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Make Way for Knowledge

R. David Lankes, professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, is spreading the word: We need to let go of outdated images of libraries and explore what they could be, what they should be. Perhaps the title of his latest book says it best: Expect More: Demanding Better Libraries for Today’s Complex World.

This message comes at a difficult time for many local school libraries. When budgets get tight, they are often one of the first places cuts are made. In Marcellus, operating hours at the elementary level were cut in 2011. Elementary librarians were cut, or not retained, in the Jamesville-DeWitt and Fabius-Pompey districts that same year. Lankes says when that occurs, students lose the chance to learn from educators specifically trained to help foster cross-curriculum learning and critical-thinking skills.

“You hear things like, ‘It’s really hard to cut a teacher so we had to cut other folks like librarians.’ But librarians are certified teachers,” Lankes says. “They should be designing and delivering curriculum: a lot of technology instruction, and technology literacy and information literacy. When we cut those positions, we’re not just cutting someone who is maintaining the books in the room. We’re cutting a curriculum.”

Libraries are a key tool to support teaching in each subject area. They’re not “extras.”

“They can really foster not only the ability to read, but the desire to read,” Lankes says. “As you move up to middle school, we begin to talk about making sense of what we’re reading: the ability not only to link what they are doing in the classroom to real-world experiences but the real world back into what’s going on in the classroom. That’s not done just through books and materials. It’s done online, and once kids go online, there’s a huge world they need to know about—and sooner and sooner.”

Lankes, a Jamesville father of two sons—Riley, 12, and Andrew, 9—did not remain silent when one of the three elementary school librarian positions in his school district was eliminated last year. During a meeting of the Jamesville-DeWitt School Board last March, Lankes said he hoped the board would restore funding for the position, noting the importance of training in digital access and support for Common Core (state general knowledge) standards. Ultimately, the board did not reinstate the position.

“I really begin to lose patience when I find libraries that aren’t living up to their potential, or libraries that are in situations where they are not being supported to do that,” Lankes says. “(There’s) documented evidence that libraries have a positive impact on learning. What’s hopeful to me is seeing that the incoming generation of librarians are activist: They’re change agents. We have the right ingredients, what we need now is to set the vision and to sell the vision, particularly to school administrators (or school boards) who perhaps haven’t had a very positive experience with school libraries.”

Lankes’ roles as father and educator give him a unique vantage point. He knows what’s needed, and he sees how it can be attained. Parenthood has only made his commitment to his work stronger.

“A lot of what I do is because I’m a parent,” Lankes says. “There’s the academic side of it, but the passion comes from wanting a better life for my kids, for me, my mom. I think libraries are a big part of the equation of having better lives within communities—whatever they are.”

Lankes didn’t always envision himself a librarian, let alone one of the profession’s most passionate activists. A Cincinnati native, he came to Syracuse University to pursue a career as a graphic illustrator. After completing his degree in multimedia design he earned a master’s degree in telecommunications and a Ph.D. in information transfer through the university’s School of Information Studies—and he never left. His wife, Anna Maria Lankes, is also an SIS alumna and a former technology coordinator for the East Syracuse-Minoa School District.

Lankes is considered a pioneer in virtual reference management, and is currently director of the Information Institute of Syracuse. In addition to his self-published book Expect More, he is author of The Atlas of New Librarianship, put out by MIT Press, which won the 2012 ABC-CLIO/Greenwood Award for Best Book in Library Literature.

Lankes, 42, entered the field of library science just as it approached a crossroads. The librarian’s role in helping students go from learning to reading, to finding information, to using that knowledge has not really changed that much in the last 40 years, he says. “The way that libraries do it has changed.”

And it’s time to let go of our nostalgia for the traditional library, he says. For some adults, it may be hard to envision how libraries can help today’s students reach their potential.

“Technology has changed, and the tools and approaches we use change. So, school libraries have changed a lot,” says Lankes. “The problem comes from administrators who may not have been in a classroom for a long time, or parents who don’t quite know what to ask or what to expect out of their libraries.”

A local example of the theme is the Fayetteville Free Library, featured in Expect More (in the chapter “Expect to Create”) and on Lankes’ blog, Virtual Dave … Real Blog. Lankes notes that “folks can use a 3D printer” in the library’s Fab Lab.

“What is now important for librarians to do is introduce the idea that: the core of why you fell in love with us is still there, but the way in which we do it is radically different and we need different kinds of support for that,” he continues. “It’s partially a parent’s responsibility to find that out, but it’s certainly the responsibility of librarians to inform and educate parents on what they need out of a library as a parent, not what they need out of a library as a second-grader.”

Still, Lankes remains optimistic about the future of the school library. “There are many schools that have seen the value of libraries: It’s where you can have a curriculum that’s not buttoned down by the state. It’s inquiry-driven, meaning it’s the student’s curiosity that drives them, not some predefined set of objectives,” Lankes explains. “When you see it working, it’s magnificent.”

Lankes says the time has come for librarians to be more than just “those nice people behind a desk who encourage reading and research.” They have the skills to help people be more discriminating in evaluating the information they access.

“To get to your potential, you need a push,” he says. “And librarians are realizing that they can push. This makes for a better, more energetic profession. And frankly, it makes for better communities. Parents shouldn’t settle for less.”     

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.

Photo above: Michael Davis Photo

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