Postdigital Librarianship

The COVID-19 pandemic was an apocalyptic event. It was apocalyptic in the popular sense of the word, in that the pandemic was a sudden and global catastrophe. But the pandemic was also apocalyptic in a more literal sense, as an uncovering of deeper realities. The pandemic quickly became an infodemic; it exposed and exacerbated systemic racial, economic, and other social inequities; and it revealed many of the problems and much of the potential of emerging technologies. Before the pandemic, it was clear to many that it was past time, in the words of Ruha Benjamin, “to reimagine what is possible” (Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code [Polity, 2019], 1). Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, there is a unique opportunity to learn from this apocalyptic moment and strive “for another and a juster world” (W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk [Penguin, 2018], 63).

Libraries have been central in the discovery, creation, and sharing of knowledge for millennia. Initially, the aims of libraries were modest and imperialistic. More recently, guided by professionals responsive to social and cultural dynamics, libraries have become significant sites for cultivating individual and collective agency. (See, e.g., Wayne Wiegand’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library [Oxford University Press, 2015]). Uniquely situated within both local communities and global networks, librarians and libraries are well positioned to help shape a better post-pandemic world—a world that also will be postdigital.

Librarians have participated in a trajectory of digital transformation since the middle of the 20th century: automating operations and access, digitizing resources and digitalizing services, and developing new platforms and accompanying formative practices. All of these changes enabled libraries to sustain many core programs during the pandemic, but the nearly all-digital work of librarians revealed dimensions of the library that cannot be automated or adequately mediated digitally. These pre- and extra-digital elements of the library—human-scaled interfaces, fully embodied interactions, collaborations unconstrained by software designs, data and algorithmic autonomy, temporal and physical constraints, and environmental responsibilities—provide insights into future priorities for the library. Technological advances accelerated by the pandemic, such as artificial intelligence, will continue to transform our world. (See, esp., Luciano Floridi’s The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality [Oxford University Press, 2014]).

But libraries have always been about augmenting intelligence—indeed, libraries themselves are technologies for intelligence augmentation—and librarians can draw from a deep history of information access, attention, and agency to critique and integrate wisely into our lives transformative technologies such as AI. Ours is a time for postdigital librarianship: a critical and constructive approach to digital enhancements that lead to better futures after the digital has lost its salience. (For a discussion of “postdigital,” see Jeremy Knox, “What Does the ‘Postdigital’ Mean for Education?,” Postdigital Science and Education1 [2019]: 357-70.)