Why do we love apocalyptic metaphors so much? Nobody reads. Libraries are doomed. Higher education must change radically or die; no, wait, it’s already dead. R. David Lankes (author of The Atlas of New Librarianship) says it’s time to close the crisis center when it comes to libraries, and I agree.
Yet there is something about heightened anxiety that is so tempting. How many books have a title that starts with "The End of . . . "? If you want to call attention to a cause, fanning fear helps. It’s a nifty hook when you’re trying to get people’s attention. Stories that focus on threat can provide the drama and urgency that recruit people to a cause. The ways that anxiety has been used in the formation of social issues has been well-described by both Philip Jenkins and Joel Best. And it has a long tradition. You think reading is in decline? Johnny couldn’t read back in 1955.
When the National Endowment for the Arts wanted more people to read literature in 2004, they chose to echo a report that set the stage for education reform (of a sort) by calling us A Nation at Risk. It’s interesting to look back at that 1983 report. So much of it sounds familiar, if you just substitute Japan for China as our economic nemesis. Students aren’t spending enough time studying! Classes are too easy! We need more STEM preparation! The only thing that has been dropped from the litany of failure is teacher salaries, which in 1983 were called too low. Now the public perception is that teachers are earning too much.
The NEA titled their report Reading at Risk and predicted that, if trends weren’t reversed, voluntary reading might disappear altogether. Since people who read also do good deeds, patronize the arts, go further in school, and exercise more, the report argued the loss could be much greater than merely the enjoyment of literature. Since the socially-beneficial pursuits enlisted in the argument are tied to income (as are the negative correlates of illiteracy – greater likelihood of poor health, low educational attainment, and serving time in prison) reading more literature is unlikely to be the fix.
I was skeptical about how doomed books and reading really are, now that more books are being published than ever before, people are madly cataloging their reading at GoodReads and LibraryThing, everyone I know is in at least one book club, and that so much of what we do every day involves reading and composing texts. But don’t take my hunch for it; check out Reading Matters: What the Research Tells Us About Reading, Libraries, and Community. You’ll find there plenty of evidence that, yes, reading has beneficial effects – and that it’s not really endangered, however perennially it is believed to be doomed. Still, whenever the future of libraries is under discussion, someone is sure to say “who cares? nobody reads anymore.”
Lankes argues that constantly emphasizing risk and decline of libraries can lead to a perception that libraries are too far gone to be saved, that the doom we invoke for dramatic effect has already happened and is irreversible. Walt Crawford has also studied the narrative of library closures in the United States, finding it an exaggerated obituary. (Sadly, this seems not to be true in the UK, where public libraries are being closed and turned into volunteer operations in rather alarming numbers.)
Why is it that we don’t want to present a happier view of books and reading, of libraries, or of what higher education today actually does accomplish? In part, it’s the old newsroom slogan – “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news is more likely to get attention, and librarians are more prone than anyone to spread it – either as an emotional appeal to recruit support for libraries or to sway other librarians to a position (“if we don’t do as I say, we are dooooooomed!”)
I also suspect there’s an element of elitism involved in all of this talk of decline. We prefer to think we are among the elect who enjoy reading. We are among the rare, the special people who care about libraries or education. We are the chosen, and when the Rapture comes, we won’t be left behind.
But we really need a counter-narrative to the apocalyptic rhetoric. Every academic librarian has probably had the experience of having a high-level administrator ask in innocent puzzlement, “why do we even need to have a library these days?” These are people who don’t use the library themselves (which is kind of scary, given that we would prefer powerful players in higher education to call on published research from time to time, but hey, they’re busy and they probably get lots of information digested for them). No, they read it in the paper or saw it somewhere online: publishing is dead. Books are finished. Young people will have nothing to do with reading. Libraries are a thing of the past.
When I surveyed chief academic officers a couple of years ago, they had a far rosier view of libraries, though perhaps one not matched by their ability to provide better funding. We need to do more to spread the word about good things that are happening in libraries and as a result of the creativity and energy of librarians and library staff.
We need to tell our success story, even though doom and disaster make for a more exciting narrative.