Blazing Trails, pt. 3: Here be dragons
As we venture away from familiar ground and strike out into the blank areas of the map, we have to face our fears, the possibility that we will not return from the areas marked by warning signs and illustrations of frightening and horrific beasts.
As Clay Shirky said about newspapers:
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
We don’t know what the future holds, and there are no guarantees. I’d guess that’s a pretty uncomfortable proposition for even the hardiest adventurer, and librarians are no exception. At least to some degree we are in the preservation business. We don’t give up on things easily. We don’t change our models lightly. And we don’t like hearing that what we’ve worked so hard to uphold and protect might disappear.
The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re going to miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model.
If we want to survive and thrive over the long haul, flexibility will be essential. We have to be able to adapt to rapid changes, rapidly. As individuals, organizations, as a profession, we need to be nimble, much more so than we currently are. And we have to be brave. Very brave. We have to be brave enough to continually, honestly, brutally evaluate everything we do, even if it means killing our sacred cows. We have to look at the worst case scenario – what if libraries really are dying? What does that mean for us individually, as a profession, and for our society as a whole?
I’m reminded of a passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.
Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over. (p. 4)
We can no longer rely on the maps of those who came before us – we have to create our own. This is where the true adventuring begins. This is where our mettle is tested. This is where dragons are slain.