This is the English version of an article that I wrote in the summer of 2018: Next librarians zijn de vroedvrouwen van de … next society.
Of course Dutch librarians do everything to make children and adults aware of the importance of reading. They organize courses and workshops for illiterate people, low-literate people and people who lag behind digitally.
We also do this in the Northeast Brabant region in the Netherlands. An area where more than 250,000 people live. Located in the vicinity of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Den Bosch. A library with sixteen branches, where more than a hundred people work.
A change of era
We are pretty busy, but slowly I realized that we are actually leaving a large group of adults behind. We do this from the assumption that most adults are ‘ready’. They are able to save themselves and that librarians do not have to do anything special for them. Apart from organizing lectures, exhibitions, workshops or debates on social topics. A lecture on Frida Kahlo, a course on the imploding of the Roman Empire, a workshop building websites or a debate about the pros and cons of CRISPR. Again, fine.
But unfortunately we as a world, as a society are in a transitional phase. We live in a time when almost everything will change radically. Jan Rotmans, a Dutch professor of transition science, often uses a sentence that summarizes this knowledge: We are not living in an era of change, but in a change of era. Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee are talking about The Second Machine Age. Jeremy Rifkin calls it The Third Industrial Revolution. Lone Frank is thinking of a Fifth Revolution. Peter Diamandis foresees a world of abundance and Yuval Noah Harari tells us that we can grow into Homo Deus.
Unfortunately, we have a problem. Adults do not always show adult behavior.
They are often unable to understand what is going on and are (perhaps for that reason) often unable to make the right choices. That does not only have to do with immaturity.
It also has a lot to do with the way our brain functions. The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman posits in his international bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow from 2011 that in 95 per cent of the time our feeling (System 1) has the upper hand. There is nothing wrong with that because that feeling saves us from the most dangers and leads us through the day and the life.
Unfortunately, as a person, we also have to really think once in a while. Consider the pros and cons of ‘something’. We do this with our ratio (System 2). Deep thinking, however, takes a lot of energy, and that is why we prefer to do it as little as possible. It takes effort. And that fact conflicts with our rapidly changing world. A world in which we can sail less on ingrained habits.
We will have to struggle in such a changing world to weigh up what is ‘the best’. Turn off the automatic pilot. Unfortunately, in such a time ‘our feeling’ is not the best counselor or guide. On the contrary.
Next, next, next …
My position is that next librarians have a role to play in this. I’m not just working on that word next. I do that in relation to the next society.
Almost everything will change considerably in the coming years. Think of next food, next transport, next work, next (social) media, next journalism, next money, next democracy, next economy, next leisure time, next values …
I estimate that in about twenty years we will have to admit that things have gone very differently in almost all areas mentioned. How? Nobody knows that. Different from today, that’s for sure. Not necessarily better.
We then live in our next society.
Only as a society do we at this moment have a gigantic problem if we have to deal with those necessary changes with a couple of immature adults.
Adults who often seriously believe that everything should (and will) stay with the old. Who are unable to deal with contradictory information. Often acting against their own interests. Who are inclined to think in terms of right or wrong, left or right, expensive or cheap and cannot understand that ‘the truth’ is often somewhere in the middle.
That in the coming decades we will mainly find dilemmas on our plate. There are, after all, choices (whether or not enforced) with various advantages and disadvantages. And nobody can guarantee in advance what the best choice will be.
Furthermore, in such a period of time people will get up that will come up with very ‘weird’ ideas. Ideas that most adults do not approve or like. Ideas that often however – as history shows – will receive more support in the course of time.
A sociologist who died young in 2003 talked about a window, indeed the Overton window. An imaginary window that you can lay about a social trend, problem or idea. And in the course of time the way most adults look at it changes. You saw it in slavery, rights for women, later for homosexuals and now transgender people.
Nowadays you see it in subjects such as basic income, systems that judge or drive cars and other things. In the first instance, they are unspeakable matters. Are the proponents put away as idiots. But gradually public opinion is changing and once unwelcome ideas are embraced by some and eventually converted into legislation.
I assure you that we will be able to observe many Overton Windows in the coming decades. And librarians in my view have the task to be alert and try to do something ‘locally’ with those themes. Feeding people with the right information (books, magazines, blogs, films, etc.). And especially to engage in a local conversation with citizens on these subjects. A debate, a Socratic conversation or a democratic experiment in which a hundred drawn-in citizens make a certain choice on behalf of the community and present them to the municipal council. After they have been fed – of course – with relevant information from various sources.
Librarians as midwives
For the sake of clarity, a next librarian does not have the wisdom to lease. But she is certainly not neutral or objective. Every topic that she puts on the local agenda is a choice; because she could have chosen a different theme.
The next librarian realizes – better: knows – that as a society we face major challenges and that we will have to go different ways in different areas.
Citizens will have to do this themselves, but I see a role for the next librarian as a midwife. Who guides this birth process. She certainly did not deliver the egg, nor did he fertilize it. Ideas automatically surface.
Just as young couples will want to continue to ‘make’ children, societies will continue to ‘produce’ new ideas. Especially those who are in a transition. We will be inundated with it in the coming decades. As many opportunities for a next librarian to respond locally or regionally to this.
Lately I use three sentences regularly to explain what a next librarian is doing. Those are:
* Feeding people with the dilemmas we face
* Asking questions is simply more powerful than giving answers
* Adults are tempted to become more mature
In a complex world there are no simple solutions.
For almost all the challenges we face (climate, inequality, artificial intelligence or tinkering with ‘people’) countless ‘solutions’ arise; and, unfortunately, almost all variants have advantages and disadvantages. Or humanity simply knows not how to decide whether a certain direction will turn out ‘good’ for us or ‘the world’.
A next librarian knows that and her job is to add those ‘weird’ ideas to the conversation. Not to enforce a certain outcome, but to help a community ‘do the best’. To help them grow. The ‘right’ ways to grow. For a full-term child to come into the world.
Not too long ago a public library was a place where you went if you wanted to know something. Looking for something. Reading rooms full of reference books, dictionaries and encyclopedias. Librarians everywhere that helped you. There is not much left of that. Acquired by the Google’s of the world. Currently you ask a question on your cell phone or iPad and the answer comes in a few seconds.
Yet there are questions that have no answers.
In my view, the next librarian asks those difficult questions in his environment.
Kevin Kelly said it in his book The inevitable : understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future in 2016 as follows:
Very soon we’ll live in a world where we can ask the cloud, in conversational tones, any question at all. And if that question has a known answer, the machine will explain it to us. (p.287).
But Kelly also knows:
Thus, even though our knowledge is expanding exponentially, our questions are expanding exponentially faster. () That gap between questions and answers is our ignorance, and it is growing exponentially. In other words, science is a method that chiefly expands our ignorance rather than our knowledge. (p. 283-284)
Apart from the rhetorical power of Kelly, he cuts into something important: ignorance. As far as I am concerned, this always had to do with a librarian’s mission. Rodney Crowell wrote a beautiful song about it in 2005: Ignorance is the enemy. Very current and for me as a librarian a kind of assignment and mission: ignorance must be fought.
Such a next librarian also realizes that her work takes place at a time when ‘the self’ is being glorified. That’s what it’s all about: my private well-being. I can be mistaken but believe that in a next society something more will revolve around the whole. The community. Local, regional, at work, in your family.
The English musician, producer, artist and thinker Brian Eno recently pointed this out at a meeting on basic income. He said he did not have any knowledge or opinion about this in a short YouTube video, but he did know that genius people (like Rembrandt or Einstein) originate from a community. Where they grew up, who invested in them, et cetera. Of course geniuses have genial qualities, but Bill Gates had not been as successful and rich as his cradle had been in Somalia in the 1950s.
Brian Eno uses a new word in that video: scenius. That is a community that (sometimes) produces genius people or new directions. And I think that next librarians like to be able to do their bit there and help others ‘grow’. They can do that because they have something special: they have a place. A building. Often somewhere in the center of a village, neighborhood or city. A place where people like to come. Low threshold. Consuming is not mandatory.
On these third places it is ‘good’ for many people and the next librarian ensures that ‘everything’ can be done, experienced, learned. Oh yes, and you can also meet fellow citizens who are not part of your own bubble.
The American marketer Seth Godin wrote very surprisingly about the library and librarians. He does not use the word next, but it is in all his work.
In a manifesto from 2012 about education in this century: Stop stealing dreams (what are schools for?) he talks about libraries twice.
First of all, he finds that the library is still a place. Where people can come together to work together, to learn from each other, to set something up, et cetera. And the (next) librarian helps them with that. He finds very surprising that within the library sector it is not about (digital) books and especially about lending them. In Seth’s eyes the (next) librarian is a spider in the (local) web. Who does everything, undertakes, initiates.
He also mentions five roles of the (next) librarian in the longest chapter (The future of the library).
She is first and foremost a producer. By this he means that the librarian thinks about what she wants to create and then goes in search of resources and people to bring about something like that. She is also an impresario, who collects a speaker or an exhibition and negotiates conditions and prices. Often she is for a shorter or longer time a teacher for a group of people. To explain something, to lead a conversation or debate. She is also not afraid to occasionally connect a beamer as a concierge, make coffee and help with pouring. And by doing all this she is a connector. Between people and the collection. And it does not matter much if that collection is in its library or digitally stored somewhere else. She knows how to feed a certain group at the right time with relevant information.
Here you can add that the next librarian in this context is (almost) by definition also a participant and finally, as a pupil, also becomes wiser.
“But what is that next society?”
The answer to that nobody can give, because it lies in the lap of the future. What you can say about this is that many of the current problems will be solved to a large extent in that next society; better: converted to ‘something’ different.
Anyone who wants can sniff every day that we as humanity have big problems. Face big challenges. Climate change, depletion of raw materials, massive extinction of species, great inequality in incomes, but especially in capital, the arrival of smart systems that will make much human work superfluous, artificial intelligence that may well outstrip us as people, tinkering with genetic material, etc.
Alas, the ‘old society’ is probably hardly able to cope with the challenges that lay at our front door. Keeps problems in place, worsens them, prevents change.
Fortunately, there are always thinkers who offer a hold. Not that they have the solution for everything, but rather that they provide, as it were, a kind of knife with which you as a person can divide the ‘good’ from ‘evil’. Glasses that allow you to assess relatively objectively whether a certain development is good for ‘people’ and ‘the world’.
In April 2017, such a knife, spectacle or handhold was thrown at us by an English economist who was, until then, quite unknown. You can also call it a story.
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari repeatedly notes in his two books published so far that ‘good’ stories have the potential to keep a society together. Good stories are so strong that almost everyone believes in it and almost nobody sees that ‘the emperor’ is actually walking naked around.
Does it fit within the doughnut?
Kate Raworth, the English economist, slides forward a new story and image: the doughnut. In Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist she confesses that she doesn’t like doughnuts, they’re too sweet and unhealthy. But, as a doughnut has an inside and an outside edge it is a perfect image for the next society she envisions.
In the coming years we can always ask ourselves: Does it fit within the doughnut?
In her own words:
Below the Doughnut’s social foundation lie shortfalls in human well-being, faced by those who lack life’s essentials such as food, education and housing. Beyond the ecological ceiling lies an overshoot of pressure on Earth’s life-giving systems, such as through climate change, ocean acidification and chemical pollution. But between these two sets of boundaries lies a sweet spot – shaped unmistakably like a doughnut – that is both an ecologically safe and socially just space for humanity. The twenty-first century task is an unprecedented one: to bring all of humanity into that safe and just space. (p. 45)
Kate even admits frankly that she did not come up with everything herself. The doughnut is her idea, but the twenty-one variables she includes in ‘her’ doughnut have a strong agreement with the seventeen so-called Sustainable Development Goals. These were agreed by 193 governments in Paris in 2015. All governments undertake various measures until 2030 to achieve significant improvements on those 17 themes. I’s motto might have been: To bring all of humanity into that safe and just space.
Kate Raworth and others have come to the conclusion that the story that brought us a lot of prosperity and welfare in the last two hundred years is almost dead.
As a main problem she sees that we as a society have to get rid of the almost sacred need to keep on growing. Economic growth, we have to get rid of that. Unfortunately, that is extremely difficult, because the whole society and our economic model is based on that. Almost everyone still believes in that story; as a solution to our current problems.
She observes, however, that there is no ‘infinite’ growth anywhere in nature, except in organisms that are overgrown with cancer.
As humanity we are actually saddled with a sickening system. Our growth-based story is the basis of almost everything that has grown very crooked over the course of decades. Nevertheless, we will have to look for another, much less ill-making story. That is the big challenge if we ever want to end up in that next society. Of course we can continue to pick up our shoulders and continue with our old life. Unfortunately, you can take daily information that is at odds with it.
As humanity we have generated ‘forces’ that take on increasingly devastating forms. Dreaming or believing that they are not there or will soon disappear just like that is naive and is an example of very immature adult behavior.
In this world, in my opinion, next librarians have a role to play. They are fortunately not alone. There are other professionals who have to and will do the same in other places, in their own way. Think about debate centers, museums, newspapers, magazines, schools, theaters. They often have a disadvantage. They do not address the entire population; are sometimes elitist.
From collection to connection, or …
A few years ago, the Dutch Commission Cohen published a report on the future of library work in the Netherlands: Bibliotheek van de toekomst. In that report it is not about midwives, nor is the term next librarians used. That is not bad. At a certain point, however, there is talk of [from] ‘less collection, [to] more connection’. Libraries should focus more on smaller collections (by depreciating and purchasing less) and more on bringing people together. To do ‘things’ together.
I will not comment critically on this vision, but I would like to present a report (sorry: a vision paper) that was published later in which a next librarian (annex midwife) recognizes himself more.
In Via connectie naar collectie, it is argued that groups of people who come together within a library to work on ‘something’, add new content to the collection at the end of their trajectory.
This could be a book(let), a (web) article, a blog, a research, an exhibition, a video, a debate, a workshop, an advice … By bending together with others about a topic (from our next society?) new insights are made and can be shared with others by adding it to the (local) collection.
Via connection to collection
I have a dream
My dream is that librarians everywhere, as it were, repackage and take steps to start a conversation in their community about the hundreds of themes that have to do with that next society. With everyone.
From the assumption that we all show immature behavior in our own way as adults and we have to help each other to end up in that next society.
We will have to.
A relevant task, assignment, mission and foothold.
And whether those next librarians see themselves as midwives does not matter. It is just a picture, a story.
Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee. The second machine age: work, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies (2014).
Peter Diamandis. Abundance: the future is better than you think (2012)
Lone Frank. Den femte revolution (2007)
Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow (2016)
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: a brief history of humankind (2014)
Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, fast and slow (2011)
Kevin Kelly. The inevitable : understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future (2016)
Susan Neiman. Why grow up? : subversive thoughts for an infantile age (2014)
Kate Raworth. Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist (2017):
Jeremy Rifkin. The third industrial revolution: how lateral power is transforming energy, the economy, and the World (2011)
Youtube – Brian Eno on basic income (2016)
Seth Godin. Stop stealing dreams (What is school for?) online manifesto (2012) pdf
Jan Rotmans. Website (2018)
Rodney Crowell. Ignorance is the enemy. Song on the album The outsider (2005)
(Wednesday, August 29, 2018)
Hans van Duijnhoven, an old librarian that coaches young librarians to act like next librarians