April 20, 2018

Don’t Panic: Why Catastrophism Fails Libraries | Peer to Peer Review

We just celebrated an important holiday—towel day. Sadly, I only just found out about it as I browsed the Internet when I should have been working. But I will henceforth do what I can to “really know where my towel is,” to quote the late great Douglas Adams.

This may come in handy, because I’ve been thinking a lot about “disruptive innovation” and what that really means, about massive open online courses (MOOCs) and what the rhetoric around them tells us about the present state of higher education, and about the millennial talk about the future of libraries. What I keep coming back to when I unravel all the complex and scary ideas are some fairly simple concepts that actually haven’t changed much in a long time. Library values are, for me, like the towel that Ford Prefect carried. Simple, absorbent, useful in any number of situations, and likely to encourage people to think we librarians are well supplied with all the other things one needs on a trip. It’s possible that people, seeing me with my towel on my arm, will think “mostly harmless” and dismiss me. But that’s okay, because I’m not trying to be threatening. I’m just here to defend the commons, equality, freedom of inquiry, and everyone’s right to pursue their own curiosity.

Jonathan Rochkind’s blog post, “Academic Library Existence at Risk?” looks at the trends that the Ithaka survey of faculty has shown, particularly the number of faculty who feel that librarians are not important and library budgets should be reallocated to more useful purposes, going from well below ten percent to around 20 percent, with scientists least likely to find libraries and librarians worth the money. Scary stuff, right? Rochkind writes, “We have to learn how to change faster and better, or we are not going to exist anymore.”


Okay, I admit, I’m resistant to catastrophism. Every time I turn around someone is telling me I’m doomed, on the verge of extinction, and had better change really fast or die. When doom is an everyday experience, it loses some of its pizazz. After a while, crisis is just same-old, same-old. It doesn’t even cure the hiccups anymore.

So after reading that, I was going to try to analyze the whole “disruptive innovation” “think like an entrepreneur” “we must change or die!” thing, but Audrey Watters beat me to it in a brilliant blog post at Hack Education, “The Myth and the Millennialism of ‘Disruptive Innovation’.” She points out the seductiveness of end-times stories, the ones that suggest all of our troubles will soon be over; after a time of intense suffering in which everything we know and understand is overthrown, we will be reborn into a better world. Technology corporations love this story line, but as their new millennium dawns, they begin to put on the brakes a bit. It turns out some of the stuff they disrupted is valuable, once it’s in their hands. In particular she points out that, once we’ve unbundled and personalized education (that is, defunded public educational institutions so that private interests can take over), they want to save the valuable bits. That Mr. Disruption himself, Clayton Christenson, allies his consulting services with the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is revealing. ALEC doesn’t lobby for legislation favorable to business, it writes it and gets it passed. Government by and for the people this isn’t, except corporations are now people, just extra big and powerful people. All that innovation is really just a way to make costly public things into valuable private things.

I’ll leave that analysis in Watters’s capable hands and simply say this: libraries have changed. They have innovated. We have given up the rights we had with ownership in order to put fast consumer access to quantities of information first. We stopped buying books in order to feed the serials beast. (Walt Crawford has done the numbers: the next person who accuses me of running an air-conditioned book warehouse is looking for a punch in the nose.) We betrayed our public trust because we didn’t want to fall behind, because we wanted to keep consumers happy, because we had to change! In the name of innovation and being relevant, we’ve made ourselves a local franchise for big publishing and now—well, is it surprising that our “customers” question whether we’re needed? I mean, what do we accomplish? All we do is pay the bills and beg people to let us provide services they don’t want.

Or so one might think. In fact, libraries are a lot of things to a lot of different people. Just as the rush to embrace MOOCs rests on an oversimplified picture of higher education as large lectures best taught by faculty from elite institutions, TED talks with tests, the portrait of faculty painted by the Ithaka surveys leaves out different kinds of work faculty do at different kinds of institutions and the various purposes and communities that libraries serve. I’m not sure to what extent it represents the needs of the vast majority of faculty who are now contingent (76 percent) or have only part-time appointments (40 percent). As faculty positions grow more insecure every year, it doesn’t surprise me that sustaining library budgets might come into question. The survey also doesn’t include faculty teaching at institutions that enroll around 40 percent of all U.S. undergraduates—community colleges. Even though the most recent survey does touch on library services for students, the thrust of it is “what does the library do for you?” not “what is the value of libraries for the advancement of knowledge?”

“Are we helping you meet your productivity quotas?” is the wrong question, and I’m not going to panic if the answer is “not really” or “not enough.” If we rush to change even more, even faster, we’ll make this hole we’re digging deeper. As Rochkind writes in a follow-up blog post, “One Scenario for the Death of the Academic Library,”

The library is one of the few information organizations involved in research life that does not have business interests based on selling our users something (or selling our users’ privacy to someone else), or on convincing users to buy a particular product but only on facilitating our users own self-directed goals and needs. Libraries can thus, uniquely in the information environment, provide services with transparency, impartiality, assertive protection of user privacy, and a professional ethical responsibility to act always in the interests of our patrons, never sacrificing them to our own business interests.

He argues this alone won’t save us. We also need to provide services that “delight and excite” our communities while remaining cost-effective. I am all for that but would add another thing: we need to help our communities understand the costs of the enclosure of knowledge and help them find ways to free their own contributions to knowledge. On the whole, I believe they would like to do that, and that’s actually what libraries are for.

Ask yourselves this: What are we doing to support the knowledge commons? Are we using our resources in ways that aren’t just a good value but match our values? Are we helping students and faculty members create and share knowledge, not just consume it? Do we know where our towels are?

If so, there’s no need to panic, but there’s a lot of work to do.


Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Great column–and I’d already decided to say that before you mentioned my own work (thanks!). I believe catastrophism serves libraries and librarians badly–and taken to extremes can get in the way of useful incremental change.

  2. Declaring that libraries have “betrayed our public trust” is itself a kind of catastrophism and doesn’t jibe well with the “don’t panic” message.

    Good points about the ongoing role of libraries in keeping knowledge open and accessible – so let’s not accuse ourselves of having already lost the battle.

    • Barbara says:

      I’m willing to plead guilty to hyperbole for a reduced sentence, but I think to be catastrophism I would have to either say “we are on the verge of betraying the public trust and have to deal with it immediately or face certain doom.” It’s more of a description (overblown, quite possibly) of a state of affairs that i think is entirely reversible.

      I could just as descriptively say that scholars have betrayed the public trust by agreeing to a publishing regime that provides them job security but relies on artificial scarcity, and I think that would be accurate (though perhaps they have a better excuse, given thinking about access to information isn’t really their job). The good news is that many of them seem suddenly aware of the problem and eager to reform the practice. We need to do what we can to advance that shift to open access.

  3. Suzanne Stauffer says:

    I would like to point out that the survey also found that 80% of faculty do feel that librarians are important and that the library budget should be retained.

    It is hardly surprising that scientists would feel that librarians/the library are no longer important, given that the original intent of the Internet was the dissemination of scientific knowledge. Someone does need to educate them on the costs of all of those databases they are using that are available remotely through the library, but that hardly calls for this level of breast beating.

    Where is there evidence that this is a “trend?” More than two data points are needed to establish a trend. A trend is a persistent change over time in a given direction. What we have here is an increase at a single point. There is no way to predict that this increase will be maintained over time.

    As for promoting open access — first you must work on the university promotion and tenure committees. No academic researcher is going to support “freeing their own contributions to knowledge” if it doesn’t count toward tenure. That would be career suicide, and that an academic librarian doesn’t appear to understand that is troubling.