February 17, 2018

Change and the Discourse of Fear | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterIn a course I teach, we spend a little time thinking about the role fear plays in the construction of social issues. Philip Jenkins and Joel Best have both written persuasively about the ways in which anxiety is a potent lever for influencing public opinion and gaining attention for various causes. Once a problem has been identified and named, various claims-makers have incentives to associate their pet issues with the named threat, often expanding the domain of the problem by widening its purported influence. In the process, the threat is often distorted.

To explore this issue, we compiled a chronological bibliography of books and articles, including journalism, the popular press, and scholarship, on the topic of children born to women during the rise of crack cocaine—or, in the unfortunate shorthand of the day, “crack babies.” It was an opportunity to practice searching a variety of databases, use Zotero to share citations to a group folder, and look for patterns of changing opinions and the handling of evidence over time. Students were quick to pick up on emotional appeals, melodramatic storytelling, and overt and covert racism in the sources they examined. Seeing the interplay between scholarship and the popular press was also illuminating. Scholars, for all their rigorous methods, are not above using anxiety to call attention to the issues they care about, and they are influenced by (and influence) popular perceptions of threat.

Library “thought leaders” are also not above using fear to garner attention. “Do libraries have five years to live?” is the urgent question posed in the title of an upcoming event. If you have a few hundred bucks to spare, you can enroll in a two-day institute to find out. My guess, using my critical thinking skills to interpret the event’s URL (http://www.thefutureoflibraries.org/), is that the answer will be “yes, if we do the right things.” Otherwise surely the URL of the sponsor would be theextinctionoflibraries.org or goodnightandgoodlucklibraries.org. But there’s nothing like throwing a good scare into people to get them to pay attention.

For as long as I’ve been a librarian, “change” has been invoked as both a command and an existential threat. In this view, change is a blind force that is inflicted upon us, like a biblical plague. If we don’t innovate, we’re doomed. Or it’s invoked as if we’re in a millennial moment, a time that will separate the ready from the unready. Proclaim your faith in the new so that you won’t be left behind when the Rapture comes.

Out of curiosity, I searched the LISTA database for publications with the word change in the title, sorted them in chronological order and found…well, things have changed. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, change seemed a natural and positive thing. It was linked to progress, and progress was good. Technology would help us become more efficient and effective. A report to the National Advisory Commission on Libraries published in 1967 suggested that libraries were crucial at a time of rapid social change and as such would be “requiring vastly increased public support.” What an innocent era! There seemed to be a surprising level of optimism about the future, even in the face of political and social restlessness. Education was on the rise, poverty would surely be reduced, and computers would change everything. A RAND report (which can be found online, charmingly dressed in Courier font, with hand-drawn diagrams) predicted that by the year 2000, both entertainment and education would be largely delivered through screens. I see a hint of the way we talk about change in the February 15, 1968, issue of Library Journal in the article “The Changes Ahead” by Martin Lowell of Grolier. It predicts that by the year 2000 libraries would have to look sharp or face competition. The author argued that commitment to users rather than to technology itself would be what distinguished libraries, because there would be other players in the information delivery field. Rather prescient, that.

In general, though we tend to think of the late 1960s as a time of social unrest and cultural upheaval, this glimpse at library literature suggests change wasn’t viewed the way it is today. Librarians didn’t ask if libraries were relevant; they only urged us to be more relevant. They didn’t refer to customers or mission statements or marketing. The government was in charge of public welfare, not the markets.

Reverse the chronology and what do we find? Well, not quite as much doom as I expected. There are change agents, doing neat things. There are studies of small changes in services and operations in academic and public libraries, sharing what worked and what didn’t. There are articles about changes required owing to budget cuts and to acknowledge the growing ranks of adjuncts among the faculty. But for every doom-and-gloom prediction, there are signs that librarians keep calm and carry on and find ways to do what we need libraries to do.

From my perspective, there has never been a greater need for our skills and—even more to the point—our values. They are crucial as we redesign the knowledge ecosystem. We need access, not just for our students and faculty but for everyone, intellectual freedom, the public good, social justice—all of those things we stand for but sometimes forget as we try to justify our existence using numbers and charts. We need to be more critical of the systems that question our existence. We need to be more positive about our worth.

If you want another take on change, a positive look at positive change, I recommend a new book from Library Juice Press, Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond. As I said in my informal review at LibraryThing, “This is a book about librarians who take our work seriously and take it to the streets if that’s where it has to be. It’s terrific. It’s inspiring. It’s fun, too.”

As for the question of whether libraries have five years to live—maybe the correct answer is that we should stop scaring ourselves and get on with our work, because there’s plenty to do, and it matters.

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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