Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Something is the Future

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Princeton librarian and blogger, wrote an excellent post, called “Nothing is the Future.” It attacks a certain sort of insipid library futurism—and is going all over the “Twittersphere”:

The kindest interpretation of statements like “the future is mobile” or “the future of reference is SMS” or “the future is librarians in pods” or whatever is that the librarians are trying to create that future by speaking it. The incantation will somehow make it so…. The less kind interpretation is that the authors of such statements are reductionist promoters, reducing a complex field to whatever marginal utility they’re focused on and claiming that this is the future, while simultaneously promoting themselves as seers.

The obvious and most likely statement is that nothing is the future, as in no thing is the future, period. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong. With technology, it should be clear to anyone who bothers to see past their obsessions that formats and tools die hard. Some people like to imply that if librarians don’t take up every new trend they’ll become like buggy whip makers. I should point out that there are still people who make buggy whips. Buggy whips aren’t as popular as they once were, but they’re still around. There are even buggies to accompany them.

I started to reply in comments, but my words added up. So here they are:

Though a purveyor of “Web 2.0” ideas—I founded LibraryThing, what can I say?—I think it’s a great post.

The rhetoric you describe rings true. It starts, I think, from the popularizers and enthusiasts who take up new technologies and communicate them to the great mass of librarians whose life revolves around other things. To get through the clutter—to be one of the things you take back from a weekend of ALA or PLA talks—the message is simplified and the rhetoric ratchets up. “This is useful” loses out to “this will save you.” As it passes through libraryland the cycle repeats in spirals of simplification and amplification. Over and over I see broader intellectual discussions of technology and the future of libraries reduced to trivial and ephemeral exhortations like “every library needs to be on Meebo!” or “the future is SMS!”

It’s depressing, but it’s not unique to library technology. You see it in other trends, like “green libraries” (they’re the future, didn’t you get the memo?). It’s in the dynamics of communication. Your post is a good corrective to it.

At the same time, you’re missing something. I don’t know if you’re missing it for real, or just in this focused expression. But there’s a powerful “yes but” here, and it needs saying—shouting even!—lest people take the wrong thing from your post.

For all the nonsense and hype, librares are subject to an extraordinary and rapid cultural change. They have already changed drastically—especially if “libraries” means what libraries mean to culture generally, and people who don’t work in them.

Libraries are in the “information business” and this business is in one of the most profound transformations in human history. This isn’t buggies vs. Stanley Steamers—different ways of getting to the habberdasher. It’s horse-and-buggy culture vs. everything the car has brought—mass production, suburban living, the Blitzkreig, the global economy, global warming and the sexual revolution. Certainly, as you say, carriges continue to exist as objects that convey people, but their meaning has been utterly transformed. If libraries end up as a way for rich people to indulge children on a visit to a big city—what carriages mean today—well, crap! How did that happen?!

The world is changing, and for all the noise about this or that technology, I don’t think libraries are dealing with it squarely. (Forget Web 2.0; libraries haven’t really ingested Web 1.0 yet.) “The future is X” isn’t the best response to that change, but it’s a response.

I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.

PS: By the way, LibraryThing is releasing a universal mobile catalog. It’s the future. No, really! 🙂

Labels: library technology, LIS


  1. Wayne BT says:

    (also posted on my blog)

    There's nothing here I disagree with. If anything, I think the heated rhetoric makes it easier to ignore the difficulties of changing significantly or improving services, especially in a large library. Libraries can be sclerotic organizations, but in dealing with a large system there are a lot of people who need to be convinced and a lot of effort to make significant changes. There are bureaucracies to please and committees to form that have to be managed effectively. I see a lot of cheering, but not much discussion of how to persuade the powerful but unpersuaded that such changes are indeed good for libraries and their users. There's a lot of complaint about systematic barriers but not much discussion of how to use or bypass them.

  2. Keia44 says:

    As someone who just started an MLIS program, I'd like to say that in library school at least, we are definitely embracing Library 2.0. I have an entire class devoted to social networking and web design. My Principles of Searching class starts with Dialog and ends with Google. The next generation of librarians will be unable to ignore the societal changes that are pushing our users to embrace technology. A lot professors around me talk about how necessity will fuel the change more than choice, regardless of people's opinions of the matter.

    That said, no one is ever going to abadon old fashioned books either. I haven't met one fellow student who owns a Kindle. So I agree that it's a complicated, nuanced situation that isn't going to miraculously transform into the future anytime soon.

  3. EowynA says:

    You have said, "(Forget Web 2.0; libraries have really ingested Web 1.0 yet.)" — the statement says that libraries are up to Web 1.0. Dunno what the "yet" means here. Did you mean to negate it and just leave out a "not"?

  4. Jean Costello says:

    Great post, Tim. The phrases "spirals of simplification and amplification" and "for all the noise about this or that technology, I don't think libraries are dealing with it squarely" really rang true for me.

    I see technology as a secondary or tertiary matter. Fundamental questions about which needs and constituents libraries are trying to serve come first, as does a thoughtful reconsideration of library organizational structure(s).

    A few recent articles contain good questions to help get the ball rolling. I summarized them here: Asking the right questions about public libraries.

  5. Andromeda says:

    @Keia44: As a library student myself, I…agree and disagree?

    There are professors in my program who are very into emerging technologies, and there are professors who not only don't embrace it but don't know it, to the extent of teaching things about technology that are wrong.

    I think (except for the part about teaching wrong things) this *could* be a real strength — library 2.0 vs. 101 dialogue played out as part of one's education, a way to grapple with the whole sweep of Andy's awesome bell curve. Or it could just be a lot of unherded cats running off in different directions, with no coherent discourse. (In my grad school experience, it's been more the latter.)

    At my school, you can take a path through the curriculum which is very tech-savvy, or one which is basically Luddite, and the extent to which Library 2.0 issues are integrated into the core seems to depend wholly on the professor you end up with — hence the catherding problem. If the debate were played out in the core more consciously and deliberately, with professors who had perhaps varying perspectives but an agreement on core content, I would be much happier…sounds like your program does a better job on this front.

  6. SimonW11 says:

    I think it's important to remember that coachbuilder, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and their ilk.Did not find themselves cast on the scrapheap of history when cars appeared. Instead they transitioned, making car bodies and car wheels.their skills were not suddenly no longer required but instead were required for different tasks. Many a blacksmith opened a garage.carriage painters just carried on painting a new type of carriage.

    Don't then expect old expertise to become suddenly worthless, instead look for new fields and new ways to employ that expertise.