In praise of “slow librarianship”

Nick Poole
13 min readJan 28, 2023
Living Root Bridges in India by Arshiya Urveeja Bose — Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17238490

CILIP CEO Nick Poole reflects on Meredith Farkas’ ‘slow librarianship’ and the need for librarians and information professionals to be given the time and space they need to build deeper connections, both with their user communities and within the bodies of knowledge they manage.

I know, I know. We’re in an instantaneous, always-on, 24-hour news cycle kind of world which prizes immediacy above almost everything else. And in so many ways, the business of knowledge and information at scale has followed suit — with AI-powered search trying harder than ever to answer the user’s question before they’ve even had time to formulate it.

But recently it has become increasingly clear that ‘faster’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘better’ when it comes to helping people find real answers to real questions.

Something happens when a librarian or information professional spends time with a body of knowledge. Connections form, strengthen and grow, gradually exposing layers of meaning and causality which at a cursory glance simply weren’t there.

The process of cataloguing a collection of books, records or ephemera isn’t just about organising them for the immediacy of search and retrieval. It’s about the slow, painstaking process of learning — of peeling back the layers of meaning and connection to reveal the rich structure of ideas and developments beneath the surface.

So, too, for conservation. Conservation isn’t about repairing things, or undoing history. Its a deep, meaningful process of learning and engagement which lasts as long as the material itself lasts.

But more deeply than this, being a librarian or information professional means becoming an expert not just in the material, but in the communities that created, gave rise to and that will ultimately use that material. It means understanding and adjusting for the power dynamics that have prioritised some voices over others, and the impact that this has had on the bodies of knowledge in our care.

Introducing ‘slow librarianship’

‘Slow librarianship’ isn’t a new coinage — variants of the concept have been around throughout the history of professional library practice. But it is Meredith Farkas who brought the concept to life through a series of articles, essays, posts and talks in 2018, drawing on an earlier essay by librarian Julia Glassman ‘The Innovation Fetish and slow librarianship: What librarians can learn from the Juicero’ (side-note: Juicero is a Silicon Valley startup that became a byword for over-engineered folly in 2017).

As Farkas writes in her 2018 post “Slow life, slow librarianship”;

“Slow librarianship is an antiracist, responsive, and values-driven practice that stands in opposition to neoliberal values. Workers in slow libraries are focused on relationship-building, deeply understanding and meeting patron needs, and providing equitable services to their communities. Internally, slow library culture is focused on learning and reflection, collaboration and solidarity, valuing all kinds of contributions, and supporting staff as whole people. Slow librarianship is a process, not a destination; it is an orientation towards our work, ourselves, and others that creates positive change. It is an organizational philosophy that supports workers and builds stronger relationships with our communities.”

‘Slow’ as in food…

In this formulation, ‘slow’ is not the antithesis to ‘fast’, but follows the pattern ‘slow’ as in ‘slow food’ — the global movement which links the consumption of food to a commitment to community.

Slow food — as both a movement and an organisation — is defined primarily by what it is for: it seeks to promote a more thoughtful, informed and engaged mode of consumption which prioritises a sense of connection and community. It emphasises the idea that consumption and production are all part of a continuum, the goal of which is to live more sustainably and harmoniously.

By a process of association, therefore, ‘slow food’ also naturally leads to a position that is anti-capitalist, anti-extraction and anti-commodification — because all of those things seek to disconnect consumption and production and to hide the true cost of consumption from the consumer. They break the connection back to community which is the foundation of sustainable living.

‘Slow’ is enjoyable where ‘fast’ is anxious. ‘Slow’ teaches us to savour, to understand and to appreciate, where ‘fast’ says that we have to bolt our meal in order to get to the next. ‘Slow’ allows layers and depth to emerge naturally, while ‘fast’ forces flavours into a meal through artifice.

It is not for nothing that the Italian chapters of the slow food movement are known as ‘convivia’.

All of these analogies are meaningful for the ways in which we think about libraries, knowledge and information here in the UK.

Reductio ad processum

Ever since the Thatcherite era in the 1980’s, the UK has been in thrall to the idea that everything is reducible to a quantifiable process, and that every process can therefore be made more efficient. Despite nearly 40 years of evidence to the contrary, the dominant political belief remains that ‘efficiency’ (and in its new form ‘productivity’) is eternal.

It has become a political maxim that the way to improve efficiency is to industrialise, to automate and to connect through the magic realism of ‘infrastructural projects’. Our very British version of ‘if we build it, they will come’ is ‘if we connect it, prosperity will surely somehow appear’.

Proponents of this view ignore the fact thati in our history it was often not that infrastructure led to prosperity, but that rising prosperity created the economic comfort that led to increased demand for that infrastructure. In other words, we needed more roads because more people could afford cars. It was not that having roads magically made cars more affordable.

These maxims are untrue, largely because they engineer out the very human factors that actually make people work harder and produce more — comfort, stability, aspiration, ambition, empathy, society, philanthropy, a sense of home, of belonging, of purpose, of mission and of meaning.

This reductive impulse has been disastrous for libraries, on two counts. Firstly, because it re-casts them away from their primary role as places of meaning, connection and learning and into a new and uncomfortable role as places of process and transaction. Secondly, because it then reframes success not as ‘lives changed’, ‘questions answered’ or ‘ideas sparked’ but the number of units transacted through that process on any given day.

Ironically, of course, the one infrastructural investment that could lead to increased prosperity is in education, including — yes- building more libraries.

Big Tech wants to own your brain

The most cogent analysis I have ever seen of the problem with Big Technology is that it has one ultimate model of success, which is to minimise the friction between a need and the satisfaction of that need. To shorten the path between wanting something and the dopamine hit of getting it.

That’s the impulse that gives us the ‘doomscroll’ and the Gig Economy. It’s what is ultimately driving the trillian-dollar Data Economy to fine-tune the ability to predict what we will want next week.

But these companies see our free will and autonomy as a friction. The capricious nature of choice, and whimsy and sheer bloody-mindedness which characterises human society is a design problem to a business that depends on meeting demand instantaneously.

This is why many of these companies have moved past giving us what we want and on to telling us what we want — it is so much easier to grant a wish when you have planted it there yourself.

The watchmen

The same is true of information. If knowledge is power, then the gatekeepers of knowledge wield ultimate control in a connected world.

People often misunderstand librarianship as a process of gatekeeping (and to be fair, there have been times when this has been true of our profession) but our actual job is and always has been empowerment — to empower information users to control their relationship with information, to disintermediate sources. Ultimately to be a ‘good citizen’ in a connected world.

But Big Tech is trying to become the go-to gatekeeper of choice for billions of information users. So strong is the human appetite for knowledge that these companies know that if they can capture the user within their own ‘infosphere’ they can keep them there, feed them advertising and monetise their attention. It is one reason why I believe information professionals should be profoundly sceptical of the Metaverse.

One of the ways in which Big Tech is accomplishing this goal is by training us to value immediacy over quality. Billions of people daily take what appears on the first page of a Google search as truth. That what we have today isn’t so much a ‘search engine’ as a ‘self-targeted advertising canon’ is due to a simple human frailty — we like to get what we want, when we want it.

But what if we shouldn’t get what we want, when we want it? What if frictions are good. In fact, more than good, what if a bit of labour is essential in order for us to live meaningfully?

Information redlining

British society is in the process of reducing the quantum of librarianship that the British people can access. This is a profound mistake, and one which will play out for decades to come. It will stifle growth, inhibit creativity, depress innovation and create the ideal conditions for misinformation to fester. It is difficult to conceive of a more wrong-headed, myopic or counter-productive policy for any Government to follow.

As things stand today, fewer British communities have access to a professionally-run, well-stocked public library service than at any time in the postwar era. Fewer British schoolchildren benefit from the life-changing kindness, wisdom and expertise of a school librarian. Fewer University students experience the support and professional scholarship of a specialist academic or research librarian.

Not only is the overall quantum of librarianship in decline, but we have allowed this decline to follow sharply the pre-existing lines of social and economic inequality (I should caveat — by ‘we’ I mean predominantly England. They are more enlightened in Scotland, Wales and Ireland).

Poorer communities are less likely to have a public library than wealthier ones. Schools where more children are on free school meals are half as likely to have access to a library with a school librarian. ‘Economically productive’ University courses (assessed to be Maths and Sciences by our Government) are more likely to have the resources to access knowledge and content than ‘economically unproductive’ disciplines like Social Sciences and the Arts.

We have, in short, followed a policy of what Traci D Hall, Director of the American Library Association, memorably referred to as ‘information redlining’ in her speech to the 2020 CILIP conference.

Not everything that counts can be counted

The result of all of this reduction is that libraries are increasingly frantic places. With fewer staff covering the increasingly complex needs of learning communities, both in-person and at home, there is less and less time available for librarianship.

The phrase — now nearly axiomatic in the UK’s public services — “more with less” reflects the extent to which librarianship has been reduced to a series of arid and asocial transactions, in the expectation that these transactions will become ever more efficient.

I am reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) story I was once told about a mobile library driver who was sanctioned for taking too long on his rounds — only for it to be discovered that he was stopping along the way to help people mend doors, learn English, get to the shops. The picture of a library worker having to fit ‘being human’ in around the edges is one that speaks to the fundamental challenge we now face.

The single best sign of the terrible path we have allowed ourselves to go down is the utterly pointless (and increasingly inaccurate) measurement of footfall and book issues manifested in the annual ‘CIPFA’ statistics about public libraries.

As Bobby Kennedy famously said in his speech on Gross Domestic Product at the University of Kansas in 1968:

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

CIPFA is like that, but for public libraries.

But we have to reject this transactional mechanism for judging the value of a local library in favour for a much richer and more meaningful understanding of the manifold long-term benefits a society gains from having good libraries in it.

The jet engine has arguably done more than almost any other human invention to transform the world in the modern era. It has given rise to new economies, linked nations, powered conflicts and inspired generations. Its own inventor, Air Commodore Frank Whittle ascribes it to the visits he made to a small local library in the nearby town of Leamington Spa:

“I used to go down to the #library on my own, in Leamington Spa, and study all sorts of things that were not on the curriculum.”

If that fact alone is not sufficient to justify large-scale investment in libraries as a social and economic good, consider this: every single minute of every single working day is an opportunity for the next Frank Whittle to walk into a local library, pick up a book or a device and discover the idea that will change the world. How can you possibly reduce the value of that unleashing of human potential to a dumb transaction?

Enter slow librarianship

‘Slow librarianship’ gives us a concept of librarianship that is qualitative not quantitative, that prizes outcomes and impact over transactions. That values the gradual emergence of knowledge and meaning over the immediacy of the search box.

It is slow librarianship that allows a law librarian to grow meaningful connections between the corpus of Law and the needs of lawyers — to suggest pathways and precedents and to highlight ‘ways in’ to the body of knowledge that will lead to better outcomes.

It is slow librarianship that allows a subject librarian to become an expert not just in a given discipline, but in the teaching, learning and research of that discipline. That can nurture a body of knowledge, collections and resources over time to meet the ever-changing needs of students, academics and researchers. That can assimilate new knowledge into the corpus and embed it into teaching and learning.

It is slow librarianship that allows a school librarian to nurture a ‘reading community’ in their school, to create a place of safety and empathy for their learners and to build connections with teaching staff that enhance and extend Curriculum-based teaching.

It is slow librarianship that allows a public librarian to create a space that is not just for their community but of their community. To anticipate need and to grow stock and collections that are broad, balanced, responsive and inclusive. That takes the universal design pattern of what a public library is and configures it uniquely to your neighbourhood.

Slow librarianship puts me in mind of a photograph I saw once, I think in a book of aerial photographs of landscapes from around the world. In this top-down photograph, taken from several hundred feet in the air, a radius of pathways carved out of red dust by generations of footprints converge on a single point. The single point was a tree stump, burned out by lightning.

For generations, the tree had been a place where people from villages across the country came to celebrate the birth of a child. Each thin, ribbon-like track represented a journey, not only to this place of meaning, but outward from it. Essentially, every pathway from that tree represented a life.

To me, if you could visualise every life that radiates onwards from every library, it would look like that photograph. A landscape carved over time, converging on a single point, transforming everything around it. That is the concept that slow librarianship represents for me.

Healthy librarians

Fast librarianship is not only exhausting, it is exploitative. As Farkas points out eloquently in her work, asking people who are committed to the gradual and thoughtful service of their communities to reduce what they do to the purely transactional is extraordinarily damaging to their long-term welfare.

That so many librarians and library workers stick with libraries despite the unsustainable reduction of their work to process depends powerfully on what Ettarh Fobarzi has dubbed ‘vocational awe’. It is a mythology which allows each new generation of librarian to be convinced that the impoverished version of today’s library practice is normal, the standard, and ought not to be challenged.

It is not healthy constantly to have to deliver the least impactful version of something you know has the potential to transform lives. To curtail our own expectations to fit the constrained time and space allocated to them. To be reduced to doing things to your community because you are denied the ‘give’ in the system that it takes to co-design services with them.

But this reduced simulacrum of librarianship is not the norm. I suspect the norm is much closer to what Farkas has identified with ‘slow librarianship’ — the dignified and gradual process of shaping a library in dialogue with its users.

In conclusion

What we need, then, is not just more libraries, but more librarianship, and specifically, slow librarianship.

We need more time and space for the gradual collection and interpretation of knowledge. For the connections to appear, be strengthened and for new meaning to emerge. For meaningful connections with our communities that are not transactional, but are slow, looping, relaxed and geared towards the pleasantness, comfort and dignity that is the real foundry of the new.

We need to stop allowing ourselves to be reduced to transactions, and to start taking credit instead for our transformations. Not by what we contain, or how efficiently we manage our processes, but by what we enable and empower.

When everything in the world is screaming at us to speed up, what if the real answer to living well in a connected world is to slow down?

Links and references

Slow life, slow librarianship’ (Farkas, M. 2018)

The innovation fetish and slow librarianship — what librarians can learn from the Juicero’ (Glassman, J. 2017)

After the pandemic, we can’t go back to sleep’ (Graeber, D. 2021 posthumous)

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Nick Poole

Chief Executive of CILIP, the professional association for everyone working in knowedge, information and libraries.