I’ve long found it strange how a new year in our artificial calendar invites people to speculate about the new decade or previous century or final millennium. This sort of thinking is nothing new. Before the turn of the first millennium there were Christian groups in Europe who were sure the world was about to end. By the turn of the last millennium, the belief that the world would end had been reduced to worrying about Y2K computer problems. People want something to worry about,no matter how trivial.
Supposedly we’re now entering a new decade, but then again we’re always doing that. I don’t feel like it’s a new decade myself, since the Annoyed Librarian isn’t even 4 years old yet. (My 4th birthday is in February. Gifts may be sent care of LJ. Cash is acceptable!) People claim to see correspondences between eras and decades, but I don’t see them. The thirties lasted from 1929 to 1941, the sixties from 1964 to 1972, the seventies from 1973-1979, just to name three decades with a lot of resonance that didn’t last a decade and didn’t coincide with our artificial calendar.
We’re told by a new Pew Report that the "current decade rates as worst in 50 years," which exhibits two kinds of flawed thinking by Pew. First, they think decades mean something. Second, they think public opinion means something. As if we could really trust public opinion to tell us whether this was the worst decade in 50 years. Old people misremember the past, and young people weren’t there.
In the sixties we had race riots and war protests all over the country. This year lots of pseudo-hippies remembered Woodstock fondly (yuck), but there are other names with violent connotations in the sixties: Birmingham, Newark, Watts, Stonewall, Kent State, Chicago, just to mention a few. Has there been anything like that in the previous decade? Internal political violence now seems to be metaphorical. Instead of civil rights workers being murdered or college kids being shot or race riots destroying inner cities, we’ve got talking heads on TV and radio shouting at each other. Some people claim the country is more divided than ever, but I’m happy that division manifests itself in idiotic ideological blathering than in police batons and Molotov cocktails.
Like most opinion polls, the Pew report tells us nothing worth knowing and reveals nothing surprising. Unless we think that the majority opinion on a position somehow means it’s the right position to hold, then who cares what the public thinks? The only people who seem to care are politicians who have no principles other than getting elected.
What a surprise that young people or educated liberals think that technological changes are for the better. Or that educated liberals think increasing ethnic diversity and social acceptance of homosexuals are good things, while poorly educated conservatives don’t. If you want to see the distinction between educated and tolerant and the bigoted and ignorant, you could conduct surveys or you could just look around. Surveys elide the visceral, anyway. You could read that 28% of Americans think acceptance of gays and lesbians is a change for the worse, or you could watch Small Town Gay Bar to see those people in action.
Do we really need a survey to tell us most people think cell phones, email, and the Internet are changes for the better? We’re in the information business, more or less, but we’re hardly alone in embracing communication technologies that suit our needs. There are problems related to cell phones – from annoyingly loud conversations in public to the increased frequency of auto accidents by people talking on their phones – but it’s obvious these are problems with human rudeness and stupidity, not with the devices themselves. The rude and stupid we will always have with us.
As for libraries, this has been a remarkable decade. Whatever problems there are with jobs and the ALA and politics and twopointopians dumbing down our professional discourse (and that’s saying something), in the last decade we have witnessed an enormous increase in the amount and availability of information. Some of this is locked in subscription databases that most people can’t access without libraries, but plenty of it isn’t. Google Books, Wikipedia, digitization projects, blogs, news and analysis, all of these have increased our access to information, including old fashioned books.
The change that has meant to most to me – old fashioned librarian that I am – is the increasing ease of finding and reading books. I can carry around a thousand books on my phone. I can find out-of-print and obscure books more easily than ever. It has never been easier or cheaper to acquire books and much of that progress has occurred in the past ten years.
So, as we do every year, we’re ending another decade, but to give it any significance would be a mistake. It’s just another year. Good things happened, bad things happened. The economy is a mess, but something is always a mess. The Internet is nifty, but something is always nifty. For once, I’m not going to be annoyed, I’m just going to be resigned. The champagne I’ll be drinking tomorrow will probably help. I hope you enjoy New Year’s Eve, because I certainly will.