This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is David Lankes. He’s the Director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, and the author of many books, including the Atlas of New Librarianship and The New Librarianship Field Guide. You can find him online at davidlankes.com or on Twitter at @rdlankes. Circulating Ideas is brought to you with support from the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science and by listeners like you.
David, welcome back to the show.
It is good to be here.
You’ve been on the show a few times, even guest hosted, and I’ve never asked you some things that I usually ask people and so I wanted to find out, the big thing is what is your path to librarianship? How did you become a librarian in the first place? What interested you in the field?
Well, I started working as an undergraduate, originally going to be in illustration, and decided that that was a much better hobby than it was a reality for me, and, and, but I got involved in, in working a lot with computers and multimedia at the time, and working with a professor over in our School of Information Studies at Syracuse, Mike Nighland, who’s retiring this year. Great guy. And I was doing demos for him and such and at the end of my Bachelors, which turned into a sort of make your own, roll your own degree program, which was fabulous, it was special studies in art that was put together like originally in the 60s, so you could do like nuclear fusion and expressive dance.
And, and mine was, today we would have said multi-media, but at the time, being 18 and stupid, actually 19 and stupid at the time, it was virtual reality and synthetic communications. Yes kids, virtual reality existed before Samsung thought it did.
And what’s hilarious, of course, is that at the time working in like 1989 and 90, you got to remember this, when we, virtual reality the exact same, you know, hysteria and we’ll all be living online and, you know, disembodiment etc with no technology whatsoever to speak of, so. The technology is much better now but the rhetoric is exactly the same.
But that, that was when you were still watching the holodeck of Star Trek and stuff.
That was, yes!
That was virtual reality.
That was it, that’s how we, everyone explained it. It’s like the holodeck except, you know, with an, with an Amiga. I mean it was just like.
You know, no potential for good graphics whatsoever. But anyway. So, there I was with Mike Nighland, and he’s, at the end he said what are you going to do? And I’m like ‘I have no idea.’ He said well come into our doctoral program and I said sure. And the day they let me into the doctoral program, they were having a nice party, they invited me and I sat down and I met a fellow by the name of Mike Eisenberg, who was on the faculty at the time, and he said I got this really crazy idea. The internet sounds cool, cause once again, remember we’re talking early early early 90s, and I think that people should be able to email a librarian and let’s make that happen. And I was like, okay. And so I started working with him, primarily as the tech guy and built early gopher sites and then when the web first came out we built one of the first 100 websites and all this other stuff, and built service called Ask Garrick and what kept happening is the, as I was learning more about the information world from an information science perspective, all the issues that I, I kept running into, I kept running into librarians who were working on the issues and all the, sort of, great people that I was going wow, that’s really cool stuff, were librarians.
And so, you know, Eisenberg was a librarian, talked about school libraries and working on internet public libraries and some of the stuff that, that was down at the sun sites and such down in Chapel Hill and, and so that’s really how I started working with librarians, getting into it through education and K12 and then eventually in libraries in general around this idea of virtual reference and how do we answer email questions and later chat questions and later video questions online. And so, that just took me down to my, my PHD is technically an information transfer, but really, it was in librarianship, learning about everything from metadata and information organization to the idea of collections, to reference and reference services, and when Mike Eisenberg left to go to the University of Washington, I, they were silly enough to hire me at Syracuse and I became the Director of the Clearing House and Information Technology. And ran reference services, and ran a clearing house, and ran government services around librarianship and so that’s kind of how I’m in there. So, technically, I, I attribute it to Don Palfrey, but I think it’s actually Chris at MIT Libraries who talks about feral librarians and. But, I am a certified public librarian in the State of New York and I do have a graduate degree from a certified library science program, so I guess I am, I am a librarian.
So, are you operating illegally in South Carolina?
[laughs] Shush, don’t tell anyone.
Well, I mean, and it’s not, cause you’ve talked in the past before about how people can be librarians without actually having a library degree, people, Chris Bourg, Buffy Hamilton, people like that who don’t actually have the library degree, but are still a librarian, and I guess you’re, your path sort of leads into that too.
Yeah, and Chris Bourg, that’s… the “feral librarian” I believe actually comes from her. You know, I had a really interesting conversation with a, a library, a librarian at one point, and she said, you know, I’m wondering if your less traditional path to librarianship, coming at it from research and then coming at it from building these internet services and such, gave you a different perspective than those who come through the trenches as it were, starting on the, on the desk and such. And I asked her what that meant. She was you seem to be a lot more optimistic and ideal, idealistic about, of the field. And, and I don’t know if I can attribute that to my non-traditional route to it, or just the people that I hang out with. Because in working in academia, it comes with, with a real special privilege frankly, with all the, the baggage that goes with that word, and the reality that goes with that word. I get to go out, seek out, talk to, much like you do with this podcast, the best of us. I get to go and research the cutting edge. I get to go hang out with the librarians who are making the differences and changing and that does change your perspective. You really do get a perspective of we’re doing well, we do good work, we have, we have a future, we have a good service that we provide and some would say that that, that turns me more into a cheerleader than, than necessarily a critic, and, you know, I’ll accept that, except that I’m sort of one of these nasty cheerleaders, which is I, I wanna, I want to root for the profession and I want to acknowledge what’s best, but, we still have to hold accountable those who, who don’t measure up to where we are going. So.
And, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the impression from you that you’re just his blind optimist. I mean that you don’t, you don’t see any of the negatives and you don’t see, you don’t see the problems coming, but you, you believe that we can overcome those problems, and continue on, and drive into the future.
Absolutely. Any profession that’s still relevant faces the constant questioning of its relevance and its perspective. That can turn completely introspective and it can turn into a waste of time. It absolutely. But, the idea of constant reflection matched to the environment, match the communities we’re serving, matched to what our values are, that needs to occur on a regular basis and not in an incestuous way, but in, in a sort of, a constantly adjusting to a dynamic environment that we live in. And, the more I think about it, and even given the current political situation that we’re in, the more convinced ever that, that this is the field that is really necessary right now, that is really important right now and has a great responsibility in front of it right now. You know, we need to take advantage of that timing and we need to, to really look at the fact that we are embedded within communities, the communities are distributed, the support for those communities is distributed as well, and how we can connect to rural and how we connect to urban and how we connect to academic and how. You know, what other profession truly weaves itself across so much of our society? And is in touch with those that are, that are right now at such loggerheads. I mean how can, I mean we really do span that world, and we need to step up.
And we can. And we’ve seen it happen before. But now I’m, I’m speechifying. So.
That’s all right because you’re actually talking about something that I, that I wanted to talk to you about and that’s sort of working within the new reality that we’re all sort of, I don’t think we’re all mentally kind of prepared for the reality that we’re living in now, and there’s been some, we won’t get too much into the, the weeds of it, but there’s been some consternation with how ALA is reacting to things and how they’re doing that. What kind of action can we take without, you know, what, what’s the pragmatic approach to this?
Well, and that’s the word, pragmatism. And, and I sometimes think that pragmatism is dead. I often times think that pragmatism is out of favor. You know, there’s, there’s this sense of, of one criticism levied against my work and I don’t find that it a, I find it as really interesting and legitimate discussion and that is that I am pragmatic. That, that a lot of the what I talk about with libraries and communities and connecting the communities, that there is a group within within the library community that feels that ultimately libraries are a instrument of a privileged society, of a power structure and realize the power structure. And that the way to correct this is to tear it down and start again as opposed to trying to change from within. Which is a pragmatic view, which is all right. We can do better, and we should do better and we should, we should reflect and do better, but that doesn’t mean that we throw away everything that we’ve done. And, and, and I think partly, this is going to make me sound old, but, you know, as you move through and you find enough battles, you begin to realize that, that the purity of that concept does not work well in the messiness of reality.
And so we have values, we have principles and they are important and they’re crucial and they’re what holds our profession together. I think for a long time, and a lot of what I write about and think about is for a long time we thought what held librarianship together is what we did. We catalog, we organize, we collect, we shelve, we reference, we, we research. And, in fact, what I think holds us together is why we do it. Our values, our principles, education, learning, improvement of society. So, that, and, and what’s interesting now is you’re getting, in this political situation, people who look at the fundamentals of librarianship once again as advocacy of learning, of, of diversity views etc, the why, the principles and the values. Coming directly at heads for those who define what we do. And, which is, well, we serve them and, you know, they’re in power or they’re the administration or they’re whatever and so this is what we do. And, I think that, that you need to, I’m really interested in, you know, I’m, I’m a public supporter of people like Scott Walter who’s out there and saying we need to fight for what we do. I absolutely, but I also know that Scott is real pragmatist, which is the idea that we fight for what we do, we don’t compromise our values. We make our, our known what it is, and in the end we serve our community as best we can with that, in that environment.
And so, that sounds wishy-washy. I understand because it’s complex and it’s dirty, so am I thrilled that Trump is president? No. Should we ever support white supremacy messaging? No! Should we directly counter, fight against an agenda that we feel frays at an essential social safety net? Absolutely, we should advocate like crazy.
Should we, at the same time, turn away people who, who seek to learn, who seek to have conversation and seek to engage even if we don’t agree with them? And that’s the tricky point. Right? We know in academia, we, we, we say we value discussion, we value opposing ideas coming together and having dialog in a civil environment, but at least in an open environment. I mean there, there can be hostility, but there are rules. The rules are you don’t go down # in attacks. You use logic and, and the criteria. You use science, you use that, and so we need to bring those to our communities that are hurting, we need to bring those to communities that are, that are subjugated, but we also need to serve people that are in the majority as well. And, and we do it, and how we guide that is by our values. Right. If someone asks a question, we seek to educate them around that issue. If someone, and this is the big difference, and, and one of the things that really concerns me, when we look at the political environment, and when we look at what our, the role of librarians are, there is one camp that seems to simplify this into a information literacy argument. If only they knew better. If only they had better information. If only they could see the truth. If only they recognized this, then they would have made a different decision. Politically they would make a different decision in terms of how they treat other races and religions and creeds. All of this is this assumption that if only they knew better, and the problem with knowing better is when you introduce the better part, you have a point of view, and, and if you don’t recognize that as a point of view, you can’t begin to bridge to where someone is, what they currently believe, what they currently know, to where they need to go. Right? You can’t start by, you don’t learn calculus by third grade starting on differential equations. You have to start where their capacity is, where their current world view is, where their current understanding and then you bridge.
And, and that becomes important. That’s why, for me, learning is, is at the center of what we do, not this idea of informing, not this idea of, of, of collecting, but learning. And, and this is what’s interesting, and this is where we have to be really careful. So I, we have a program that we’re putting together at, at the College of Information Communications, and it’s a, it’s a seed grant to get researchers to get together and talk about fake news, and as we were crafting the call for that, as we were crafting the announcement for these internal grants programs, one of the early drafts used the phrase “gullibility”. How do we deal with the gullible public? And I just said, you know, there is a huge assumption behind that word, and, and, and I see it again and again when I see librarians talking about well this means we need more information literacy, this means that we need more education and what’s behind it is the belief that somehow it was a naïve or uneducated or unskilled or unprepared populace that made a decision because they didn’t know how to consume information knowledge news properly. When, in fact, when I look at it, this election, if you look at it, was a really great showcase of a sophisticated and strong understanding about how people do it. In other words, this election was shaped not by people not knowing how to use information, but by people who did know how to use information, and, in fact, it’s not that people were gullible, it was the fact that all the science that we’ve been doing around information science and learning and such is useful, and can be put in place, and can be put in place for ends that we don’t necessarily like and agree with. And so I know we’re going to transition to the notion of the knowledge school, but pardon me while I do that.
What bothers me sometimes around the information paradigm, the information schools paradigm, the information as, as a, as information science, as a social science, is that often times we look at method, we look at interesting research agenda, and we look at, sort of, how to describe a phenomenon and we neglect to look at the social cost, and we, we spend a lot of time looking about how we encode, and transmit and decode and use and experience information and we don’t spend enough time spending it on what is the impact as a society when we do that.
We know that, for example, it turns out that the Trump organization and it turns out that frankly white supremacy organizations and it turns out that all sorts of organizations that we don’t feel hold up our principles have used what we know about data and data science, data mining, looking at the variables, looking at polling, looking at how people message, looking at how people read information, what’s clickbait, how it works, all, I mean you can just go through the last ten years of the journal of, of the, of, of, you know, information science and technology, the Association of Information Science at Calchie and you can see it as a, as a playbook. Are we okay with that? I, you know, I think that, that sometimes our, our drive towards information science and the, this quest to look at a phenomenon in a neutral way, I think that library science when we debate the, what’s the role of library science and information, I think that library science should be the conscience of information science. It should be the social justice to the social science. It should be the idea that, and in a very pragmatic way, we walk about impacting consequence and not just phenomenon and study, and so that’s where, you know, we are at a point now where we have to figure that out.
You know, and, and this one of those I hate to be right but, and, god I know this is going to sound arrogant, so half your audience just clicked off and said yeah that’s Lankes, I get it, but, you know, if you are a constructivist as some of us are, that says that, you know, that you construct your understanding and meaning and notion, I think we just demonstrated pretty well between Brexit and the rise of the right wing within Europe and the Trump election and such that yeah, it’s not a matter of exposing people to good information and they’ll come to their senses. It’s people construct what they’re going to pay attention to and how it fits into their world view and that overrides some neutral concept of information. So, that’s the good news. We know how this works. The bad news is that we still believe that somehow there’s a neutral and objective sense to how this happens, and that it’s the same argument about they’d love the library if they just came in the door. Right? If they knew what we did why, they’d love the library. It’s like, well, you know, fairly, they don’t think they need to know. Right? So, we got to be a little bit smarter than that.
Do you agree with the sort of thing that’s going around now that libraries are not neutral spaces?
Oh god yes. Oh yeah. I mean, you know, this is a, I mean pretty central to what I said. You know, that, that we’re, if you’re into learning, you’re into the idea of change.
If you’re into the notion of improving society, if, if you, I mean, something as fundamental as if you believe that libraries or librarianship, however you want to phrase it, are good for a community, you have a point of view and you’re not neutral. Christiane Amanpour, the reporter, her big target, I love how she puts it, she says that reporters should not be about neutrality or being unbiased, they should be about truth, and this notion of truth is that, you know, you don’t give everything equal time, you spend time on the merits of what you present, and as librarians, you know, everything you, we shape around collection development, around reference, around services to the underserved, everything shows that we understand instinctively that communities differ and that communities have different ways of knowing things and that there is a diversity of ways of coming to understanding and yet there still prevails this massive narrative around the idea that we’re somehow objective or neutral. And so, that, the question isn’t are we neutral or not. We’re not. The question then becomes are we political or not? And I say we are. We’re political, we deal with power. We deal with the distribution of power.
We deal with how we represent it, how we utilize it, how we distribute it, how we gather it. That’s politics. Then it becomes are we ideological? And that’s where, I think, that may be the pragmatic way of stopping and saying well wait, hold on. We don’t necessarily say we are conservative or progressive. We clearly, by the way, as a populace, as individuals lean on one side of that, but, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t recog, we must recognize that what we’ve been calling neutrality and objectivity is really the concept of say people come from different ways of understanding the world, we need to respect them and we need to start from where they understand the world and move them to where, and, and that’s the, that’s the hard part, move them to where? Move them to where? Frankly, a rational, call it scientific, call it evidence based, call it whatever you want, call it civic and civil space, and that’s where our values come in. Every value we have, even from our 1935 statement, accept the object, objectivity one, talk about a perspective that we want to bring people to.
I, I think sometimes that comes across as, you know, well we’re open to all ideas and stuff, that doesn’t mean that you’re neutral.
Here’s the trick. Everyone wants, and this where we come back to the death of pragmatism or the value of pragmatism. It is complex, it is contextual, it is messy, and we can no longer hide behind our stacks and our collections and our policies and pretend that it is not an intimately human endeavor that we engage in. And one of the things I was just talking in another library science program, one of the things that we don’t do a good job of preparing librarians for is being truly comfortable in their own skin and the messiness of the context around them. That, that when you talk about that perspective mattering, when you talk about professionalism, when you talk about, we still have value outside of the collections, we can still provide the skill layer, we can still guide and help communities engage in conversations and learn and come up with aspirations and all this other stuff. It involves a librarian feeling that they have value, that they are comfortable in their group proclaiming that value, and that they are comfortable as the agent of the, the, the organization itself. Now, once again, that sounds really, really pie in the skyish, but it comes down to the idea that if you’re gonna move from behind the desk to sitting beside a patron, learning, you have to be really comfortable with not having that piece of furniture between you.
And that means that you need to be really comfortable with messiness and complexity. And that is a professional skill, that is something that can be taught. And it doesn’t come from how it organize books, but it does come from how we reflect our personal ethics values and skills and project them out.
I have, I feel like just because that moral arc of the universe is not making a sharp right turn to justice, that we’re having this, having to bend the torch justice, that you don’t, you don’t just say well we have to have everything we want now, it’s that, anyway. I agree 100% with the pragmatism, you have to work within the real world, even though you can, we have to take action against things that we don’t agree with.
And you have to, and you can speak out against things you don’t agree with, but you have to deal with things you don’t agree with.
Right, and, and it’s one of those things that, that in the political world that we’re in, where there’s so much wonderful, wonderful righteous passion on both sides of this thing, and I mean wonderful in the sense that this means that there’s a level of engagement and concern. If we take that out of that context for a moment and we, and you take it to something like story time, and people, you know, like talk about going from an, the universal arc towards justice, which is a lovely phrase, to story time may sound like a really interesting arc towards insanity. When do we offer story time? Well we offer it during the day. Why do we offer it during the day? Because that’s when the kids are, you know, younger kids are home. Okay. If we look at census data, that’s also when their parents are at work. And so, what you’re saying is you’re offering story time that is aimed to people that either can afford to have one parent at home, can afford to have parents that have nannies that can bring their kids on or afford an after-school program that can organize them. Right? Now, that’s going to be community by community right? So, some communities that’s going to be true, others it’s not. But, that concept of okay, who are we serving here, how do we serve dual-income families, single parent families that may be working three jobs, where they have lock-in and, and latchkey kids, how do we serve them? And if we serve them, do we disadvantage the fact that, you know, this parent can, can spend time with their kid at the library during the day versus working at a job? You know, that’s the same conflict that we deal with and as librarians it comes to us to make decisions, and we can survey the hell out of our community and we can look for the input all we want but it still comes down to our professional judgment on what we do. So, something, so I realize story time and whether you buy Trump’s books and whether you march on Capitol Hill is all of a piece, which is the notion that as librarians we have argued for the necessity of professional librarians. If librarians feel that they have professional values, if they are going to represent and be a core agent in a community, that they’re going to improve their community, that means that they do have points of view and they need to accept it, it’s all part of the same brush that is its all part of this notion that to engage our communities, to become one with our communities, but at the same time serve a special role means we need to understand our value and we need to understand that that’s a, is a perspective and there’s no such thing as neutral value.
Let’s take this opportunity to make a switch and sort of, not, not really switch, but just in a different way of talking about this and a way that we can take action is a way that something that you’re doing at the University of South Carolina and I don’t know if this is part of, you can kind of talk about this if this kind of part of what you wanted to do as you accepted the position, but the creation of what you’re calling it, you’re calling the knowledge school. So, if can, can you kind of approach it from that point first of, when you first took on, agreed to take on the position as the director of the School of Library and Information Science, was this, sort of, in your head, is this like, do you see this as a someone, I wouldn’t say culmination because that means it’s the end, but as a continuation of the work you’ve done in the Atlas of, all the new librarianship stuff that you’ve done, is it, is it kind of leading to this? And, hopefully beyond too.
It’s the next step. It, it’s, it’s the idea of we can talk and think about it and building the fundamental concepts around it and, and having these delightful, you know, 30 thousand foot conversations about value and neutrality and power is wonderful, and I enjoy it greatly, but ultimately it comes down to the fact of does it make a difference. And, and making a difference as a faculty member at a library of information school is one thing, making an impact as an administrator who can help build a platform for other people to do it is, is the next step. We need to look at how we can get curriculum work done and, and we’re, the knowledge school comes from, it actually started a little bit after the Atlas was out, and, and I’d just like to take this moment to, if Lane Wilkinson is listening, I love ya Lane and I will expect notes on how I’ve gotten my epistemology completely screwed up on knowledge, but, this idea that, and as you were talking about truth and belief any, and I don’t think we fundamentally disagree, but I’m not a big fan of the word information, and I, once again, having a, being the director of a school of library and information science that may seem odd.
But it, it’s hard to define. It’s hard to understand, it’s hard to quantify and we use it, I, I talk about sort of as a professional conversational lubricant, we just sort of spread it around and we all kind of figure out where we’re going and it’s okay if you don’t spend too much time looking at what it is. And so for several years I put this out and said you know, we’re really in the knowledge business, meaning we’re about what people know, we’re about what, how people learn, how they see the world, how they interact with the world. And so I was asked at the end of, you know, one of these talks, he goes all right, so, you know, and this was sort of during the iSchool do we call them iSchools or information schools, do we drop the word library etc. And someone said all right, so what, what kind of school would you run if you could run a school, what would you call it? Would you call it an information school, would you call it a library school? And I look, and I thought about it and I said you know, I’d call it a knowledge school because what we want to do is we want to prepare librarians and others, we can talk about that in a moment, about, you know, helping our communities get smarter. Right? What is, what is the impact? What, ultimately what is the role and goal and impact of the library and information science academy? Right? Whether that’s a school in San Jose or in Chicago or in Columbia, South Carolina.
If what we’re doing is what we want to do, is we want to help communities make better decisions, and in order to do that, we need to speed and, and, and excel at making it easy for people to learn, and make better decisions. Right?
Whether that decision is about how we spend our money and taxes, whether that decision is about what we charge in tuition, whether that decision is about what kind of medical care. Whatever the community is, whatever the decision, we want them to make that based on values, and those values are, sort of, investigative thought, critical thinking, that notion of weighing evidence, of looking and seeing what our primary values and principles and ethics are, and then bringing that to our decisions. And so if, that’s the contribution we want to make, and I think one could argue that stems from a very long tradition in library science, I think that stems from a couple of millennial of trying to build and provide library services, how does that look in today’s world? Cause it’s going to change. Right? How does that look when, in a world of meta data and surveillance. How does that look in terms of walled gardens in a consumer culture. How does that look in terms of, of political system. How does it look in terms of democratic participation. And so that’s the contribution I think that our field can make, and it comes back to that beginning, which is, it’s not just understanding how information, how we learn and how systems can help us do that and the consequences. It is about the consequences, it is about the impact that we’re doing. And so, what we’re seeking to do with the knowledge school concept is yes, look at the curriculum and making sure that we’re preparing librarians to work in libraries that are, are, are not only skillful, but reflective, and agile, and valuable. That we prepare librarians who don’t work in libraries, that are skillful, and agile, and will increasingly, we feel, work in other industries, not just at # and not just at Gale Cengage and not at, but also at Google and Yahoo and banking sector and government sector and not-for-profit sector.
And fundamental to the, to the view and value of our school and I hope our field, is that if librarianship and librarians are valuable in that vision, ensuring their continued relevance and their continued ability into the future is a generational problem. This is not something that we’re just going to put out a few scholarships and fix. This is not something that as long as we can have IMLS in the next federal budget all will be well. We need to shift an entire culture to understand that value, and that means not only preparing great librarians, but preparing the bankers and the mayors and the board members and the principals and the provosts that are going to eventually hire, support and value librarianship, and that’s why we’re looking to expand our undergraduate program. Not because we can get more students and technology’s cool and if we can get a bunch of people working for bankers, but we need people to go into Volkswagen who understand ethics. We need people to go into, you know, the, the banking sector and understand ethics, and we need people that have the values and principles of librarians, but the skills of project management and information technology to take across all sectors, that will eventually benefit librarians as well.
In the past, sort of, library education has been well you will get a masters degree and that is your library education, or if you want to go beyond that, you’re going to get a doctorate, but we are masters level completely. So, how do you see that extending down to, not I mean down as in a bad thing, to, to undergraduate programs as well. Like, what, what, what do you see as the different agents sort of, of what an undergrad in this sort of program would come out of it with as opposed to a masters as opposed to a doctorate? If that’s not too broad a question.
No, no, no. I, and it’s, it’s a question that we’ve been working on, thinking about and will continue to do so. We know that there are, there are library and information science schools, information science schools where they have really strong, really strong, really cool, really big undergraduate programs. That when the undergraduates learn that there’s a library science degree given out by the same schools, normally at graduation when they look around and they’re going what are the people in the funny yellow hoods doing here. We don’t want to be that. Right? We don’t, we don’t, we want, it’s a rare 18 year old, I call them unicorns, that knows at 18 they want to go to college to be a libe, a librarian. We found them, they’re great, we love them, but it’s a rare person that does it. And the other problem is if all we get are people who want to go into the library world, then we don’t get this sort of generational effect, we don’t take the values and understandings, we don’t take the appreciation, and move it outside of our own sector. We just become very internal and very, very self-congratulatory and self-feeding. So we need to say what is it that we need everyone in society to know about librarianship? Whether they are a banker or a programmer or whatever. And that needs to be part of the curriculum. But then we prepare people in the information science world to understand the transfer of information, the organization of information, project management, the technology for manipulating information and I know I said I dismissed the word information. Don’t call me on my own contradictions. We’ll get back to that. But, there is skill sets that they can take outside of it and so not to look at our undergraduate program as completely divorced from library science, but also not looking at it as a, simply as a feeder into the masters program, and not looking at the, the graduate of our, our undergraduate program, but frankly the graduate of any information science program as, sort of, librarians liked. I mean, so, so you don’t have a masters degree so we can pay you half as, half as little as many librarians and you can come in and you can run our MySpace page, I realize that’s an anachronism. We don’t want to be in that world. We want to, we, we’ve seen that from Syracuse and we’ve seen Washington and we’ve seen other really strong programs that prepare undergraduates in information science worlds, That go out and they have great value to Fortune 500 companies, consulting companies. We want to provide that value, but we also want to make sure that when they go out, they see the value of the social justice side of this. That they go out with principals, that they go out worrying about impact. And so, that’s one of our, we want to prepare people who can work, yes, in business, but also in government, in not-for-profits, can be CIO’s, can be Chief Knowledge Officers, can start NGOs and go work abroad. Those are the folks that we want to come out of this program. Great skills, but also a great commitment to making society better.
You’re, you’ve just completed your first semester at South Carolina. How do you feel it’s going so far? Because I, we should say that the knowledge school concept is sort of, you’re still building it, you’re being very collaborative and making, having groups come in and talking about it and helping to build together, but how do you feel it’s gone for this first semester?
It’s gone really, you know, I, part of the, part of what drew me to South Carolina was this sense of action and research combined. So, so we talk about research. I’d like to talk about the word scholarship because to me scholarship incorporates not only the methods and validity and, and sort of the, the empirical and theoretical portions, but also, the application and the implications of what we’ve done.
Right? So, you know, kind of a trite example but Einstein didn’t just give us the theories that lead to things like the atomic bomb, he also spent a fair amount of time warning us about what would happen because of it. And so, what I saw at South Carolina and what I, I see at other schools, but I want to see more broadly is this notion of social impact. For example, so South Carolina has some amazing and wonderful schools. South Carolina also has some schools that are frankly deplorable. And, I mean, you know, it’s, it’s the nature of, of not, I mean, just about every state can talk about that. Some it’s inner cities, some it’s very rural, but this notion that right now in South Carolina there’s a literacy problem. And that literacy problem is that is if kids don’t read at reading level by third grade, the chances of them making it through high school go down dramatically. The, their potential income drops dramatically, their level of participation, in civic participation, drops dramatically. And so literacy becomes an issue, not only of isn’t it cute and boy don’t we like people to read for pleasure, it becomes a matter of going if we want a thriving society, literacy becomes essential to a work force in democratic participation. If that’s true, we not only need to study it and get concerned, we buy a bus, I swear to god they bought a bus, and they put the mascot of the University on it, Cocky, and they go out to the most rural locations in the state to what’s called Title One, unprivileged schools, and they not only give out free books, but they show athletes reading, they have undergraduates coming from every program on the university to talk about the importance of reading and tell stories and then also model the fact that these kids can go to college, even if they are in one of these things. That kind of, that’s what drew me.
I have a, Karen Gavigan, amazing faculty member, she studies the use of graphic novels in school media programs. Okay, that’s interesting. She’s, not only does she study them, but she and, and a fellow colleague went into a juvenile detention facility and worked with gang members and former gang members to create graphic novels about the impact of Aids in society. Didn’t write a paper about it, but went out and found an illustrator and published this book. That kind of, of, of understanding good science meets good social impact, not only doing well but doing good, that’s what brought me down here, and as I look across the sort of iSchools and information school movement, I would see increasingly a lot of discussions around why are we here, what, what do our researchers have in common, a huge amount of, sort of, rediscovering bibliometrics from the 1970s where they would look at publishing output and they would classify them and they’d say gee this school has this kind of profile and now it’s, and, and, this is where, how we can bring undergraduates in and how many undergraduates do we have and what are the skill sets of the undergraduates and I kept wanting to say and why do we care?
The why we care is once again because we can begin preparing people to change the, the society for the better, that we can improve the, sort of, knowledge infrastructure of the world to make learning more efficient and fast and help communities make better decisions. So, so that, I’m going to look something up here really quickly, one of this, and this isn’t just Dave being on high, I, I hardly think that I’m making this all, you know, this is out of my head and my agenda. Clearly, this was an agenda going on in South Carolina and elsewhere.
I was part of an ALISE panel with Seamus Ross who was the former dean at the University of Toronto, and we did a panel on ethics in library science education. And he said you know, we keep wrestling with what is our curriculum in information science and how does it vary from library science and what holds it together and he said I think, you know, his argument was, and I thought it was brilliant, was it’s our values, and, and he’s the one that came up with the imagine the VW diesel gauge strategy if they were our, graduates of our programs working in the IT for VW would have happened. Now that’s, that’s a, that’s a lovely pregnant question. But, that sort of fun experiment gets back to what are preparing people to do. What are we preparing our researchers to do. What are we preparing our students to do. How do we reward our scholars. Is it just because they got a big NSF grant or is it because an NSF grant came because they were doing good stuff. I look across my field and I see people like Joe Janes in Washington and I see Marcia Mardis down in Florida and I see Seamus up in Toronto and I see, you know, I see people who care deeply about this, and, and by the way, this is not new as well. You, you’ve got, you know, McCook’s work in, on advocacy and such. Wendy Newman and, and people looking at the social justice aspect and critical theory aspect and, and what’s, I think that we’re this, this wave where people, people are ready to get back into the idealism.
When I joined the information school as a doctoral student, way back to the beginning of our conversation about my path, there was this optimism around technology. It was an optimism as computing got smaller, as the internet became real, as we began having telecommunication networks that connected everyone. There was this sort of techno utopia sense that this would be, you know, John Perry Barlow was talking about an internet society that had its own government and this idea that it was going to break down the gray firewall of China and such. And, and we’ve lost that. We’ve lost that for a couple of reasons. One, it was very much built around a, a technological determinism. Somehow technology was the only thing we needed to fix in society, when in fact it’s much more about race and power and, and privilege and gender and identity. But, it was also this loss because we be, there was so much for us to study and you could make such great leaps, and we, we, we got so devoted into data and we get, we get more and more data, and we get through more and more data added, and Google came out and suddenly search engines were amazing, and we just began to not question the fact that wait, were we doing all this to make the world a better place? And, and I, I sense not only here in South Carolina, but as I talk across the country and across the world, there is a strong desire on the part of library and information scientists to regain the conscience, to regain the, the, the discussions of ethics and values, to once again embrace ourselves as an instrument of social justice, an instrument of social equity, an instrument of improvement. And it’s complex, and it’s wicked and it’s nasty and people who hear this, some will say that’s not my job as a librarian, I’m to be neutral, and some will listen to this and go oh Lankes doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, he’s still part of that structure. But at least we can begin to have that conversation.
And, so we can take brilliant minds and brilliant technology and brilliant people and brilliant communities and put them together and say all right, I don’t, yes we can talk about the presidential election but I want to know what’s going to help main street tomorrow. I want to know when I drive this bus into Union County, South Carolina, how I can help kids that don’t have access to education be better.
I want to know in rural Maine where even internet access is hard because of the, you know, the, how the satellites hit the, the surface of the earth, how these people are not disenfranchised. That’s a conversation that, once again, regardless of, of the political outcome at the national level, we need to be at the local level. And local isn’t just, isn’t just public libraries. Local is in your academic library. Look at what happens in medical settings as the medical field has gone towards the notion of patient-centric care. And treating people not just as a series of symptoms and diseases, but as people, you know, that and having an academic library that can prepare doctors to do that. That’s local. And so, that’s why I think this is the right time for librarianship, it’s the right time for information science.
It’s, all right, what is my community need to improve? First, they probably need to have a big conversation about what they, they and we, as part of the define as improve, and then we need to sit there and say these days that’s going to involve increasing the technology, access to networks, access to reports, and study and data and different opinions and different views and that’s what librarians do. And so that’s what we need to be doing on a local basis. Do we need advocacy against misogyny and, and, and, and power against diversity and the silencing of ours? Yes, we need to advocate against that, we need to have an active voice at the professional level. But we also need healthy libraries at the local level that spend a lot of time because they know that local community by name.
So I had reached a point, and I think people listening to this, if you’re listening to it when it sort of first comes out you’ll have seen that I haven’t had a new episode of this for, four or five points at that point. I had kind of hit a wall and I’ve always found your work to be inspirational, which I think I, people should not find obvious since you’ve been on 8,000 times. But, kind of, hearing about the stuff that you’re doing in South Carolina, the new knowledge school stuff, really started to sort of rekindle what I was wanting to do in the profession and I, I kind of, I, I don’t communicate it as well as you do, but I, a lot of what you’ve said is kind of exactly what I think of as librarianship. So, it’s, it really kind of energized me a little bit, and that lead this to kind of cut off some conversations between us and we’ve agreed to have a partnership together to sort of, from my end it was good, it was good timing because I, I needed that, I need something to inspire me again and it has. So, what, what about it, and I will say you reached out to me sort of first, so what, what was your kind of idea behind what we’re hoping to do here?
So, in, in, in the light of a mutual admiration society, I’ve always, I love the work you do, but I’ve always really respected the concept of Circulating Ideas and taking that title as a mission statement. You know, I, I like how you present and talk about the reason you do a podcast is so that you can learn, but really, you can go out, discover, hear from interesting people, discuss those ideas and then get them out so that the rest of the community can see them. So, that, the idea of Circulating Ideas, I think fits beautifully into where, where we’re trying to go in South Carolina, around this knowledge school notion which is we have some ideas that we’re working on, we have these ideas around knowledge and putting learning center. We have ideas about, you know, public responsibility of scholarship, and so those are ideas that we want to get out into, into circulation. And to get feedback on, and so reaching out to you was the idea that 1) we’d like to support the work you’re doing, and so the idea of sponsoring what you’re doing.
But then the other one, and, is as we go through this exploration, talking amongst ourselves, we want to go out and talk to interesting people from the field, talk to academics, talk to librarians, talk to people who aren’t in the library field about what this knowledge school might look like at undergraduate level, at graduate level. And, all right, so we can collect that for ourselves and that’s great, and we’ll learn, and that’s great, but these are ideas that we think and conversations that would be useful to the profession at large and so how do we get that out? Do we come up with yet another podcast? Sure. Could we put it on our website and hope people come see us? Sure. I’m much more interested in supporting good, good people and good tools that are existent. And so, that is the idea of can we support Circulating Ideas in general and then as we are doing this exploration, can we also use it, partially as a platform to get those ideas out, and to get people to discuss them.
The concept we’re working on is we believe this content’s really important because as a profession, you know, what the future of library schools is a, is an important question. Should we have them? What that, should they be doing. What’s the shape. So I think the content and the folks we talk to about everything from technology and curriculum fits into this concept of the knowledge school so your, your audience will be interested in it, and I know that the audience will continue to be and we’re always interested in hearing from the stars in the field. I personally, you know, when you interview ALA potential presidential candidates, that’s always really useful to me as well. So, we want to support the work you’re doing and we also want to use and abuse the platform you’ve created to spark the larger conversation.
Every idea that I’ve ever had has only improved by sharing it. That, coming in to starting this job I had one concept and then meeting and talking with the faculty and staff and students and, and, and getting different perspectives and realities have, has enriched this concept of the knowledge school. It will only continue to be enriched from these discussions, from conversations with people around the field. And it will only truly become relevant and important as it gets adopted across the field by your listeners and by the library professionals engaging the ideas, challenging them, agreeing, disagreeing, seeing how they move in different contexts, bringing a reality to it and so they will only get better by circulating them and so I very much look forward to this partnership and very much look forward to the conversations that, that entail, and, and the arguments in the best sense of the word, which is, you know, that sort of hash net discussion around and the seeking of a commonality and a way to go. And so, I look forward to whatever way we can encourage that.
All right, well I’m going to wrap up with a very important question, and this is one that I asked Justin Hoenke when he moved to Chattanooga, have you started saying “y’all” yet?
Y’all is one of the most useful words I know and it’s so much nicer than youse, as in “youse guys.”
So, it’s happened. I, yeah, every so often I’ve noticed something about folks in the South, and that is that they have two accents. They have the accent they use when they’re talking to someone from the North, which is legible. And then, they have, they get deep, it goes deep. I mean first of all their voice goes deep and then it just, it just happens and suddenly they’re talking amongst themselves. So. I’m not there yet, and as I understand South Carolina culture, I think it’s at least three or four generations before I can say I’m a native, so.
Well, well, bless your heart, Dave.
All right, so I hope everybody looks forward to hearing the new episodes, will be coming out again, they will probably be a lot more episodes, so if you like the show, you should like that, so. Thank you David for coming on to talk to me and thanks for the support, and for just what you’re doing at South Carolina cause it’s really inspirational.
I guess you haven’t done a summer in South Carolina yet, have you?
I have. [laughs]
You did? [laughs]
And, and, you know, summer here goes all the way through September so, you know.
You know very well.
I don’t have to deal with potential hurricanes like you do over there, so…