Library as Conversation

Last week I was able to watch an interesting lecture by R. David Lankes titled “Library as Conversation”.  He presented it at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2007.  If you want to view all 1 hour 14 minutes of it click here.

He makes many points about how libraries operate and how he thinks they should operate in the future.  

One of his main points is that libraries are in knowledge business.  Not the book business, not the computer business.  Libraries, to him, are not in competition with google or amazon.  Everything we provide, books, dvds etc.,  are here to help people learn (Zane? Really? I guess a case could be made…).  What people learn is entirely up to them but we are here to assist them with whatever they need.

The way libraries can foster the creation of knowledge is by facilitating conversations.  Pask’s Conversation Theory is something he mentions that I’ll have to look into.  As far as I understand it the theory goes something like this; knowledge is created through conversation.  By communitcating, sharing ideas and differences with each other, people create agreements which can be the basis for new knowledge.  (There is MUCH more but I’m just learning this stuff)

So, how can a library facilitate conversations?  

Lankes proposes a new mission for libraries.  It is comprised of the following parts:


  • Provide meeting rooms
    • ‘hybrid’ meeting rooms to extend meetings beyond ‘one place and time’ 
    • video conferencing capabilities
    • record meetings so they can be viewed later
  • Promote sufficient bandwith for information
  • Collection of unique resources for the local community
    • allow community groups to build and maintain collections
    • VERY local history, citizen collections
  • Promotion of long term storage


  • Training & Education
    • provide a ‘standing’ curriculum and offers of certification
  • Mentoring and access to experts
    • partner with educational organizations to create  ‘Citizen Scholar Diplomas’
  • Standing dissemination of information
  • Pathfinders & Synthesis
    • use the CSD  student projects to build collections and provide additional library services


  • Free & Open Access
  • Safety & Acceptable use
  • Community norms


  • Recognition of effort
  • Pushing people first on the web
  • Ownership
    • crete ‘innovation spacaces/incubators for entrepreneurs’ (not just for business)
  • participation
    • create tiers of volunteers and paraprofessionals

This is quite a list.  Can all libraries do all of these things?  No.  But we could try.  Many of the things he reccommends will require a shift in focus for libraries, librarians and adminstrators.    Policies will have to be revisited but most of all our attitude toward the public will need revision.  We should see our library:

…not as a collection of stuff but as a collection of the community…

-and we should see 

everyone who walks into your building is an item in your collection…

What does this mean for library staff?  

Something we should be doing to help facilitate conversations with our communities is to take the concept of roving reference and put some mileage on it.  We could try to attend community meetings and listen to what they discuss.  We wouldn’t speak about “what the library can do for you” but simply sit, listen to their concerns and try to find a way the library can assist them.  By being present we would send the message that we are here, we care and we can help.  

We could also actively develop staff talents in ways that will make them more able and confident to meet the new kinds of information needs of our communities.  We should encourage anyone who wants to learn how to develop web pages to do so, regardless of wether they design web pages for the library.  We should promote the idea that  it’s okay to tinker with things at work.  Try new things, see how it works and if it can be used for the library, great!  If not at least you have someone with enough intellictual curiosity to investigate a new technology with the library in mind.  The things learned while tinkering will help some people who visit the library.  Allowing all library staff to be curious, explore new things and learn on the job would be a boon for the library and the community.  

I’m no expert on anything mentioned here but I think there are some good ideas that are worth investigating.  By encorporating some of these ideas we could make ourselves an even more important part of our local communities.  I’m always learning and trying to develop my personal philosophy of Librarianship and I’m beginning to see this set of ideas as a blueprint.

2 thoughts on “Library as Conversation

  1. What would be the pros or cons in having a library open [no doors to close off the library] as you walk into the door of a business or a church educational building? According to Lankes, would there be any security issues for the library materials and/or study interuptions?

    I am thinking that a definite staff assignment would have to be in place just for the library at all times when the doors to the building are opened.

  2. Thank you for an interesting article, and for sharing the link toR. David Lankes presentation. In today’s confusing and often impersonal world (an information ocean) I define a Library’s point of differentiation as “the ability of knowledgeable staff to form meaningful, service relationships with their customers/patrons”. And relationships are built on conversations. Roving is one very effective, direct (and dare i say, low-cost?) way to reach out to those 50%-60% of their public who will not approach a reference desk to ask for help (even if they need assistance). Even if all one does when roving is make eye contact and greet people, that contributes greatly to appearing approachable. This opens the door to conversations and will, as you said “send the message that we are here, we care and we can help”.
    I teach roving workshops…and there are a few documents available at that you may find of interest.

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