Blazing Trails, pt. 2: Preoccupied with survival

July 14, 2010 at 10:12 pm 4 comments

This is the second post in the “Blazing Trails” series. Part 1 is “The Lay of the Land.”

Libraries are not the only institutions struggling to survive in the face of change. There have been a lot of interesting discussions coming out of the field of journalism in recent years, and much of that discussion is relevant to libraries. A little over a year ago, Clay Shirky analyzed the problems of the newspaper industry on his blog. The problem, he said, wasn’t that newspapers were blindsided by the Internet, it was that all their solutions were built on an erroneous assumption:

The curious thing about all the plans hatched in the ‘90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes…was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.

This is one of my great concerns for libraries: are we merely giving ourselves a “digital facelift” rather than facing the hard truth about how technological and societal change is affecting our core services?

The FTC recently posted a working draft of potential policies to “support the reinvention of journalism.” Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Well, don’t get too excited. Jeff Jarvis posted his review of the document, and in essence, what it portrays is an attempt to save the existing models and institutions of journalism without honestly or critically evaluating them. True reinvention is nowhere to be seen. Jarvis says:

If the FTC truly wanted to rethink journalism and its new opportunities and new value in our democracy, it would have written this document from the perspective of the people it is supposed to represent: the citizens, examining how we can benefit from news that is newly opened to the opportunity of collaboration and greater relevance. Instead, the document is written wholly from the perspective of the companies and institutions of the industry.

The unstated but evident premise of the FTC’s approach is that new technology is a threat to be mitigated, not an opportunity to explore or exploit. Fear dominates the thinking and prevents the possibility for insight and innovation. This is valuable insight for libraries. If we are too preoccupied with our survival, we are likely to miss the best chances to ensure it. And I think we have to find ways to approach these possibilities from the perspective of our customers. As Clay Shirky points out:

We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive. – Cognitive Surplus, p. 210

Survival is the goal, but more than that, it’s survival with a minimum of discomfort and change. Sound familiar? As anthropologist Jennifer James says, “You can choose deep change or slow death. Most people prefer slow death.”

Ouch.

We can circle our wagons and survive for a time, but in doing so we stop moving forward. Focusing only on survival is a short-term solution which, ironically, will probably hasten our demise. We have to recognize that we are living in revolutionary times, and act accordingly.

Stay tuned for part 3…

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Blazing Trails, pt. 1: The lay of the land Intermission: Old Spice guy & librarian influence

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"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." - Pearce

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