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Catastrophe and Common Sense
January 10, 2013 - 8:50pm

I’ve just started to read Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis, which is a short book about our tendency to frame political and environmental issues around impending doom. It’s hard to do the work of change; so much easier to point out problems and wait for the collapse. And when faced with impossibly big problems – the economic crisis, global warming – we feel so small and helpless. The only equally big thing on offer is total ruin.

The discourse of disaster is embraced by people of all stripes. Suzanne Collins’ YA blockbuster The Hunger Games , in which a future nation is divided into haves and have-nots, with the haves living in sinful luxury, pitting the have-nots against one another for entertainment, appealed equally to right and left. It predicted what could come of growing income inequality. Or was it what we would come to when morally bankrupt Eastern elites oppress the rugged patriots of the heartland? These similar but competing narratives  collided when the film was released and some fans were angry to learn that one of their favorite characters was black. Her skin color is made perfectly clear in the book, but readers tend to use their imaginations when casting characters, and for some readers, the story made no sense to them unless the protagonists were all white. Catastrophe makes such a catchy narrative, it works whatever your story is really about.

In some ways, this is a variation of the old newsroom saw, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Shock and ghoulish voyeurism is simply more fun than wrapping our heads around complicated issues. Anxiety is also a terrific lever for gaining attention for causes. Melodramatic storytelling can draw audiences in and recruit their attention. It can also provide unambiguous heroes and demons. What it often doesn’t provide is answers - or rather, it only provides easy ones, the kind that don't actually work.

The end of the year brought a flurry of “end of libraries” pronouncements, which are as popular as “books are dead” and “nobody reads” jeremiads.” Quite often these millennial prophecies conceal the opposite argument, as was the case when the New York Times asked “Do We Still Need Libraries?” in their Room for Debate series. It turns out there was actually no debate about libraries; the reason we still need them is that bookstores are dead. Let’s not confuse the issue with facts, now. Where’s the fun in that?

Librarians are more likely than anyone to predict the end of libraries. Not too long ago I pointed out to a colleague that “change – or die!” was an all-too common message we send to ourselves. (We then started adding “or die!” to the end of sentences for fun, instead of “in bed,” which is another common way to reduce a conversation to totally useless absurdity.) That message usually comes from people who support a particular change and gleefully predict catastrophe unless their pet idea isn’t adopted. It’s not just libraries; it’s endemic to higher education. We’re doomed! Unless . . . [insert commercial message here].

These messianic approaches to change are overly-simple answers for complex problems that have genuine causes. They are not tsunamis that render us helpless. They are social conditions that we can change, if we are willing to probe into what’s really going on, have some difficult discussions, and make some hard decisions. (It's not that the decisions themselves are all that hard. It's not brain surgery. But making decisions is a lot harder than doing what we have always done, with emergency repairs as needed.) In a library, this may mean questioning why it is that there is such demand for us to provide access right now at any cost to whatever those who depend on the library feel they need. This condition is a symptom of a system that demands austerity and greater productivity at the same time, demands that are unraveling our communal ties by making us joust for fewer and fewer jobs that require more and more publications, often read by fewer and fewer people. Knowledge has been transformed into intellectual property (which we give away for self-preservation) rather than a common good. In fact, it only has value if it’s not too widely shared. That’s just dumb, but devising an alternative will take work.

The easiest thing to do is patch together a quick fix, because it’s a giant, complicated problem. But the answer isn’t “do this –or die!” The answer is going to be found in common people exercising common sense.

There is nothing inevitable about the way we do things now in academic libraries or in higher education. We can change. It will be hard. But the real lesson of 2012, the good news when it comes to scholarly communication, is change is afoot and it’s not happening out of fear. It’s happening because the way we're doing things now offends common sense.

We have a lot of work to do, and it won’t be as entertaining as grand narratives of collapse and catastrophe. But I think we've turned a corner and have some tools at hand to start building something that works.




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