Atlas of New Librarianship – The unbook unreview

*note – I’ve deliberately decided to use the word ‘text’ herein because I truly believe this project must be absorbed and interacted with across its dual formats, printed book and web/digital presence. Hows that for meta? Cultural Studies, represent!! Lacon, Barthes, dying authors, and all that jazz.

The Atlas

Hope you don't mind Dr. Lankes - I ripped this from your site!

Let me be clear from the start – I have not (yet) read this text. It came across my radar back in early March, and I have been following developments surrounding the book, including the iPad app and companion website which are awesome, and thought it would be a useful and relevant read for library school students and librarians, thus my decision to write it up here now.

Doing research for this post, and thanks to a hot tip from Nicole, I discovered that Emma Montgomery, an LIS student at Syracuse, will be hosting a Twitter reading group to get through the Atlas in 6 weeks. I plan to join this reading group, and I hope those of you interested will also. It starts June 20th, and details can be found here. So, on to my unreview.

The Atlas of New Librarianship was published in May of this year by MIT Press [correction added] and ACRL. The author, R. David Lankes is an Associate Professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and Director of the Library and Information Science Program. This book, from what I can tell, is enormously COMPREHENSIVE and is working to redefine how we think of ourselves professionally and in relation to the information world. In fact, Dr. Lankes clearly defines his goals for the book with a mission statement: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” Wow. Nothing about books there. A key point that stand out to me, and one that I hope will ring true as this book reaches more people, is that Dr. Lankes is concerned with the role of librarians, NOT libraries particularly. The institution and physical space of the library is important, we can all agree, but reimagining the active agents in that institution, we, librarians, is what will save our profession. The buildings may all disappear and run out of funding, but the skills and aptitudes that are cultivated through our investment in broad knowledge and community-building will prove our value for many generations. Woah… soapbox. Back to the text…

I am incredibly overwhelmed and excited about the way this text is constructed, especially including the companion website. Let’s see if I can boil this down – The text is built around 6 major Threads, which are built on statements Lankes calls “agreements” with contextual relationships to help explain them. Sound too mathy for you? Me too. The good news – he draws pictures for sense-making for us visual learners. His Map breaks out the various parts of the text, and offers a guide for how this “new librarianship” might be constructed. So the whole ‘Atlas’ thing –yeah he really meant that. And it is again enormously comprehensive. I was delightfully surprised how many points on this map have appeared as topics on this here blog in the past few months, including: Core Skills, Death of Documents, Ethics, Members not Patrons or Users, and Social Networking. [His titles, our links] The topics introduced in the text/site are, in my opinion, essential for LIS students especially to begin to ingest in order to have an accurate sense of what librarianship is, not what our schools teach or the ideas we bring to our education/profession.

I could go on, but I wouldn’t do any more justice to the text without having a better grasp of the concepts, which means I should probably read it. Here’s what I’d like to say – this thing is important. It deserves our attention, perhaps more so than our arguments about which metadata schema will survive the semantic web shift; perhaps more so than our decrying ebooks and Harper-Collins. Am I proselytizing a little much for a text I have not even read? Probably. But if the ideas Dr. Lankes proposes are actually the foundations of new librarianship, and if they are as radical and far-reaching as they seem, I’d like to stake my bets now.

My request: how does this text and these ideas fit with the variety of communities that are represented inside librarianship? How do rural libraries fit here? Youth Services? Information technology? Cataloguers? Archivists? If we all reimagine ourselves and our roles in this new age of librarianship as “facilitator of knowledge building in the community”, does the profession shift drastically? Is this a text/manifesto for administrators, paraprofessionals, law librarians, Information Architects? Or is it only relevant to digital-minded folks with ambitions to take over the world like myself? Put me in my place… what do you really think?

From the Doc himself:

Atlas Intro Head Shot from R. David Lankes on Vimeo.

15 replies

  1. Great to see this post here. I have had this (beautiful) book sitting on my desk for weeks waiting to really dive in once school ended and I could devote the proper amount of time and mental space to it. I will say that I read the first 15 or so pages and they yielded about 4 pages of notes and questions. Now that I am done with school I plan to work through it along with the Twitter reading group. I look forward to more discussion of it here as well.


  2. Thank you for this excellent “unreview”! I love that term. One correction: the book was published by MIT Press and the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association. ACRL is hosting the companion website.

    I hope you and others do join the Twitter reading group with Emma. This is exactly the kind of interaction Dave was hoping for and that this content really deserves!
    Kathryn Deiss
    ACRL Content Strategist


  3. Micah, thank you so much for this! From the sound of it, this is finally the good news us noobrarians need–there is a future for us, but it likely won’t look like anything we’ve seen before. Its exciting, and thanks for bringing it to our attention!


    • Yer darn tootin’ it’s pretty critical!

      Seriously, though, Lankes should be applauded for putting together what may very well be an enormously important work for the future of libraries. I may find fault with his philosophical treatment of librarianship (or lack thereof), but I do respect his dedication to the field.


      • Excellent point! I’m looking forward to reading it myself. The infographic sold me at first sight, and I’m really interested when some one is offering commentary on what libraries can offer to future communities. In sharing the link, I just wanted to offer up another perspective.


  4. Thanks for the comments so far – but really… do we believe the hype? Where are the Children’s Librarians? Does this matter to you? Archivists? Come on! Engage me in dialogue over this – I dare you. Triple dog dare…


    • Per request, children’s lib throwing in her two cents (plus, I can’t resist a triple-dog dare). I love the premise: “Facilitating knowledge creation.” In the “About,” Lankes says “New librarians approach their work as facilitators of conversation; they seek to enrich, capture, store, and disseminate the conversations of their communities.” I agree, and I’m excited to explore the different facets/reactions to this. However: kid’s libs have been doing this for decades. Our entire profession (if you’re doing it right) is doing just these things… and yet we remain marginalized within the profession and within the larger sphere. Is it because kids are marginalized (our United States society just hides it behind a glossy corporate commercialism), or is it because knowledge and conversations aren’t valued in our society? And if knowledge and conversation aren’t valued, where does that leave the facilitators? How is the Atlas, and the conversation and perception change it’s advocating for, going to change that? (This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.)


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