From Library Babel Fish, February 6, 2014



I was a bit taken aback by responses to my thoughts about short-term versus long-term thinking as libraries make decisions. I see libraries making practical trade-offs all the time without always considering how those decisions may bite us a few years from now.

As an example, we traded print subscriptions for Big Deals. This made sense. We had to trade hand-picked subscriptions of local interest for what came with the Deal, but we could get a lot more for the money. Then, as we knew it would, the prices went up, and we were over a barrel. When we couldn’t afford the Big Deal any longer, we canceled it and started buying one article at a time. That’s cheaper and people get exactly what they want, but the library (and the institutions they serve) have no lasting assets and nothing that can be shared. That’s a lot of money poured into satisfying individual needs with temporary information (and sustaining a system that isn’t working). Shouldn’t we think through the long-term consequences of our sensible decisions and weigh the tradeoffs? That’s what I was trying to get at.

But I’m guessing from responses that a lot of people are sick of being forced to bow down before a hypothetical future. Sometimes we are asked to wreck good things we’re doing now in order to accommodate someone’s beliefs about what we will be doing in future, or we are told by somebody powerful that X is the future, like it or not, and whatever people say they want from the library today is just a nostalgic obstacle standing in the path to a better tomorrow. Apart from these kind of destructive renovation exercises, we’ve all been through the dispiriting process of crafting long-range plans that take months and endless committee meetings but never are used by the Central Planners, who get more inspiration from an article in the newspaper if it aligns with their prejudices.

The future can be used for all the wrong reasons. The language we use about libraries and the future is often dystopian and apocalyptic, full of death threats: adapt or die; libraries are screwed; embrace disruptive innovation or resign yourselves to irrelevance. “Change” is often invoked as a millennialist prophecy of a moment that will divide the ready and the unready. This is a narrative of fear that has been used to make outsourcing, austerity, and scarcity seem a natural law of the universe, an inescapable force that must dismantle public institutions in favor of for-profit entities that will do a better job of managing things for us. And even if they won’t make things better, so what? It’s inevitable.

No wonder people are leery of being told they should focus on the future.

But the future (as John Warner recently reminded us) is not a blind force of nature, it is built out of choices we make.

Librarians share some long-term values that hold up pretty well and can help us make good decisions. We think equal access to a wide range of information is important. That privacy matters. That people should be free to pursue questions even if they lead into controversial or uncomfortable territory. That we should oppose censorship and support intellectual freedom. That we’re not just information brokers, but a cultural institution that preserves the past and helps its members learn and explore and create. These values, which go far beyond fast and efficient customer service, can help us strike a practical balance between a choice that will work for now and its long-term consequences. They can help us know when to say no, and help us explain why. And they can give us a scaffold for building within our communities a better understanding of what’s at stake for all of us.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.