Is Post-Literacy the End of Libraries and Librarianship?

I’m a librarian. Am I doomed too? Are libraries so defined by literacy that they will not exist without it? If we thought the Internet and ubiquitous digital information was a challenge to the profession, it might be fair to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

As part of his exploration of the values that guide our profession, Michael Gorman tackled the following questions: What is a library? What is librarianship? What is a librarian? (Our Enduring Values, 2000). While he was trying primarily to reconcile the emergence of information technology and global accessibility with the traditional library, we can see those same questions arising with respect to literacy and the emergence of a post-literate society.

Gorman’s core values include literacy, learning, equity of access to recorded knowledge and information, and stewardship. The latter he sees as the “singular value …unique to librarianship”. Stewardship in Gorman’s terms is still centered on recorded, (primarily) textual information. It is about collections and the ability to exploit them. It is about literacy.

For Gorman, libraries and librarianship would not exist without literacy. Perhaps, however, the core of libraries and librarianship is not stewardship but an amalgam of some of the other values Gorman highlights: service, intellectual freedom, rationalism, privacy, and democracy. Together these form a professional attitude that can be applied to how one lives a life or helps others. Perhaps David Lankes is on the right track.

Lankes, in the Atlas of New Librarianship (2011), isn’t thinking about the post-literate world but he does identify the fundamental nature of the profession in a way that points to a broader interpretation of what librarians do:

The mission of librarians
is to improve society
through facilitating knowledge creation
in their communities.

Nothing here explicitly about artifacts, collections, buildings, or even notions of access, stewardship, democracy, and literacy. I think what Lankes is describing is more like an attitude, a way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us. If the work we do is an expression of this attitude, perhaps libraries and librarians, in some form, will not merely continue to exist, but exert an even greater influence on how one lives the life of the mind.

The library is an idea, an attitude. The library is omnipresent. Everyone is a librarian.

A Comment from Quen2301:
Librarians in a Post-Literate World


7 Responses to “Is Post-Literacy the End of Libraries and Librarianship?”

  1. Wendy November 12, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Everyone may well be a librarian, but some of us are better at it than others. Kind of like anyone can put paint on a wall, but there are those who will accomplish the task with more care, more ability and a better result.

  2. Camille November 13, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    I look to the quote by David Lankes highlighted in the article. Librarians are information professionals – not solely focused on books. Libraries serve other functions than just holding books (e.g., provide people with a place to do their work in silence, allow people to use computers and printers, etc). I have been to the library many times without ever looking at a book that the library held. Librarians are responding to the challenge of the powerful digital world and trying to incorporate that world into the traditional library world. I think they would do the same with a post-literate world. However, this kind of blending would take away some of the library’s identity. I believe that libraries and librarianship would exist without literacy. However, the word library would most likely change. What could this name be?

    • Peter November 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

      I like your question about what to call the library of the future Camille. I tried to come up with some options. Given that the assumption would be that there is no longer a need for physical space for the knowlege of the library ie no more books, and, librarians could be providing different knowledge services from anywhere, a physical space for libraries might exist only to provide a gathering place for people to meet their primal need for human contact, so the library of the future could be the town square, the global village, the cyber-salon or, if it serves coffee, the Starbuckary.

      • Kanta Kapoor November 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

        Around the globe, the libraries are rechristened as Knowledge Center, Information Resources Centre, and Learning Centers and so on. These centers may or may not have the physical space, but the librarians continue to full-fill their role and mission to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities

      • Camille November 14, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

        “The Starbuckary” – I like that. I often go to Starbucks with my laptop and work for a few hours at a time. I enjoy the atmosphere and I can only work so many hours in complete silence at home or at the library. Despite the distractions (music, contemplating whether I should get that cookie on display, etc.), I get a great deal of work done. I think that in the future, libraries are going to need to adopt a more outgoing, casual atmosphere. Since people have so many options on where they can work (especially with the free wi-fi many places offer, such as Starbucks), libraries will need to find ways to attract those patrons.

  3. kanta Kapoor December 5, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    The defining decorative element of a library has always been the books themselves. But now that institutions ranging from the University of Texas at Austin to ultra-traditional Cushing Academy are tossing their stacks in favor of digital collections, the question arises: How do you design a library when print books are no longer its core business?At the University of Amsterdam, Dutch designers Studio Roelof Mulder and Bureau Ira Koers converted an existing 27,000-square-foot library into a massive study hall — without any visible books — to accommodate the 1,500 to 2,000 students who visit daily. Retrieved from

  4. Rochelle January 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    I find it absolutely fascinating that we’re still mired in the library-as-book-repository vision. Perhaps it’s easy for me to be so fascinated by it, since I am a librarian with absolutely no connection to books, but a very firm connection to our physical space. I find lately I’m spending more and more time thinking about how to create and lay out spaces within the library to actually accomodate the kinds of work that happen within it; I feel like there’s no conflict at all between that kind of information work and anything to do with plucking information off a shelf and sitting down somewhere to process it. We are at a very primitive stage when it comes to conceptualizing what it means to work with digital material. We still haven’t broken free of the one-person-workstation model for the most part (screen and a keyboard, everywhere). The library can be a place where we shatter that paradigm and bring digital material forward in different, more collaborative, and more performative ways. As digital material becomes increasingly analogous to a physical experience, we’re going to need spaces to lay it out together and manipulate it. Conceiving of the library as a place where that happens isn’t even a big mental leap from reading rooms and shelves.

    I find myself increasingly inspired by thinking of the physical space of the library not as storage space or even study space, but as community space that houses pop-up events and services as required. Library space as service, if you will. Throwing out “just in case” is something we were meant to do years ago, but we never really got there when it comes to space and services. What if the library turns into what our community needs when our community needs it? Not generically, but very specifically? If the big first year history class has a paper due next week, shouldn’t part of the library become the workshop for completing that assignment? As computing gets more flexible, inexpensive, and ubiquitous, it becomes easier and easier for us to turn spaces into any kind of space we need. The library should reflect it’s community rather than twist its community to fit into its policies and guidelines. The harder part is for us to let go of old service models and visions of what we think libraries are.

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