The Librarians’ Dilemma

“You will unite or you will fall.”
 — Elrond Half-elven (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

It’s easy to see patterns and connections where there really are none, or create false dichotomies (“there’s a comfort in embracing a binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’”) and otherwise oversimplify complicated and chaotic systems. But the bias we have for exaggerating our differences isn’t purely theoretical either, as you can see in everything from congressional polarization to the eroding middle class.

As with many fields nowadays, librarianship is ever at a crossroads. Supposedly, we can continue doing things the way we’ve always done, or choose to be boldly creative and reinvent service models. Literature is full of praise for adaptive librarians who “get it,” while the news can’t seem to move past the anti-stereotype stereotype of the funky tattooed librarian that doesn’t look like their predecessor.

Gaming theory has real-world applications in predicting and explaining human behavior. Even so, we’re not exactly perfectly rational agents who always calculate the wisest course of action. The prisoner’s dilemma is a particularly poignant example of how two colleagues, each acting in their own self-interest, cause the worst case scenario to happen.

The diametric forces in librarianship are no mere thought experiment. Much of the disruptive conflict I’ve observed throughout my career has been due to the hostility between adherents of traditional practices who wish to preserve the status quo and those who value evolution or champion new ideas. Depending on who you ask, each side is either rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic or fiddling while Rome burns.

Meanwhile, modern tools in the information economy have tremendously improved our ability to supply people what they want, need, and expect from a library. However, products for content management, discovery, and digitization not only challenge the pace of organizational growth to keep up with that of technological innovations, they raise the specter of disintermediation and obsolescence.

So what’s a librarian to do? Headstrong idealism must give way to a more realistic pragmatism. We need to realize both the dangers of being left behind through complacency and intransigence, as well as the uncertain risks that come with proactively trying new things. Moreover, what’s a profession to do? Ditch the whole book warehouse thing and go all in with makerspaces, Internet kiosks, and coffee shops? Or continue sitting at a reference desk and churning out pathfinders, even if they are now about cat videos and Beyoncé?

Perhaps time will tell which path is the best investment for the future. The problem is, we have finite resources, and neither the innovators or the laggards can afford to go it alone anymore:

The availability of information today, along with associated technology, is quite different than what existed during the bottlenecks which drove the invention of libraries. Unless we decisively adapt to this new reality, the very characteristics that made libraries a success, if left unchecked, may spell their doom.

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.