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"Preserve Our Dreams": Council to Hear From Syracuse Prof About the Future of Libraries

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Only yesterday I watched as my son's school's librarian begged the Dallas ISD school board to reinstate 42 librarians likely to be let go next school year. Trustees who agreed were told: Fine, but we'll have to fire 42 teachers to make room. Trustees who disagreed insisted: Why do we even need librarians when we have computers? Some also said, look, isn't it enough that the library's doors remain open, even if there's no warm body to keep the books company?

On top of that, year after year after year, dollars are lifted from the Dallas Public Library System's budget. Librarians are laid off, materials are reduced, hours of operation are cut back. Again, the refrain from the peanut gallery remains a constant: To the Google Machine!

It was surprising, then, to sneak a peek at Monday's Quality of Life Committee agenda and find that from noon to 12:45 p.m., R. David Lankes, a professor in Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, will give a presentation to the council called "Dallas and the Opportunities of a New Librarianship."

This is no small deal: Lankes is the author of the just-published -- and well received -- Atlas of New Librarianship, for which there is a companion website in which it's easy to get lost and a series of accompanying videos. Lankes, who travels the world speaking on the subject, imagines a future in which libraries are very much part of everyday life, but only if there are wholesale changes made between now and then.

I called the engaging Lankes this afternoon to sneak preview his presentation, and to find out how he came to be asked to speak at City Hall, where quality-of-life briefings are usually glum, pedestrian affairs. Our Q&A in advance of his talk follows.

I must admit: I was stunned to see you headlining an agenda that includes code compliance and free-wheeling shopping carts. How the heck did that happen?

Corinne Hill, the interim director of libraries, had invited me down for a couple of things recently. Since she's come in she's been looking around, figuring directions, looking ahead. The Friends of the Dallas Library had also invited me to come down and talk about the future of the library, and we had a good time, and I believe it was the Friends and Corrine who said this would be a useful message to bring to the council.

When did Corrine bring you here?

December. Then I was back doing meetings in the Dallas area at the end of April, doing a "big think" around libraries, ideas and trends. When I look in Dallas there are some opportunities, but we can't do business as usual fiscally and because the environment isn't the same. I see a lot of receptivity from Friends and Dallas Public Library, and we'll see it council's receptive to new ways to think about libraries and service.

I've heard this time after time in recent months, as folks go 'round and 'round about the need for libraries: Let the computer do it. It was said only yesterday at a DISD board meeting. I assume you hear that all the time.

All the time. And we'll have to see what comes out of my mouth on Monday, but the image of libraries is one we have learned. A lot of that image was put in place in the 1950s -- a place with a lot of books. But before that books were expensive, and before that, usually in downtowns, you'd have huge reading rooms more than anything else -- large, special collections. The neighborhood library or school library as a place to get lots of books is a relatively new invention.

People talk about Google replacing libraries, but nobody ever went to a library to find the number of a pizza joint. That's ridiculous. And technology allows access to ready reference; for factual questions we don't need researchers. What we do need librarians to do is answer: How does it makes sense? In journalism, it'd be great if we had as many fact-checkers as we used to. Technology allows us to do it, but to makes sense of the news, to find out what the story is as opposed to where it showed up online, we need a librarian for that.

When I was in Dallas two months ago, they said, "We want to be remembered as more than a place where people get shot." So what does Dallas want to be remembered for? Well, right now it's basketball. [He laughs.] But what's important? They had a real estate developer at one of the meetings who said he wants libraries to be a part of reinventing neighborhoods. He said, "We want a fourth space -- a place where you work, a place where you're alone, a place where you shop, and a place where you come together as a community and think about what the community's about. And it's not just four walls and a ceiling.

A library is a place where we're having a conversation, which more often than not goes something like, 'How can I be better me and be part of a better society?' That's why Andrew Carnegie built libraries 100 years ago in cities like Dallas: He wanted an informed citizenry. And that's what we're getting back to.

There seems to be this belief that we no longer need librarians, especially at the school level, as I learned yesterday. One of the trustees, a new one, said he needs to see the data proving their importance before he can support their reinstatement to the budget. And we see time and again that when cities need to cut budgets, one of the first places they turn is to the libraries.

My message to anyone who will hear me is: We desperately need libraries, but we don't need them as they were in the past 20 years. I think library budgets should go up immensely, but not if we do things as we do them now. School libraries are one of the first documented points of academic success. There's just so much data and evidence that talks about test scores going up when you have a school librarian, not just a library. They're educators, they're teachers, and they're not stuck in this straitjacketed curriculum. They let kids explore what they want to know. Imagine if the entire community is allowed to be that agile -- if they can make decisions based on better information.

Even things like economic development are based on an informed society. We need police to keep us civil, we need firemen to keep us safe, we need parks to keep us connected, and we need libraries as places to preserve our dreams. And that's different than saying we need big buildings with long hours for people to go and get a lot of books. I wouldn't bite on that either.

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