...the laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised."
Thomas Jefferson.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bookless Libraries

OMG! Horrors! But even as I am horrified at the thought, I guiltily want an iPad. And I do feel guilt. This is a very good take on the (slim) likelihood that books will become obsolete any time soon. But...they probably will be, eventually, won't they? Rufus is but one of many very sharp and interesting thinkers who write at a place called The League Of Ordinary Gentlemen. One of my faves. 

Bookless Libraries

My beef is really with people who try to take readings of the market as some sort of higher truth because they have no access to any other scales of value. Ultimately, I believe that cultural institutions should judge their endeavors by several metrics, including the economic, but if they invalidate all other scales of value in light of “what the market tells us”, they tend to make very foolish and short-sighted decisions. This is not the fault of economics, capitalism, consumption, or people who read Twilight novels instead of Proust: it’s the fault of decision-makers who don’t understand why market economics are a necessarily-limited heuristic, and instead treat the market as a sort of oracle.
I care because I encounter plenty of “experts” in academia who believe that the humanities just aren’t pulling their weight in the market. In fact, there are now universities that are getting rid of their philosophy department, or their classics department, or their German language department, or their French language department; and the experts seem to agree that this is how academia overall is “trending”. What I wanted to understand is why the Deans and Administrators who axe these departments tend to talk about this as a good thing, instead of committing hari kari.
The justification is something like this: cutting out departments with lower enrollment proves that we are “receptive” to the “needs” of our “customers”, and ready to “innovate” with an eye on what those customers are “telling us”. Money is tight and when a limited number of undergraduates receive degrees in philosophy (as far as I can tell the metric is five or less per year) it means that the larger culture is “trending away” from philosophy, so there’s little justification for a university maintaining a philosophy department. Moreover, if there were 20 degrees in 1990 and 5 this year, it stands to reason that there will be zero within five years. So, it’s only “realistic” to get rid of the department.
These are the sorts of arguments the experts make. I’d like to link to an argument that “in less than 20 years most libraries will no longer have traditional books in them”. The writer is a “futurist” who serves as a consultant to libraries and universities, telling them the trends that they should have in mind as they restructure their institutions.
I’m not going to criticize the man’s argument. I’m just going to summarize it: sales of digital readers are increasing, while sales of books are declining. Thus, it stands to reason that, within the next five years, books will no longer be published as physical items and publishers who offer physical books will go out of business. So, libraries will no longer archive physical books because their patrons won’t be looking for them. As for those of us who will come looking? Our opinions are invalid. “Despite the objections of book lovers, the days of wandering through the stacks are coming to an end.”
See, what the “futurist” is doing is reading current market trends and projecting them into the future over the entire culture. And maybe his predictions are right. But, a library that listens to this argument, and furthermore ignores all of the other heuristics for measuring the “success” or “failure” of their institution, would therefore think it was “keeping ahead of the curve” to get rid of their books and replace them with flat screen televisions or cappuccino bars. It’s the result of taking one heuristic as the full measure of cultural reality, and in some sense as the full measure of man.
For someone like me, there’s no argument I can make against this that doesn’t take into account other scales of value. And the response is generally that the criticisms I would make of a bookless library or a university where it’s not possible to study the classics are either “unrealistic” or “elitist”. For whatever reason, calls to bring other scales of value to bear in our decisions in addition to market economics often strike people as attacks on the decisions made by consumers, or on the market itself.
They aren’t: all I’m saying is that, because economics is a necessarily-limited heuristic, it has to be supplemented by other standards of value- and moreover by other visions of a good life, a healthy culture, and the role of the institution in the life of the individual and within the society as a whole. Or you end up with universities that see education as little more than a market-driven consumer item and act accordingly.
When I listen to these experts who say that, well, in 20 years, American libraries won’t have books, and it will no longer be legitimate in academia to study history, or foreign languages, or the classics, or to do philosophy; I do understand that they’re not describing an ‘ought’ or waging an attack- they’re just predicting. And, of course, their predictions are most likely dead wrong. And, yes, I know that these things still cost money, which I am told does not grow on trees.
Nevertheless, I have another scale of value that I must articulate, even if it is “arrogant” or “elitist” or “unrealistic”. Because written on my heart is the knowledge that what they’re describing there is a society committing a sort of suicide, and I won’t take that as inevitable.

"Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” - Plato

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