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Seth Godin and Mike Eisenberg and me on the Future of the Library

I am a huge fan of Seth Godin.

Seth . . .

  • writes the most popular marketing blog in the world;
  • is the author of the bestselling marketing books of the last decade;
  • speaks to large groups on marketing, new media and what’s next;
  • and is the founder of, a fast-growing recommendation website.

Seth’s brief blog post this morning on the Future of the Library certainly got my attention:

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age? They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars. Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative. Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Clearly we haven’t marketed our own message effectively.

Today’s leading expert on marketing, and many others, need to know that job one, for most of us (I HOPE), IS to be:

leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Is Seth saying that we need librarians, but not traditional libraries?

(Make sure you click on the survive link above to see that Seth read Robin’s brilliant post in her CCHS Learning Commons about steps necessary for school library survival.)

We need to make sure that folks who matter get the memo that we are not about circulation alone and that circulation itself is happening online.  (And that some of those reference books and ebooks are available–nearly invisibly–through library-funded databases.)

And that they get the memo that describes the many ways librarians address literacy and equity each and every day.

That they get the memo that physical libraries are evolving to become learning commons or libratories.  (See Library as domestic metaphor and My 2.0 Day.)

That we find multiple ways to show what the school library of today looks like in action.  (See 14 Ways K12 Librarians Can Teach Social Media.)

We haven’t done our job. We haven’t adequately marketed ourselves and our programs.

People don’t know what we look like because we haven’t shared that information effectively.

It may also be that some libraries aren’t yet there.

In case you were sleeping, over the past two years, stuff happened.

Big stuff.

Stuff we should have led.

I’ve been watching as other professionals in education grabbed turf we should have grabbed or tread together.

It reached the surface this spring with the Twitter discussion on librarians as social media specialists.

The game has changed dramatically.  The changes we talk about are not bandwagons. They represent profound changes in the way we do business, the way we do libraries, the way we must educate.

Teacher librarians, as information and communication specialists must lead change in their buildings and districts or face irrelevancy.

Something Darwinian is underway.  Adaptation is essential.  And if we are to thrive, leadership is essential.

School library practice must adapt to complete shifts in the information and communication landscapes.  Folks who believe that Web 2.0, or whatever we next call the read/write Web, will go away are hopelessly mistaken.

Mike Eisenberg allowed me to share excerpts from a discussion we engaged in this week with Lisa Layera Brunkan.

Mike wrote:

It keeps me up at night too – but to me it’s not, will the librarians be in a position to be a logical choice, but rather will librarians grab the opportunity. Any librarian employed today IS in the position! They need to embrace a role that focuses on meeting people’s information needs through any and all media, systems, formats, and approaches.

Joyce helped me to see that information literacy is both using and producing information. Librarians – particularly those in schools – should be at the center of this: to ensure that students are information literate – to ensure that students are effective users and producers of information.

What we need are opportunistic librarians – using every interaction with kids, fellow teachers, parents, administrators and the public to PROVE that they are right at the center of the action – of making sure that every student is super-skilled in information seeking, use, production, and evaluation. And, also at the center of making sure that all students have access to resources, services, technologies, and networks.

You both instinctively know how to take advantage of opportunities. You see them everywhere. That’s what we need to help the librarians to see and then to know what to do with them. . .

The slow but steady attrition in the school library field is no accident. It’s not because “they don’t understand us.” It’s not because “we haven’t gotten the message out.” It’s because many programs aren’t delivering.

Many of you are out there leading change.

The revolution can happen.  And it can happen in our blogs, through our tweets, in our libraries.

It will not happen if we are asleep at the wheel.  It will not happen if we do not assume responsibility for our own retooling.

This is the year of redefinition.

Frankly, it’s definition or death.  Some of you thought I was cold when I suggested that folks lead, follow, or get out of the way.

I know many of you are out there are working hard.

But it is not about working hard. It is about working smart. It is about marketing. It is about redefining.

Before it is too late.

This is the year.

Update: Buffy Hamilton collected a selection of responses to Seth’s post and the issue of the future of the library for the Georgia Library Media Association blog.



Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Lesley Edwards says:

    Joyce, thank you for writing this passionate post. I have flagged it for librarians in my own district to read. They need to get this message and start the work.

  2. Rob Darrow says:

    This is the clarion call for change in public and school libraries or they WILL end up being obsolete. The people working in the libraries MUST be the change for our future! (

  3. Jenny Luca says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Joyce. Librarians need to see 2010 as their year of opportunity. It’s time to understand new media and embed it in our schools. If that means moving out of the traditional library space and into classrooms then do it. Redefine the Library space; look for opportunities to bring students in. Become less worried about rules and more concerned about conversation and welcoming environments. Think about what the space looks like- make it inviting. Like you say, find the opportunities to spread new understandings about knowledge acquisition to all the stakeholders. The time is now.

  4. This could not have come at a better time! I am working on a presentation to the administrators in our district on information literacy and I hope to use a quote or two from this. I’ve made a point to say that it is more than just gathering information, it’s using it, producing it and sharing it, ad stated above. My point has always been, also, that change does not happen just because you want it, but because you make it happen. So you need to see what you are doing. Thanks so much for the support.

  5. Donna DesRoches says:

    Seth Godin’s blog resonated with me because I work in a school division where there are teacher-librarians in only 3 of our 30+ schools. There are no “leaders, sherpas and teachers” to help our students find and use information and to connect with and lead others. The three teacher-librarians ‘get it’ – as do their administrators – but without teacher-librarians in the other schools how will the administrators, who are responsible for staffing, ever realize the importance and benefit of having a trained professional in the library?

  6. Cathy Nelson says:

    What a call to arms!! Arm yourselves fellow school librarians with tools of advocacy and PR! You’ve not only need to sell your library to your patrons through being relevant, but also to the oh so many irrelevant (to current ways of learning) administrators who only care about the bottom line in terms of AYP and horrors board members/money holders who think libraries are an unneccesary expenditure.

    Oh, but don’t forget to be positive. Complaints won’t get it done. We are a lonely bunch are we not?

  7. Connie Masson says:

    Ditto what Kathie said above, “using it, producing it and sharing it,” is what the Learning Commons is all about. And providing “Labs in a Tote” for use in the Learning Commons and to check out of the Common (aka youtube livelife1936) can certainly help add value to you and your Learning Commons.

  8. Judy O'Connell says:

    Brilliant Joyce. Right behind you!

  9. jmelinson says:

    Thank you so much for addressing this important issue of the future of librarianship again. I’m sure you’ll continue to do so. So what’s next? How do we put this good advice to work for us? Well, try something new this week. And something else new next week. Take five minutes before every lesson where students will be searching the Internet for information and just talk to them about the keywords they’ll use. Give them other pointers to help them find the best information and get the most out of every search and not just accept the first source that comes up in a Google search. Be brave. Try using web 2.0 applications with your students to keep their attention, mix things up a bit, or help them work more efficiently. Become the expert. Money might be tight this year for professional development, but you can learn from your peers. Read older posts on this blog and others that are filled with ideas on how to help students find, evaluate, synthesize, and use information. Set aside some time each week this year to shake up your library program. I’m going to. Thanks for the ongoing inspiration!

  10. Brenda D Anderson says:

    As a district level instructional specialist who is responsible for providing professional development and support for over 200 library media specialist, I hear the call. Over the past couple of years, we have been sharing with the library media specialists the power of Web 2.0 and other technologies to help our students become knowledge creators. Each year it has been more difficult for our library media specialists to leave their buildings to attend f2f professional development. This year we have enhanced our delivery methods to include a collaborative site for developing professional learning communities to share ideas and effective practices. We are offering webinars and f2f meetings outside the instructional day. I keep stressing to the library media specialists how critical it is for them to take charge of their own professional learning, the urgency for changing their practices couldn’t be any clearer. They will be getting a link to this blog post. My dream would be they would be sending it to me first, saying we get it now!
    Personally, I will be launching my own blog this week. Hopefully, I will add one more voice to the advocacy and PR for our profession.

  11. gwyneth jones says:

    If we don’t grow WITH our profession we’ll grow OUT of it.

    I know the changes we’ve seen in the last 10 years are not what some of us signed up for when we started our professions but then again….

    hasn’t technology changed many professions? we don’t have woolen mills about but i still wear sweaters! and yes, the printed newspaper may be a thing of the past soon but investigative reporting will always be needed. successful reporters will work with new technology and not against it.

    so should we.

  12. Kelly Brannock says:

    Brilliant post– don’t know how I missed this back in January!

    I love the Darwinian analogy and your assertion that “this is the year.” It’s now April 2010 – are we evolving like we should, like we MUST?

    I’m with you on the idea that this IS the year. A new administration, a dire financial climate, an increasingly connected & disconnected information environment, not to mention the countless points for engagement and opportunities for leadership are ALL in play right now. A perfect storm of dangers and possibilities are at hand. Will we make the most of this moment? Can we achieve critical mass or the tipping point for becoming indispensable? And if not, what would our “extinction” mean in terms of student learning?

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