Sometimes I wish that information specialists ruled the world. After all, people who know how to find and access information, understand it and analyze it are smart, right? Because they tolerate complexity and acknowledge the limitations of data, they are likely to make good decisions based on evidence and reasoning. I respect and trust information specialists.
But, in fact, today, communication specialists rule the world. In almost every field, the power of storytelling is undeniable in our culture. People who express ideas with the head, the heart and the emotions in good alignment are using the power of communication to make a difference in the world. Through effective rhetorical strategies, they inform, entertain and persuade, mobilizing people to action. Effective communicators who create and sustain high-functioning collaborative teams are successful in the community and the world of business as well as in non-profit and government sectors. I respect and trust effective communicators.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to bring these two sets of competencies together. As a 2012 Technology Fellow for the ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy (OITP), I’ve had a chance to work with academic librarians, school librarians and public librarians on an emerging definition of digital literacy. Although digital literacy may take different forms depending on the individual, it’s a constellation of life skills that include basic foundational literacies, like reading comprehension and computer skills, as well as transformational literacies, that include the ability to access and evaluate information, create and critique messages, and use reflective thinking and civic action to make a difference in the world.
To address our most pressing social, environmental, economic and political issues at the local, national and global levels, we need people who can be both information specialists and communication specialists, working with integrity to tell stories, access and share high-quality information by using effective social skills and instructional strategies that enable people to make good decisions as self-governing members of society.
I recently attended an invitational conference hosted by the American Library Association (ALA), the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Entitled The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities, the event brought together librarians, foundation leaders, and government agency heads with the goal of generating new strategies for expanding and deepening the impact of libraries on the communities they serve.
The host of remarkable leaders included Molly Raphael, ALA President, Jim Leach, NEH President, and Susan Hildreth, IMLS head. Also participating in the program were Maureen Sullivan, Deborah Jacobs, Karen Archer Perry, Norman Jacobs, Ron Carlee, Keith Fels, Chris Gates, Rich Harwood and Loretta Parkham, among the many impressive leaders in attendance.
The program was perhaps the most exhilarating event I have ever attended in the library community. We discussed what’s not working, what is working, and what we could be doing more effectively with collaboration. The dialogue was energizing and forward-looking.
There was an important consensus: librarians must be robust and effective community leaders. Of course, in many academic, school and public libraries, librarians already play this role. We all know amazing librarians, like my friend Joyce Valenza or Carrie Russell, who are perfect manifestations of this ideal. But it’s exciting when young people also embrace this identity, as with Anna, one of my own young graduate students, a librarian-in-training, who helped create the “A-Z (Audre Lord to Howard Zinn)” library tent, full of books and resources for protesters and their supporters, which was established at Occupy Boston last year.
Successful librarians are community-connected, comfortable with stepping beyond their expertise, and able to use digital and social media tools for information access, content creation and sharing, and advocacy.
Of course, if we want librarians to support content creation with digital media and learn to lead and collaborate with diverse community stakeholders, we’ll have to build different types of library schools where people can learn these things:
- Librarians will need training to support the development of people’s creative and digital literacy competencies.
- Librarians will need to be youth media and public media specialists.
- They will need public relations and public speaking skills.
- Librarians will have to get good at using dynamic strategies of community engagement through both traditional face-to-face methods and with online and social media tools.
- And they’ll need to identify and respond to the information needs of communities in the many ways recommended by the Knight Commission’s report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.
Given that librarians are embedded in more than 17,000 communities and institutions large and small in every corner of this country, it’s a thrilling time to imagine how to awaken the public spirit and nurture librarians as community leaders and civic activists.