Sunday, 31 July 2011

Collapse of societies... and the library?

As I watched this TED presentation, as usual, I thought about it's application to the library world. Many within and without feel that librarianship is in danger of losing ground, of becoming less relevant, of "collapsing" and "dying out". While I'm not sure whether this can or will happen, I certainly think that the potential is there despite the harm that might result if it does come to pass. Just as the Easter Islanders had to have reached a point when they were chopping down the last tree despite the apparently obvious death sentence that went along with it, society may reach a point where we are closing the last library despite any damage that may do. And even if this could never happen, for any industry it is valuable to at least imagine the coming obsolescence and take steps to avoid it.

In this presentation, Dr. Diamond reveals 5 factors that seem to contribute to a society's downfall, using the Greenland Norse as an illustration of the factors.
  1. Impact on Environment:  Are the society's uses of the environment sustainable or is there net cumulative damage being done?  The Greenland Norse, requiring charcoal to smelt iron, quickly deforested their accessible environment.
  2. Climate Change:   Sufficient changes in climate can place incredible pressure on a society that is unable or unwilling to adapt.  Temperatures in Greenland and elsewhere dropped significantly in the 1300s and 1400s.
  3. Relationship with Supporting Neighbours:  Have relationships with neighbouring societies that would otherwise support you in difficult times been lost or damaged?  Mostly due to climate change, the connection between the Greenland Norse and European Norway was all but severed.
  4. Relationship with Competing Neighbours:  Are there neighbouring societies with which you are competing for resources or at war with, and how stable is the power balance between you and them?  The Greenland Norse did not get off to a good start with the Greenland Inuit/Eskimo resulting in a good deal of tension.
  5. Internal Problem-Solving Structures:  Can the society resolve problems easily or quickly or are their barriers to such resolutions or even recognition of potential problems?  The Greenland Norse, being strongly Christian, demanded the building of cathedrals, obviously using up valuable but dwindling resources.  Also, the mistrust of the neighbouring Inuit/Eskimo did not allow them to learn from their ways.
Perhaps the status of librarianship can be seen in metaphorically the same way:
  1. Impact on Environment:  The "environment" that the library works in could be seen as the environment of politics and economics.  The resources that are used (and could potentially be unsustainably used) are good will or public support and funding.  Are these being used in an unsustainable way?  Perhaps this is stretching the metaphor but I can see how it could be seen that libraries, in the view of much of the public, take more than they give.  I don't believe it's true but perhaps some of the value taken out of the political/economic environment should be put back in terms of more effective and overt public awareness of our value.
  2. Climate Change:   Again, perhaps this is pushing the metaphor a little too far, but the technological climate has certainly changed.  It seems to have changed for the library's advantage in many ways:  librarianship is an information-based industry and information-related technology is the precise area that has improved.  In many ways, improved tools and infrastructure has helped libraries do what they are supposed to do.  But change has come quickly and is still coming -- change itself can be a stressful thing for an industry.  It requires attention that might otherwise be put to better use.
  3. Relationship with Supporting Neighbours:  Who are the library's supporting industries?  Publishing?  Education?  Authors and other content providers?  These groups are certainly helpful to the world of librarianship but in many ways are competitors as well.  And, in my opinion, although we do a great deal of relationship building, we also seem very protective of our territory.  Perhaps we need to work more towards strengthening our relationships with these groups and/or look for more supporters.
  4. Relationship with Competing Neighbours:  In addition to those "friendly" industries that we compete with in indirect ways, there are direct competitors to the world of librarianship.  Bookstores certainly compete for attention and use in the areas of popular library use.  Google and the Internet in general has stripped away much of the library's quick reference "business" if not more in depth research use.  We need to either reduce the actual competition with these groups by partnering more with them or at least reduce the perceived competition by marketing our unique non-overlapping strengths.
  5. Internal Problem-Solving Structures:  I like to believe that libraries are good at identifying and resolving perceived problems or at least better than many other groups, but I'm not quite sure that is the case.  We certainly share more with each other and introspect more than many other industries but we are still trapped in traditional thinking and internal thinking to a large degree.  Some institutions rely too much on committees to resolve issue or dictate action, or respond in predictable "library" ways to problems.  It can't hurt to attempt to improve reaction time and inject some out-of-the-box creativity into our processes.
It seems to me that there is cause for concern and that some action should be taken to ensure the survival of librarianship in the future.

Or maybe I'm just predicting doom this morning...  It has been awfully hot lately.  What do you think?

[ Provoked by "Jared Diamond on why societies collapse" from TED ]

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