New Librarianship MOOC Week 1: wrap up

I continue with my MOOC on New Librarianship. I’m still behind and am just wrapping up the material from Week 1.  This post is a bit long- I guess I engaged a lot with the material!

  • Defining (Old and New) Librarianship

I found the function-based vs. knowledge/learning-based definition of librarianship very compelling. Lankes underscores that function-based definitions are doomed to fail. For example, the dialogue illustrates the problems with this view:

“I’m a Librarian, I help people get books.”

“I work for Amazon, that’s what we do too!”

“I’m a Librarian, I help people find the information they need.”

“I work at Google, we do that millions of times a day!”

Obviously we must change our definitions, hence Lankes’ emphasis on knowledge creation rather than artifacts/services/buildings in his mission statement, ‘The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities’.

  • Knowledge Creation

The major theme of the Knowledge Creation module was that knowledge is created through conversation. Lankes discusses the aspects involved in conversation: conversants, language, agreements and memory.  The main conclusions were that we need to reevaluate our systems and tools from the ground up to facilitate this conversation.

His application of L0 and L1 languages (a component of Conversation Theory) to library catalogues and the evolution of user systerms was brilliant.  L0 is basic, negotiating language, whereas L1 is a subject specific or specialist language.  Catalogues often have ‘user friendly’ L0 interfaces but with L1 processes/algorithms.  The result is that users often get poor results, whereas librarians (who are fluent in L1) get great results.

The notion of ‘recorded knowledge’ is debunked:  Knowledge is not held within the artifact itself, it re-creates and allows the transfer of knowledge from conversant to conversant (i.e. an author writes a book with his ideas, which I then read, thereby creating a conversation between me and the ideas as recorded in the book, or CD, etc.).

I find that Lankes’ arguments build on each other. So when ‘recorded knowledge’ is debunked we see that the focus moves away from building a collection to how can we increase knowledge. We can increase knowledge by rebuilding our finding systems so that they reflect the relationships which enhance the conversation (i.e. annotations and citations).  And so on…

A new system Lankes proposes is Scapes, a ‘conceptual digital reference system’. For want of a better word, I’d describe it as organic, where members and librarians create reference material to find information, highlight connections and link everything together (called ‘an entailment mesh’).  My concern was how easily mistakes could happen, and then be subsequently linked and tagged to other material, thereby perpetuating bad information.  The system would get librarian oversight, but only on demand, so I’m not sure how the credibility of all this could be overseen.  I’m reminded of the recent news story of the librarian who spotted a poem wrongly attributed to Blake…

  • Librarians as Facilitators of Conversation

The final module was about Facilitation. This is linked to the notion of librarianship being a service-based industry.  Lankes advocates an active role where libraries are platforms for innovation and learning rather than passive repositories where librarians stay behind a desk and disseminate information. His language reminds me of job descriptions of community workers who are out at grassroots levels seeing what’s going on and what the needs are; this is great but represents a big shift.  

The means of facilitation are: access (needs to be 2-way!), knowledge (empower people and widen our definition of ‘literacy’), environment (needs to be physically and intellectually safe, with a sensible approach to privacy issues) and motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic, and librarian must make their services compelling).

His emphasis on physical AND digital/online meeting places as ways to facilitate conversation (and increase the value of librarians) in the community was excellent.  My university library’s group study area was very popular because it was a space (near all the books!) where you could turn up with your friends/module group to have conversations, and maybe study!

I was pleasantly surprised to read a comment about the gap (social illiteracy?) between qualified and un-qualified library staff (i.e. professional and paraprofessional).  Lankes advocates a meritocracy over the current, ingrained expectation of an MLS/Library Science degree (‘can’t there be a way to earn entrance into the club outside of a large student loan?’).  Whilst there are no doubt advantages to getting the library degree -a major one being it sets you apart from the million other applicants- I feel there is undue emphasis on getting this piece of paper, especially since I already have a Masters. However this is merely my humble two cents.  The Wikiman has written on this issue from the other side of the degree with some hindsight and experience.

  • New Librarians are Noble

Lankes’ big conclusion was that librarians are involved in a noble endeavour:  ‘in the hands of librarians, power is the ability to make our communities, and ultimately our society, a better place.’  And this is a notion I quite like the sound of…


Note: Quotes are taken from R. David Lankes, The Atlas of New Librarianship (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011) and his course material for Syracuse University iSchool’s MOOC New Librarianship Master Class hosted on <>.


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