New year, new librarianship
January 24, 2012, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Happy New Year from the Urban Sustainability Library! It’s been a fun and challenging few months as we officially made ourselves available to Detroiters with questions about sustainable living. And without any traditional advertising, the questions have been coming. They’ve emerged from conversations happening at the Dally in the Alley, on a city bus, at parties, over Facebook and email, and at the Green Garage with folks who simply walked in from the street and wanted to chat. The new reference desk, as we see it, is everywhere.

And the questions (31 so far and counting!) have been exciting and diverse. The manager of a neighboring apartment complex asked for help setting up a recycling program in his building, a designer asked if we knew where to find used brick and cinderblock to create raised beds for his garden, and a group of Wayne State engineering students were looking for scrap steel for a bridge-building competition. Several people asked specific questions about increasing the energy efficiency of their homes and businesses, and a budding urban farmer needed help determining soil content and finding drainage information for particular areas of the city. Our two latest requests, meanwhile, are from popular local businesses looking for help greening their operations.

It’s easy to see how inappropriate it would be to use traditional library resources to meet these information needs. (“Excuse me, where’s the book on the best sites in Detroit to find old cinderblock?”) On some level, we knew this would be the case from the beginning. (We designed the library around the questions the Green Garage had been receiving even before it had a library, using a permaculture-inspired design model that starts with careful observation of an existing system.)

Often, when I tell librarians that the Green Garage library is non-traditional and that books aren’t our focus, they assume that we’re concentrating more on electronic resources (like licensed databases) than books, as is happening in many academic libraries. That’s not entirely incorrect, since we have a wealth of information available digitally on our wiki (we have some books for loan, too), but even something like a database of articles is, for our purposes, unnecessary. The information we’re most interested in is much less fixed than that; in most cases, it lives inside members of the Green Garage community.

If we want to differentiate information from knowledge (according to the data/information/knowledge/wisdom hierarchy that every library & info science student studies until they never want to talk about it again), it’s clear that what we’re really concerned with is the knowledge of our community, not recorded information at all.

The shift from thinking about libraries as repositories of information in a variety of formats to agents that facilitate the exchange of knowledge between community members is a profound one. (And once you make it, it’s hard to go back.) This emerging function of libraries (one of many new exciting roles we find ourselves performing these days) takes all kinds of fascinating shapes, such as the Australian Human Libraries project, which seeks to mitigate social strife by facilitating conversations between diverse community members, and the Douglas County Libraries’ recent efforts to tell community members’ stories in the form of live theatre. (And, of course, it’s not just librarians that are seeking to understand and make new and productive use of a community’s knowledge; see Detroit Public Radio’s Public Insight Network for one example of another kind of organization that is leveraging community knowledge to a valuable end.)

What’s especially exciting about this work is the potential it has for real, sustainable community-building. Margaret Wheatley famously wrote that, “Rather than worry[ing] about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections,” and that rings especially true in a place like Detroit. With every request, we have the valuable opportunity not only to connect people with information, but with other people. And the more connected people in Detroit become to one another around the universal subject of living sustainably, the stronger we believe our communities will be.

New, community-focused universal library symbol designed by Aaron Schmidt

Our challenges in this new paradigm are becoming clearer as we keep working:  to get to know our community members (our “collection,” for all intents and purposes) and the depth and breadth of their knowledge, and to connect them to others who would benefit from that knowledge. And then to keep track of it all, both for organizational/workflow purposes and to measure our success. (We’re using a Google Docs spreadsheet.) And to create a knowledge commons by publishing information and encouraging community members to do the same. (We’re using our wiki, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, so far.) And to tell people what we’re doing, so they have some sense of what new librarianship can look like. (Hello, that’s this blog.) And to keep trying to do it all better.