The LISNews blog seems to have added an LISOpinion section recently, so instead of short posts pointing to news items of interest to librarians, we get extended monologues from librarians trying to persuade us of something.
Some, like this one called "The Unspeakable Truth," are very extended indeed. I just can’t handle bloggers who write such long blog posts. I like those library bloggers who do nothing more than post pictures of library signage or embed YouTube videos. That’s much better suited to my short attention span. Unfortunately, most of those bloggers have moved over to Twitter and are no doubt hoping for a newer service that limits their production to 40 characters instead of 140.
The post does go on, so my advice is to just skip to the end. There’s some speculation about the origin of the word library (hint: go with the dendrological etymology; the nuns of Our Lady of Declensions couldn’t be wrong on this one), a lot of dire stuff about libraries or librarians or something going away, and some more stuff about BP, and then we get to this:
The unspeakable truth is that we should not try and outlive our usefulness. We certainly shouldn’t try and prolong that usefulness by effectively sabotaging our users’ ability to empower themselves. But the more palatable truth is that if we work hard on reinvention and increased public understanding, we’ll never have to be put on the life-support machine in the first place.
It is never too late to adapt.
One has to wonder, how unspeakable a truth is this? Everyone believes that other people shouldn’t try to outlive their usefulness. It’s only a short step towards thinking that we shouldn’t, especially since in practice we will just be other people in the same profession as us. The question is, what can librarians really do anyway?
How many of you out there believe you’ve outlived your professional usefulness? Okay, let’s say that’s most of you. Now what? Do you just quit? No, you’re supposed to adapt! Adapt how?
The lesson from BP is that they now explore alternative energies, and thus they’re adapting. This makes sense. Railroads are in the transportation business.BP is in the fuel business. Such analogies miss an important point, though. Libraries are in the education and information "businesses," but they aren’t businesses. BP knows it’s doing well when it continues to make money. Libraries know they’re doing well when…what? They give more away? Do more with less? Satisfy the infotainment needs of every community member?
Libraries don’t have the same abilities to adapt because they don’t have a bottom line. They have an even fuzzier standard of success than public schools. Schools can promote illiterate children through graduation and it looks like they’re accomplishing something. Libraries have no such shallow metric by which to measure success. Everything they do can be popular and the funding powers that be can still be unsatisfied.
They’re also not independent agents like businesses usually are. Sure, there’s a lot of government pork for corporations, but they’re not primarily dependent on the government for funding.BP is one of the largest corporations in the world, makes money for itself, and can coordinate it’s activities worldwide. The average public library isn’t very large, makes no money, and can coordinate its activities with a few other branches at best.
Libraries have been very good at coordinating the lending of books and other materials for libraries around the country, and even with all the information freely available on the Internet, there’s a lot to be said for the way that Interlibrary Loan has improved access to information for us all. Regions and states have also banded together to make databases more affordable for library users, which is sort of the e-equivalent of ILL.
But that’s about all libraries can do because there is no overall organization that directs them, and that’s generally a good thing. Local libraries serve local users, and a national library system that adapted the way transnational corporations adapt would be disastrous for libraries and their users. The librarians at this library are paid too much? Then close it down! Shift the resources to another region! Librarians in Arkansas are cheaper than those in San Francisco. Move the library there! Or maybe Bangladesh! That’s how corporations adapt.
The problem isn’t that libraries aren’t being used, even the traditional services. People still read books. They also use many of the other materials and services available these days. But no one wants to pay for them, including the people who use them.
When the last library and the last bridge collapse simultaneously, it’ll be because shortsighted politicians and the purblind electorate who voted for them can’t tell the difference between the provision of services for the common good and the provision of pork for short-term, partisan political gain or the elimination of markets by totalitarians. There’s funding for a new bridge to nowhere, but not to fix bridges to somewhere.
Or maybe it’ll be like this story out of Arizona. The president of the Pheonix police union wants to cut every librarian before cutting any police officers because of budget problems.
As someone who’s lived in Phoenix for 30 years, I asked Spencer, "Should EVERY librarian be cut before ANY police officer?"
"It might come down to that," he said. "I think we are at a point now where we are in economic triage. It’s like a soldier getting wounded on a battlefield. You bring him into the MASH tent, and that is not the time for a tummy tuck or Botox . Keep his core essentials functioning so that he can live. That’s true of the city. The city is in economic triage and even though it might cost a limb, which is a dear cost, the issue is life and to keep the city alive we need water for drinking and sewage, we need our trash picked up, we need our fires put out and we need our bad guys in jail. Those are the core essentials."
The columnist is generous, saying that the union president is just saying what any good union president would. Water, sewage, garbage, fire, police. Undoubtedly, those are core essentials, and I would certainly give up the library rather than have garbage pile up in the murderous streets. But anyone who would say those are the core essentials has whittled existence down to mere survival and has already written of the ways in which communities and individuals improve themselves.
Public education is like a "tummy tuck" or Botox. Libraries are merely cosmetic. Or maybe they’re like a limb, but one we can live without, not that I could think of one I would mind living without. If the best some librarians can do is promote libraries as the place for teens to play videogames, what can we expect to argue in return?
My point isn’t that a union president doesn’t value education. That’s not uncommon, even among presidents of teacher’s unions. My point it is that the combination of troubled budgets and the hostility to any public good that doesn’t immediately benefit the person voting to support that good is deadly for libraries. If no one needed libraries as they are, that would be fine. But they do.
The LISOpinionateor opines that the keys to library survival are reinvention, adaptation, and increased public understanding. Reinvention is a vague, useless term, and adaptation is gradual and evolutionary. Libraries can’t just adapt the way corporations can. And reinventing libraries as the place for shiny gadgets isn’t going to work, anyway. The people paying for the libraries already have shiny gadgets.
Increasing public understanding might work, but it might not. The ALA is finally dipping their toes into the pool of increasing understanding of what libraries do instead of recruiting librarians for nonexistent librarian shortages, but it might be too little too late. Regardless, that’s the only chance. We’re past the point of speculating on whether libraries will survive. In many communities, they’re not. The dark future of libraries is upon us and it has nothing to do with popularity.
Perhaps the public already understands, but they don’t care. As long as I’m getting by okay, who gives a damn about everyone else? And if my children and grandchildren get by less well than me, who cares? I’ll be dead by then. Welcome to the world of tomorrow, today! Check your education, community, and bright future at the door. That’s the world librarians have to negotiate. Let’s hope we have more in our repetoire than shiny gadgets and hipness deal with it.