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


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