Exploring Our Foundations in Times of Change

Day 3 of the Symposium on the Future of Libraries

This article was originally published by American Libraries Magazine

Sarah Houghton, director of San Rafael (Calif.) Public Library, discusses 21st-century library ethics at the Symposium on the Future of Libraries.
Sarah Houghton, director of San Rafael (Calif.) Public Library, discusses 21st-century library ethics at the Symposium on the Future of Libraries.

It was back to school on the third and final day of the Symposium on the Future of Libraries at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Atlanta.

The day started with a plenary session with education innovators Jeffrey Martín of honorCode and Stephen Harmon of Georgia Tech Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U). Moderators Audrey Church, professor and coordinator of the school librarianship program of Longwood University and president of the American Association of School Librarians, and Ann Campion Riley, associate director of the University of Missouri Libraries and immediate past president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, emphasized that the session took the long view of education from K–20. Both speakers followed through with insights applicable across the learning lifecycle and emphasized a recurring theme of the day—our commitment to education and values that stands up to change and challenges.

Martín’s organization, honorCode, is a nonprofit social enterprise that provides curriculum and training to K–12 teachers and students to help bring more web development into the classroom, integrating coding across the curriculum, not just in elective computer science courses. honorCode sees a mission in transforming the most vulnerable members of the community into technology entrepreneurs—a particularly important mission given the Atlanta economy’s shift to financial technology, cybersecurity, and other high-growth tech industries. Martín’s work with school library media specialists at honorCode’s pilot school allowed him to frame his remarks around library professionals’ strengths as teachers and instructional specialists, information navigators, and program administrators. Helping the audience see tech entrepreneurs in a different way, he emphasized the importance of information scanning for budding entrepreneurs, as a tool for helping them keep pace with their own industry and with changes across the world. This information awareness is key to entrepreneurs’ success, and it is a skill that might be most easily advanced by the work of school librarians and information professionals.

Stephen Harmon’s work as director of educational innovation at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) helps drive its living laboratory for fundamental change in higher education, testing educational techniques in classrooms, developing technology-driven solutions that result in optimal student outcomes, and combining technological solutions with practice and process modifications. Harmon took a long-view approach to the need for change in education. Illustrating the overwhelming exponential growth overtaking our society, he noted our own understandable inability to deal with the effects of these changes. While other sectors—transportation, home and family composition—have been radically transformed by technology and other changes, education still uses the systems invented in the Industrial Age, incrementally adjusted to use technology in the same processes as before. As these technologies continue to evolve, educational systems will need to prepare individuals with adaptive expertise, skills that might allow individuals to have five careers over their lifetimes. Harmon likened this to the differences between a cook and a chef: The former can replicate the same output using the same ingredients and tools, while the latter can adapt unexpected ingredients, tools, and methods to create valuable and inventive outcomes.

Among the morning’s concurrent sessions, “Crafting Successful Youth Civic Engagement in Information Spaces” highlighted a research-based action–reflection frame for youth participation developed by MacArthur Foundation’s Youth Participatory Politics (YPP) Research Network. Chaebong Nam, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Department of Government, presented the research and thinking behind Harvard University’s and YPP’s 10 Questions for Participatory Politics. Inspired by the fan activism harnessed by the Harry Potter Alliance, 40 researchers explored the question, “How can we help our civic actors achieve equitable, effective, and self-protective civil agency in the digital age?” Over seven years, the researchers found that individuals’ interests lead them to civil action, “clicktivism” can provide an important gateway to more meaningful acts of political engagement, that a shift from “sharing your voice” to influencing change needs to be made, and that new digital spaces can harbor dangers for personal well-being, including privacy, incivility, and cyberbullying. The 10 Questions for Participatory Politics can be used by teens, educators and civic technologists to facilitate discussions and action. As a next phase of the work, the network is looking for stories and feedback from those using the questions with youth.

In her session “21st Century Library Ethics,” San Rafael (Calif.) Public Library Director Sarah Houghton (of the popular Librarian in Black blog) brought a particularly timely message to a standing-room-only session. Making note of political tensions among librarians in the wake of the new US presidential administration, Houghton asked library professionals, with a deep breath (in and out), to think about the profession’s founding documents as a north star to steer by in times of challenge. Houghton used the framework of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights to revisit what librarians say about their own ethics and apply them to current situations. One easy rallying point for most libraries—and with little controversy among library professionals—is fighting censorship in all its forms. Even with these agreements, other areas might remain grey, including ALA’s Code of Ethics, whose theme of freedom might draw a wide range of opinions and interpretations among library professionals. As professionals look ahead, new technologies like digital rights management, which allows content creators to “lock” content that can only be opened with a special digital key, or concepts like net neutrality, which champions an open internet free from “fast” and “slow” access channels based on cost or providers, will require professionals to consider their values as a means of navigation. Houghton highlighted resources like the Library Privacy Project, the Library Digital Privacy Pledge, the IFLA Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment, and ALA’s soon-to-be-released Library Privacy Guidelines (in checklist form friendly to all sizes of libraries). Houghton’s own work continues with Operation 451, a new project cocreated with Andy Woodworth, to suggest positive ethical actions for librarians in challenging times.

As the three days of the Symposium came to a close, what became clear was our commitment to exploring both the positive and challenging futures that lie ahead—and our strength in building our futures together.

Special thanks to Carson Block, Carson Block Consulting, and Kate McNair, Teen Services Coordinating Librarian, Johnson County Library, for their help in reporting on sessions.