Moving from Gatekeeper to Gardener: An Introspective On Librarianship

6 min read

By Jamie LaRue

I believe that librarianship is at the threshold of transformative change. Some of that change is society-wide. Some of it is specific to libraries. In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of my professional time exploring and talking about three key trends. Together, they make up my platform as a candidate for ALA president.

First, we are moving from gatekeeper to gardener. That is, library collections have traditionally been the last link in a distribution chain. The author writes it; the agent gets it past the filters of the publisher; the publisher edits, formats, prints and markets the title; reviewers vet the titles; libraries buy it; the distributor ships it to libraries; the reader reads it. Getting from author to reader is all about getting through the gates. But the rise of ebooks disrupts that long-established sequence. Now it’s possible for someone to write a book just weeks after an event, post it on Amazon or Smashwords, and sell it directly to consumers. That bypasses a lot of middlemen. Traditional publishing only pays authors 8-15% of the sale; direct epublishing gives the author 70-85%. It should surprise no one that the result has been the greatest surge of writing in the history of mankind. The annual output of independent and self-published titles now exceeds that of traditional mainstream publishing by a factor of three. Yet, so far, these new streams of writing have yet to make it into libraries.

As director of the Douglas County Libraries (DCL), I worked with a gifted team to create a new model. We hosted, and allowed the discovery and delivery of this new content. We forged agreements with over 900 imprints to change the business terms to something quite different from the punishing license agreements of the Big Five (Random House/Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster). We got physical possession of the files, allowing us to index and integrate the titles into the rest of our collections. We also got to keep them, rather than having to buy them again after a certain number of checkouts. We negotiated 40-45% discounts. And we agreed to sell them right from our catalog. Incidentally, Gale Cengage was one of the first to see precisely what we were doing, and one of the first to sign up with us. In recent years, the DCL model has spread to hundreds of libraries.

This experiment taught us several lessons. First, and most important, is that we did not have to be passive victims of a fundamentally anti-library shift in the publishing market. It is time to experiment. Second, we learned that independent publishers and authors want their books to be read, and they understand that libraries are one of the most effective strategies they have to be found in the first place. They were eager to work with us in ways the Big Five were not. Third, after we built our own digital content platform, we realized that we ourselves were now publishers, or could be. And so we began to usher in a new age of library as publisher, reaching out to our communities to help them write better books, and helping the rest of the community to find them. This is a huge shift: instead of the last link in a distribution chain, libraries of all kinds – public, academic, school, special – can move upstream to the source of content, making common cause with creators. As ALA president, I would work not only to encourage libraries to embrace this new role, but to build larger, shared, infrastructures to support it. So we move from the fringe of a revolution to the heart of it.

The second trend concerns reference librarians. Here the trend is from embedded librarian to community leader. Like many libraries, we learned that the old model of waiting behind a desk for someone to come in with a question was losing business. People used Google, smart phones, and our own databases to empower themselves. So we experimented again with something that began as “embedded reference” – librarians leaving the building to work directly not just with individuals, but with larger groups within our surrounding community. Then we took a step further: we identified community leaders from a variety of dimensions (elected, civic, non-profit, education, faith-based, business), then conducted in-depth interviews. In this way, librarians not only began to foster important relationships with decision-makers, we also began to have comprehensive understanding of the needs and aspirations of our community. From there, we worked with those leaders to build community agendas, and stepped up to leadership of a few big projects. Again, this is not specific to public libraries. But it builds on what my uncle used to tell me about the best way to get ahead: “make your boss look good.” For libraries, your boss is the community you serve: the school district, the university, the town or county. Making them look good means you have to know what moves *their* agendas forward. In this way, libraries move from one more agency with its hand out, to a vital and valued partner.

The third trend is to move from book deserts to book abundance. Librarians often argue that we need more data to change people’s minds about our importance. I refer them to “Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations,” by MDR Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora and Donald J. Treiman, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28 (2010) 171-197. This 20 year study made the startling finding that when children between the ages of 0-5 can get 500 books in their homes, it’s as good as having two parents with Master’s degrees, regardless of their actual educational level or income. A host of studies tell us that reading readiness by kindergarden predicts fourth grade reading proficiency. Fourth grade reading proficiency predicts a host of life results: whether or not you’ll be free or in jail; how healthy you’ll be as a child, and how long you’ll live; how much education you’ll get, and how much money you’ll make. In short, librarians have, right now, the tools we need to save our communities from a host of ills, to help individuals live free, healthy, and productive lives. “Book deserts” are homes that have fewer than 25 books. Households with “book abundance” have enough books to change not just lives, not just communities, but our nation.

We know this. But too many of our other community partners do not. As ALA president, I would carry this message, out past the echo chamber of our own publications, of the vital importance of early childhood literacy.

All ALA candidates participated in our Gale Geek weekly webinar series. Watch any 30-45 minute archived presentations today. 


About the Author

Jamie LaRue is author of the award winning “The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges.” A newspaper columnist for over 25 years, former host of both an internet radio program and a cable TV author interview program, he currently writes, speaks, and consults on the future of libraries.


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