The Mission of Libraries (should you choose to accept it)

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Friday March 18, 2016. Day Two of Library Leadership in a Digital Age, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Approximately forty students take their seats in anticipation of the post-lunch lecture.

Enter, Dr Howard Gardner.

Ahh (Taylor Swift) sourced from

FYI that is Taylor Swift (not Dr Gardner). But for storytelling purposes it is very important you understand my internal reaction as one of the most intelligent men on the planet walked into the classroom at Harvard University!

Now for those of you asking ‘Ah, who is Howard Gardner!?’.

In short, he is a Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University; the psychologist responsible for the theory of multiple intelligences (MI); a collaborator on The Good Project (take the time to check out their projects) and; to many educators (including myself) an intellectual legend!

Welcome to the Nerd Zone, My Friend sourced from

Wait, it didn’t happen if you don’t share it on social media right? See below for sneaky visual evidence of being in a classroom with Howard Gardner.

Photograph of Howard Gardner

OK, now that I have my fangirling out of the way, back to the lecture.

As expected, Gardner gave airtime to ‘all things MI’ but the core of his address was around his latest research on ‘the future of professions’ (and the individuals who are called ‘professionals’) with a pertinent focus on libraries and librarians.

“I’ve become increasingly uncertain about whether professions will continue to exist, at least in a form that I can admire or even recognize. There are many views about why professions are on the wane—indeed, to put it sharply, whether the professions are being murdered or whether, to maintain the metaphor, they have been committing suicide.”

– Howard Gardner​

He hit us hard: What is the mission of libraries?

The debate was protracted. Everyone in the room had a different standpoint. Some took the ‘more than books’ angle, arguing a ‘shopping mall’ analogy (bookstore slash cafe slash classroom slash travel agency slash public amenities etc); others romanticised the old-world charm and the historical importance of the physical library building; whilst many put the spotlight on qualifications and the skills of the individuals working in the field.

Meanwhile, I was genuinely perplexed. Provoked, but perplexed.

What WAS the mission of libraries? And if we (a collective of library leaders aka ‘professionals’ from around the world!) could not agree on a mission, what did that mean for the future of the profession?

When in doubt: tweet!

I have a secret go-to tool (well, not-so-secret now!) to help get the creative sparks flying and catalyze conversation: Six Words (inspired by the Six-Word Memoirs® project by SMITH Magazine). By asking people to ‘say it in six’ – that is, literally six words – it provides an opportunity for provocation as well as reflection, and, when words are a weakness, a challenge to concisely share a story.

And so I tweeted: Describe the mission of libraries/librarians in 6 words

With replies from the likes of R. David Lankes, Stephen Heppell and Richard Neville (big names in the library world!). As well as colleagues in professions ranging from education to engineering, marketing to medicine, and everything in between.

The answers were plentiful. Some key themes were clear but ultimately no consensus.

Here are my top ten replies:

  • place with food for my brain
  • empower, enlighten and inspire the community
  • making reading seductive and readers cool
  • cultivate creativity, curiosity, love of learning
  • information provision, lifelong learning, safe space
  • every experience becomes a learning opportunity
  • Sparking curiosity. Inspiring learning. Creating connections.
  • free open access for thoughts, information
  • connect | inspire | collaborate | learn | create | joy
  • community hubs that change people’s live

Uh-oh. Could Gardner be right? Was the future of the library professional a mission impossible situation? Sure, I was feeling motivated (thanks to such colourful and creative tweets) but if I was going to commit my career to this profession I really needed clarity on the mission.

Or did I?

The aha moment arrived about three months later. I was preparing my presentation for the EduTech 2016 Future Library Congress when I stumbled upon a quote from John Palfrey’s book ‘BiblioTECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google’ (p.175).

“Education has not yet been disrupted in the way that related fields—such as libraries and journalism – have been, but the crisis is coming.”​ – John Palfrey

Disruption. Yes, it’s a buzz word (at its peak according to Google Ngram Viewer). But it finally explained the state of disarray amongst the library profession.

By definition, disruption pertains to confusion. Could this be why we couldn’t agree on a mission? Are we all-consumed trying to respond to the disruption? Not to mention the fact libraries and education are interchangeable. And if an education crisis is looming, then then the field of libraries can only expect further disruption!

As new technology arises, the mission changes. As the lines between physical and digital spaces become increasingly blurred, the mission changes. As the needs of our democratic societies continue to evolve, the mission changes.

Palfrey may be suggesting libraries have been disrupted. However, I would argue that our crisis is still in motion. Disruption is a process and disruption takes time. And during this time of transition it is, undoubtedly, library ‘professionals’ (librarians and nonlibrarians) who hold the ethic, patience and spirit to ensure libraries innovate successfully into the future.

Perhaps the mission of libraries is to commit to a mantra of disruption, to channel the confusion into creativity, to continuously re-conceptualise, and to accept change as the only constant.

If so, do you choose to accept it?

The writer is Stefanie Gaspari, Director of Library Services, Trinity Grammar School, Australia

At EduTECH Asia , Gaspari will be moderating a roundtable session on “Disruption is the New Black: How to adopt a mantra of disruption to innovate space, staffing and services in your school library”. She will also be facilitating the Edu-Slam discussion for the ‘Librarians’ cohort.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to meet and learn from Gaspari and other world renowned education experts – all at one place!

Book you seat now before the ticket price rises.


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