everything is about technology). Fortunately for me, David Lankes has written a whole book about it, titled The Atlas of  New Librarianship.  In it he attempts to reorient the profession from an artifact or collection based worldview, toward one that embraces knowledge as a function of conversation and librarians as essential facilitators of those interactions.

Here the term “reorient” is important, because Lankes seeks not to reinvent an ancient profession, but to emphasize certain aspects of it that may have been overlooked or deemphasized  along the way. For example, he points to the afore mentioned Library of Alexandria as a perfect example; an institution now often revered and lamented for its lost collection, but which served a far more dynamic purpose in its own time, as a gathering place for scholars and resource  for its rulers. In other words, this model of librarianship isn’t new in the sense that it was “not previously existing,” but rather that is is a perspective “made new; revived or restored” (OED). As Lankes explains in somewhat paradoxical terms “it is new because it is always new.”

His main point, that libraries are about knowledge creation, not the materials in them, seems valid, perhaps even obvious, but it is a far from universally accepted notion. For example, I believe that much of admiration expressed for Bodleian Library (my own enthusiasm included) stems from awe for the sheer size of the collection and the history of the institution, not the quality of the librarians who work there. (Although I’m sure they are impressive men and women). When people advocate more shelves over more workspace, they are subscribing to this same collection based worldview. As a bibliophile myself, this is  a bias I must at least acknowledge in future decision making processes. (But really, why would you ever want a library with fewer books?)  Nevertheless, you can see how in many senses of the word, new librarianship is new; I can already see that some of its ideas will require a similar reorientation in the minds of its acolytes.

References

Lankes, R.D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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