The Dangerous Myth about Librarians – Laurinda Thomas #open17

Laurinda gave a talk at TEDxWellington in 2016, focusing not on the future of libraries but the present of libraries; that we get so caught up in the nostalgia of libraries that we’ve missed how crucial libraries are to society today.

Every day someone comes into the library who’s never been before – what will they think of it all? Librarianship is very old and very adaptable. Of course we’ll survive – but will we flourish? Myth of who we are plays into decisions we make, which affects experience newcomers have.

We take things you’d normally have to pay for and provide it for free. Social entrepreneurs since before there was a word for it. We have  a bigger influence than we think and need to remember it.

Change is constant – in terms of the type of change as well as how much eg financial, technological, society. We’re already dealing with this change. But we’ve become used to the downwards trajectory of budget cuts; have become used to what we think we do and don’t do.

Wants us to put in not extra effort but extra intentionality – rethink what we do. To date we’ve added things to what we do but don’t really match how our users think and want to use things. Need to be more deliberate and think who are we really here for? what purposes are advanced by what we do?

Cf the UK – libraries didn’t waste away because they weren’t used. Were attacked by “austerity” cuts. Choosing where to cut funding isn’t a politically neutral act. Shows you what the people cutting the money value.

Libraries are powerful. We give people the means to apply for jobs, communicate with family. Easy to misuse power – both deliberately and accidentally. But important to use our power. Words have power – pay attention to the language we use.  eg “We need to remain relevant” ends up getting echoed back from others as “Are libraries still relevant?” How about striving for “responsive” or “customer-focused”? Similarly “Save our libraries” is echoed back as “Libraries are endangered / dying.” Need to use language in a way that spurs us forward instead of holding us back.

We’ve been having the same ‘relevance’ conversation for literally decades. How can we have better conversations? We need to have these conversations with the people who haven’t been in the library for a decade or more. We see every day how vital our services are; need to make other people see this too. To do that, remember we’re not all the same; some people don’t care about social good of library. Find out what they do care about and show them how libraries affect that. Both stories and quantitative numbers so stories don’t just get brushed off as anecdata.

Ask what we’re afraid to ask. And be open to the answers. Don’t need to do all the things – just honestly engage with them.

  • Stop misusing numbers (eg door stats – if 10 fewer people came in the door, we’re not less valuable).
  • Stop relying on how ‘obvious’ our value is
  • Stop being lazy about biculturalism. Have not made as much progress since the 80s as we should have.
  • Stop looking for a single ‘thing’ (especially technology) to save us.
  • Stop avoiding politics. Libraries are not idealogically neutral. We believe in things! We have values and strong views. Don’t be afraid of making enemies; need to own our values. Use our power, as private individuals if not in our professional role.

Value ourselves. The world is full of rules – but we can make new rules. Have courage – ie doing the things that need to be done. Be visible. Need to make our profession impossible to be ignored.


How do we challenge budget cuts?
Focus on outcomes – not our traditional outcomes, but the outcomes that people holding the purse-strings care about. Highlight the impact of our skills on the community. Not a simple answer but need to keep having the conversations.

He aha tō whakaaro mō te kupu ‘biculturalism’?
Some libraries doing great stuff; a lot haven’t gone beyond some bilingual signs. 20 years ago would have thought we’d all be bilingual by now and we’re definitely not. Need to take responsibility for doing better.

Overseas can look for funding from non-government bodies. Many other innovative ways of funding – have a book dedicated to you for a day. Trouble is in NZ with smaller population does the effort justify what you get out of it?

What if we work politically to get wellbeing back into the Local Government Act?
Depends on whether this will be useful influencing those with the purse strings.

Not just aligning with what funders want – but align with what we think they’ll want in future.
Pitch what we’re doing to what’s becoming important to them.

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