Keynote Address at Changing Times: Inspiring Libraries Summit

December 07, 2012

Sheraton Wall Centre
Vancouver, BC

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

I am honoured to speak to you today and I am inspired to be here. I believe that libraries are crucial to nurturing a strong and healthy democracy and to the success, more generally, of our country. And I believe that librarians, more than bricks, mortar and collections, are the most essential contributors to that success.

I don’t suppose I need justify myself – in this room – for promoting the importance of libraries … but I would still like to share my reasoning, and to argue that I am not overstating the case.

One of my father’s favourite sayings was philosopher George Santayana’s observation that "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."  But it is more broadly true that those who lose track of – or disregard – our accumulated knowledge are even more doomed by their ignorance. 

So, libraries are essential as accessible records of that knowledge. And librarians are essential because there is no algorithm for wisdom.

We are in danger of forgetting this fact in our “information age.” An increasing number of people, companies, and governments have been seduced lately by the idea that all we need is Google.

They think that because we have the internet, arguably the largest and most extensive library ever assembled, all we now need are sufficiently proficient web crawlers – virtual spiderbots programmed to search, collate, categorize and retrieve.

You take an inexhaustible amount of information, add a clever assortment of mathematical formulae, and “voila!” – you can shrink buildings, cut storage fees, and dispense with all those pesky people who have been telling you to “shush!”

This is naïve – shortsighted in a dangerous way.  Most obviously, it overlooks the substance and value of library resources that defy digitization.  But as importantly, it overlooks the fact that no web crawler will ever come back from the stacks and say, “I couldn’t find that source you were looking for, but I thought you might be interested in this!”

A library is not an abacus or even a supercomputer that harbours only the precise answers to specific questions. On the contrary, libraries by their nature are filled with surprises, with answers to questions that you haven’t thought to ask – and sometimes with questions that only you can answer.

The magic, in any library, is not to be found in the depth or breadth of its collection. The world’s greater and lesser collections are all capable of being magical in their own way but a library where things are kept, but never organized or accessed would more appropriately be called a midden.  Like a treasure that’s never spent, its value is wasted.

The alchemy occurs when the information is brought together; it occurs in that magic moment when a single piece of knowledge is brought to the attention of a seeker, or when two pieces of knowledge collide, intentionally or serendipitously, in the observer’s hands.

Just as history is helpful only if we attend to its lessons, knowledge is useful only if it’s noticed and processed. 

Even then, knowledge doesn’t automatically evolve into a higher order.  Wisdom isn’t the result of a mathematical exploration of predictable patterns – it's not the product of an algorithm, no matter how elegant.

Wisdom, discovery, revelation – call it what you will – flows from the observation of something that is unpredictable from pattern recognition alone.  It is a creative phenomenon that occurs when the treasury of knowledge – having been assembled and organized – is made available to the user in the optimal way.  It flows from the insights gleaned from a multitude of connections arising from a process of engagement.

So, I am here today to make the case for the “engaged library,” just as I arrive as an advocate of the “engaged university.”

For many of you, this might seem obvious.  You could easily say: “Of course we’re engaged … with our users and with our communities.”  But it hasn’t always been so, with libraries or with universities.

Just as there is a university tradition of the ivory tower – of the academic cloister that eschews interaction with the broader community – there is a history of people in your profession who were convinced that their libraries would be all the more beautiful if people didn’t keep coming in and messing them up.

I’d argue that this was never an appropriate view – for universities or libraries.  But its vestiges remain and, with universities at least, many still resist making engagement with the broad community a central part of their mission.

I also would argue that engagement must be a mission, because it requires a devout sense of purpose.

To begin, you must understand what engagement really means. In the university context – which I believe to be comparable to that of libraries – there is a Carnegie Foundation definition that I find especially useful.  It refers to engagement as “collaboration between higher education institutions and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”

The best part of that definition is captured in the last three words, “partnership and reciprocity.”  There has been a trend in recent decades to think of the world in economic terms:  to suggest that we are all purveyors of services and that everyone is a “client” or a “customer.” In this view, the people in our communities aren’t partners or collaborators, they are consumers.

This is the first mistake in establishing true engagement:  it reduces one’s efforts to outreach or, worse, marketing.  Engagement is like dialogue:  it only occurs if there’s listening as well as talking … and the relationship involves mutual respect amongst equals.

That’s where we at SFU took this topic soon after I became President – with an exercise in listening.  We launched a process called envision>SFU, which produced one of the most extensive consultations ever undertaken by a Canadian university.  In meetings and workshops, in person and online, we asked our students, faculty and staff, as well as our alumni, supporters and interested citizens, what they liked best about SFU – and how could we make it even better.

The answer we got back was remarkably consistent. People said that what made SFU special was its energy, its openness and its willingness to “engage” – with its students, in its research, and especially in its relationships with the communities it serves. 

As a result, we made it a key goal of our new Strategic Vision to build on that strength.  We resolved “To be the leading engaged university defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research, and far-reaching community engagement.”

To achieve that goal, we realized that we need to more fully engage students, not as clients or customers, but as collaborators in their own education.  And we also need to increase opportunities for them to be involved in research and to engage community – through co-op education and other forms of experiential learning.

In these ways, we aspire, in the words of the Vision, to equip students “with the knowledge, skills, and experiences that prepare them for life in an ever-changing and challenging world.”

At the same time, we sought ways to encourage our faculty and staff to become further engaged, by committing, for example, to build on a foundation of fundamental research to become “a world leader in research mobilization.”  We propose to do this, again quoting the Vision, by seeking “opportunities to transfer the results of [our] research to the broader society, including policy-makers, civil society leaders, and the community.”

Needless to say, our library has a huge role to play in this endeavour, even as it does in supporting students.  Thankfully, we have librarians who are leaders in open access, digitization and other strategies that make our library an instrument for the facilitation and practice of community engagement.       

So we engage our students – and promote their engagement in the community. We engage our faculty and staff – and promote their efforts to leverage their knowledge for the public good. In these ways we, like libraries, help to develop an engaged and informed citizenry – and in the process, a strong and healthy democracy.

But, in addition, we also take a very direct and strategic approach to engaging community with the whole of our operation.

Our Strategic Vision puts it this way: “SFU will develop partnerships and maximize the capacities of its three campuses to enhance the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities both locally and globally.”

I raise this because of the extraordinary way in which SFU has leveraged its physical infrastructure to promote both community engagement and community betterment.

At our Vancouver campus, which the Vancouver Sun has called “the intellectual heart of the city,” we have revived heritage buildings and in the process re-energized a fading business district.  The five buildings that comprise that campus bring 7,000 students and 9,000 events – such as meetings, conferences, dialogues, lectures and performances – into the downtown each year.

In Surrey, our campus has been the catalyst for another transformation of a neighbourhood at risk.  Where once there was a failing shopping district, there is now a vibrant and expanding Surrey City Centre.

Those of you familiar with the area will know that we have not done this work alone. The Surrey Centre Library is a beautiful new addition to the neighbourhood and a valued partner in our own efforts to engage.

SFU Surrey is fortunate to have three classrooms in that new building, where we offer an extensive selection of continuing studies courses.  And soon, thanks to a contribution from TD Bank, we will be opening a community engagement centre in the library that will enable us to more fully serve the needs of the South Fraser region.

In this regard, I should note that libraries have been long-time leaders when it comes to this kind of physical place-making.  Unlike universities, which have been placed on the top of mountains or at the end of peninsulas, the great libraries have always been centres of engagement and civil society, a role that I encourage you to maintain and expand.

Even for those of you who manage smaller, special libraries, it’s important to remember (and for your funders to remember) that a library is not the stacks; rather it’s a place where people gather to discover and discuss what’s IN the stacks – or, more likely now, the databases.

I recognize that for many of you, the call to become more engaged involves challenges of finding space, retaining space, or keeping space open for longer hours. This speaks to another dimension in which the functions of engaged universities and engaged libraries overlap – to mutual benefit – namely in the establishment and maintenance of a Public Square.

Returning again to SFU’s Vision, we say: “SFU will be B.C.’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues, and will be known as the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.”

But this is an area in which SFU would happily compete – or, better still, collaborate – with regional libraries. Indeed, the best libraries have always served this role. They are places where ideas could be tested and truth could be pursued – safe spaces where people could speak freely about controversial issues.

They also have been important – and, I believe, should become more important – as what is sometimes referred to as “the third place.” In Vancouver’s increasingly dense metropolis, there is an increasing need for space that is not home, not work – and not the shopping mall.

This is the library as a key part of the commons.  Libraries have a proud tradition of managing common property, keeping collections that could be shared for mutual benefit.  For many, libraries provide the only free and available access to that other, more recent addition to the public commons – the internet.

Academically and socially, we are also expanding on the notion of the “learning commons” … a place where people come together to do research, to share, to clarify, to discuss and debate. Many libraries are also establishing “creator spaces,” places where people can pursue projects – sometimes even create printed and bound copies of their own books.

Thus, from an engagement perspective, the library is not an institution that provides a service to its client base.  Rather, it’s a place – real and virtual – in which people can serve themselves … and their communities.

I have a couple of favourite examples of this conception of libraries in action.  One is SFU’s Komagata Maru project, an online archive, assembled with extensive community participation, to promote understanding the 1914 incident. The result is a remarkable collection including government documents, oral histories, private records, artistic endeavours, and interviews.

Another is a project called Chinese Canadian Stories, a one-stop web portal dedicated to collecting, archiving and distributing information about Chinese Canadian history.  Led by Professor Henry Yu at UBC, SFU’s Library has played a crucial role in developing the portal’s infrastructure and providing content.  This project’s success reinforces my earlier point about the potential for greater impact when organizations engage with each other and collaborate, rather than competing.

Both projects are examples of crowdsourcing for which we can thank forerunners like Wikipedia.  But as we know from these and other web-based crowdsourcing initiatives, the best are those that are managed by professional librarians.

This approach to harnessing the energy – and wisdom – of crowds reveals two other positive aspects of community engagement for universities and libraries.  First, engagement can create direct benefits for an organization, such as by enriching a collection or increasing curatorial capacity.  Second, the very act of being engaged enables an organization to demonstrate its value to the community.

On the first point, when I spoke earlier about SFU’s leveraging its physical space, I didn’t mention our original campus on Burnaby Mountain.  

Until very recently, SFU Burnaby was a commuter campus, relatively isolated. There was no contiguous community with which to engage, and no ancillary services that our students, faculty and staff could readily access.

We have changed all that with the creation of UniverCity, a model sustainable community.  UniverCity currently houses 3,500 people, half of whom work or study at SFU.  It has shops and restaurants, a LEED Gold elementary school created from a recycled building, and a daycare that has been described as the greenest childcare centre “on the planet,” and is destined to be designated Canada’s first “living building.”

So, UniverCity has been an incredible boon.  As so often happens when we engage – whether through our students working in the community, our researchers seeking solutions to the social and environmental challenges we face, or the university itself developing everything from a new community arts centre in the Downtown Eastside, to the centre of a revitalized community in Surrey, to a new sustainable community on Burnaby Mountain – we find that our institution benefits immeasurably from our efforts.

On the second point – demonstrating our value to the community – it is important, especially in tight economic times, that taxpayers see the return they are getting on their investment.  Here again, a commitment to engagement can help universities and libraries to make our case. 

As I noted earlier, libraries have a rich history of engagement.  And library users, like university alumni, tend to be incredibly loyal and enthusiastic.

In both instances, however, those groups are relatively small.  By expanding our reach – by engaging more fully with the communities we serve – we make a greater contribution, even as we gain much-needed community support. 

In my own discipline of law, there is a saying that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.  A similar principle applies here.  For the public to support universities and libraries, it’s not enough that we do good work; citizens must see, understand and, better still, experience the value of the work that we do.

The great thing about this is that, for those of us who believe in “engaged universities” and “engaged libraries,” doing right by others is likely to persuade others to do right by us.

David Lankes, who you heard from this morning, has a great description of libraries in his most recent book, Expect More.  He says: “Bad libraries only build collections. Good libraries build services. … Great libraries build communities.”

That IS what you do. And given the power of information, your positive economic impact is easily as extensive as your social contribution.  At a time when some governments are cutting funding to libraries and archives, we must do everything in our power to demonstrate the importance of libraries in nurturing socially and economically vibrant communities.

I’d like to leave you now with two other challenges, both of which I acknowledge are immensely difficult.

The first is to engage, enthusiastically, in the task of resolving the tension between authors’ rights and users’ rights. I’m very proud of the efforts that SFU makes to make information freely available.  

Open source exercises such as our Public Knowledge Project put important information in the hands of the people who need it, to advance social understanding and societal wealth. 

But I am equally conscious that in our transition to a paywall world, newspaper, magazine and book publishers are struggling and failing – and content creators are increasingly challenged to survive.  

We have to find a way to acknowledge the value of information, even as we fight for the right to make it available to the widest possible audience.  I have no prediction as to how this will be resolved, but I am confident that librarians will be part of the solution.

Finally, I urge you to hold us all to account.  I began today by talking about the temptations of Google – its promise and its shortcomings.  One thing Google does especially well is reinforce one’s biases. In this complicated world, whatever one wants to believe, Google will provide evidence in support. There is always some source at the ready to reconfirm one’s preconceptions.

Yet, that way disaster lies.  The information we need is often the information we don’t want.  It’s the book we didn’t ask for – the academic paper that challenges our most fundamental conviction.

So, please, check our facts.  Challenge our preconceptions.  Bring us those books and articles that we would prefer didn’t exist.  When we are drowning in information, throw us the lifelines that enable us to survive stormy seas, to find firm ground and, ultimately, to attain wisdom.

More generally, I encourage you, in the spirit of David Lankes, to be community builders and to engage boldly, in the smallest professional circles and the largest public squares.  By doing so, you will give us reason to be optimistic – not only about the future of libraries, but also about the future of humankind.