In Our Time of Dying

One of these days, hopefully a long time from now, the sun will rise, but I won’t be around to see it. And at some point, most likely, even the sun will set for its final time. As much as I’ve started to ruminate on such inevitabilities, as someone well in to middle age, I don’t think anyone, or at least anyone all that healthy, truly understands the significance of our mortality.

Death is part of life. Our eventual demise impacts everyone’s behavior in many ways, although we may not always be conscious of those influences. Some psychological models, especially the terror management theory, go so far as to identify our eventual non-existence as a source for many of our core beliefs. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification of people’s actions, yet then again, we do have a propensity for overthinking things as well.

The impending demise of certain workflows, particularly when driven by technological advances that make current processes obsolete, certainly terrifies many librarians. Much of what we now do, in our efforts to maintain relevance, bears little relation to the tasks which older members of our field performed in the course of their job duties when they were young.

The choice to “adapt or die” is obviously not restricted to libraries. Doctors once used bloodletting as a medical treatment. They thankfully now rely upon more evidenced-based practices. Ice harvesting, as shown in the beginning of the movie Frozen, was actually once a real thing. As cooling technology has advanced, it has gone the way of icebox deliveries.

Then there’s the storing and shelving of books so that we may provide access to information kept in a physical medium. Those delivery mechanisms, along with the methods used for discovering them, well, it’s at least becoming less controversial to say that their days are numbered. Think of that cartoon showing two Gutenberg-era individuals examining a book while one of them comments, “Nice, but as long as there are readers there will be scrolls.”

Someday we won’t need libraries, at least as defined by their traditional purposes, any more than the Pony Express had to remain in business. Hoping for such an environment, not so much due to any limitations of today’s technology as the state of our information marketplace—for example, consider the following passage from my latest e-mail to a patron: “this is a record for an article which has not yet been published in the print issues of the journal and is therefore not available in our Ebsco subscription”—is about as idealistic as campaigning on a promise to provide free healthcare for all. A worthy aspiration, but for now not a realistic target. (Note to reader: this was written before COVID-19 became a global pandemic.)

If there’s anything to the concept that we fear change because we fear death, then perhaps there’s some validity to the notion that we fear changes to libraries, even if those modifications are just procedural in nature, because we’re afraid of a world where libraries are no longer necessary. Whatever unconscious motives may be in play, an unwillingness to recognize the opportunities that come with change, in favor of a tenacious preference for keeping everything as it is, despite the fact that so much around us constantly evolves, is a mindset I encounter often enough in my work that I fear libraries are destined to become irrelevant before they can achieve their goal of making themselves obsolete.

Much of modern life is unabashed escapism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that time enjoyed cannot be time wasted. Yet when it comes to acknowledging the realities of new ideas, while accurately assessing the potential risks and rewards from shaking things up, our tendency to delude ourselves that everything’s immortally perfect already, and to conclude that approaching problems with a different set of tools is therefore forever unwarranted, is ultimately a line of thinking which could lead to our premature extinction.

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John Hubbard

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis