Happy new year! What disasters and crises do we have to look forward to this time around?

January 3, 2018

Perhaps I’ll get to experience that nuclear holocaust I prepared for ineffectually as a child. Maybe we’ll have a constitutional crisis like the one we had with Nixon, only with political opponents jailed in the lurking shadow of a Russian conspiracy. Or how about a massive cyber failure that shuts down electric grids, locks the vaults of banks, and leaves airplanes circling runways without instructions? More hurricanes, floods, coastal cities being drowned, hillsides aflame . . . it’s the stuff of any number of dystopian novels and the president’s Twitter feed. Somehow it’s much easier to imagine the worst than to imagine how to make things work.

We’re prone to this in higher ed, too. Half of our institutions will close in the next decade! That’ll get your attention, even if the prediction comes from a man who got famous making predictions that mostly turn out to be wrong. Remember MOOCs, our Y2K moment of doom? We should know better.

Libraries are also given to hype cycles. Back in 1998 American Libraries (a membership magazine of the American Library Association) published a cover story by Steve Coffman titled “What if You Ran Your Library Like a Bookstore?” He didn’t really mean “like any bookstore,” he meant like Barnes and Nobles. It’s hard to remember that B&N was a juggernaut of creative destruction. It terrorized publishers into paying big bucks to have their books displayed on endcaps. It carried a huge inventory, more titles exposed to the public than ever before, but returned copies so efficiently (books being the one commodity that retailers can return for a refund) that a critical report produced for the Author’s Guild described their strategy as using books as wallpaper, a simulacrum of abundance without sales to match.

Libraries were worried too, as students and public library patrons showed a preference for visiting a bookstore where they could buy coffee and browse up-to-date books without having to actually buy any of them. Coffman’s recommendations were to stop paying people with masters degrees (after all, B&N paid minimum wage), centralize book purchasing instead of trying to figure out local tastes, and drop expensive but unnecessary frills like reference services and fussy cataloging systems. Libraries paid attention, adopting “retailing” as a verb, reorganizing shelving to make it more attractive for browsing, installing coffee shops. Public librarians began to call their patrons “customers” and they still do, to my dismay. But Coffman’s call to act more like a big box chain never quite panned out. Libraries remain local. The for-profit library management company he founded has contracts to manage a few dozen libraries among the over 17,000 public libraries in the country. Meanwhile the big box bookstores withered when the next big thing came along.

In 2010 we were warned once again that libraries were screwed. Eli Neiburger, a public library director, said in an influential conference presentation we were too wedded to the outmoded codex. People had any number of ways to get books quite cheaply with far more choice available from Amazon than from any library. Besides, ebooks would soon replace print, and at that time publishers wouldn’t let libraries license ebooks. Who would visit a library when they could download anything they wanted from the convenience of their couch? The only thing libraries could do to save themselves was to become hubs of local cultural production. Help people publish their own books! The trouble, of course, is that people didn’t actually want to read books written by their neighbor, they wanted the latest Lee Child. Besides, the neighbor was more interested in selling through Amazon (and becoming the next Lee Child) than partnering with their public library. The existential threat passed. Libraries were allowed to license ebooks (at greatly inflated prices) but printed ones remain more popular, just as library spaces remained social hubs after the local B&N closed.

It’s not that we librarians don’t deal with profound change – we do. Every day. But it’s not as sudden and dramatic as our “thought leaders” would have us believe. A lot of libraries have coffee shops now, and they pay attention to how space is used to make improvements. A lot of our collection has moved online, and we are making local things like archival collections and digital projects available beyond our institutions. We're supporting academic publishing in new ways, but not abandoning our role in making published things available to our local community. We aren’t screwed, but if we believed in the gospel of disruption and totally abandoned what we do to chase the new, we would have been.

I admit, on the day the president threw out a flurry of pent-up Tweets, starting the new year with a boast that our nuclear button was bigger than the other guy’s, I wondered if we would survive 2018. There is so much to worry about, and it all seems so urgent. But in spite of the ad-driven narratives that thrive on anxiety, this isn’t a reality show where dramatic twists leave us perpetually, like Pauline, hanging on the edge of a cliff, tied to the tracks as the train approaches, always in peril. Which is a long-winded way of reminding myself of the large, friendly letters on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: don’t panic. It may be exciting, but it never helps. 

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