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With Purpose and Intent

By Rachel Frick

When a friend passes away, it always leaves me thinking: What did I learn from our friendship, and what should I do to honor that friend—not just on that day or as a one-time gesture, but over time? How can I change the way I live my life, positively inspired by that friendship?

The recent passing of Lee Dirks and his wife Judy Lew in a tragic car accident in Peru has me thinking about these questions again. There are many great stories about Lee and Judy—just check out Lee’s facebook page to see how wide an impact their lives had.

Yet, because of Lee’s broad influence among his colleagues in academic research, libraries, data curation, and technology, my question is broader: How do we as a community honor the lesson of Lee Dirk’s support and friendship?

There have been a number of remembrances posted by our community members, but the one that struck me most was Peter Brantley’s blog post in Publisher’s Weekly

In particular, it was this passage that hit home:

He wanted what we all of us wanted: ready access to more information online, and tools to use it. His encouragement seemed all the more striking because of where he worked; his willingness to leverage the Microsoft’s resources on behalf of libraries, archives, and academic publishing around the world struck us as exceptional, something we never took for granted. His enthusiasm and support made us wonder why every major technology company didn’t have someone like Lee. Except that there was no one else like Lee. He was an amazing ambassador for Microsoft, and he was more than that: he filled us with passion for our own ideas [emphasis added].

Again: “he filled us with the passion of our own ideas.” He always encouraged us to dream big—work together—and make something happen. He believed that libraries and librarians had something important to contribute, especially to the worlds of research and scholarly communication.

All too often, we librarians second guess ourselves or our colleagues and sell ourselves short. We act too slowly, think too small, are often quick to dismiss ideas, and tend to lower the bar for our aspirations. It is time to change all of that. We need to expect more—of ourselves, of our colleagues, and of our capacity to change. We have a lot to learn from Lee.

A few weeks ago I participated in the Ticer Summer School for Digital Libraries. It was a great experience and one I recommend to any who have a chance to attend. The best part was finally meeting David Lankes, author of The Atlas of New Librarianship and director of Syracuse University’s Library and Information Science Program. I had talked to him by conference call lifetimes ago when I worked at the Institute of Museum and Library Services as he was working on the Atlas. But it was at Ticer that I had the chance to talk with him about his passion for libraries and librarianship and his thoughts about what our biggest challenges are. We discussed his presentation—New Librarianship and Libraries as Platform, especially the mission statement for librarians:

“The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”

There is a lot to unpack here—the online Atlas really helps navigate and understand the complexity of such a simple statement. For me, it brought into sharp focus that we, as librarians, often constrain ourselves. We tend to think of our libraries only in terms of collections, and not how we, in active conversation with our communities, help build new knowledge and are capable of enacting social change. Since the rise of mass printing, we have come to think of libraries primarily as book warehouses with a collection-centric operational focus. We are more than our books. Or we should be.

For me, the person who exemplified “new librarianship in action” was Lee Dirks. He embraced change and created community everywhere he went. We need to remember and see what Lee saw in us, and, like Lee, be ready and willing to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. We have to stop selling ourselves short. We should be excited about trying something new and be ready to listen with an open mind to a new idea. It is time to step outside our comfort zone and our institutional confines to work on the big issues, together. We should strive toward “new librarianship” with gusto, being less passive and more active. We should stretch, risk more, be unafraid of being wrong or less than perfect, accept that we are in an iterative development cycle, and be comfortable with failure and mistakes.

Because if we are not failing, we are not learning; if we are not learning, we are not growing. If we are not growing, how can we be relevant? It is this approach to librarianship and the enthusiastic rise to the challenge that will always remind me of Lee. It would be befitting to his memory if we actually made good on the promise of the potential he saw in us.

With thanks to Emily Gore and Tim DiLauro for helping me organize my thoughts and find the right words.

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