“And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.”
—Mad Max 2
The COVID-19 outbreak has brought to light many institutional deficiencies, some of which have to do with not properly placing the authority for decision-making with the most knowledgeable people, while others illustrate our over-reliance on historical precedents in not taking full advantage of available technology. Due to a policy change by my administration, I am now telecommuting full time. Several online content providers are lifting their paywalls. All of these sorts of changes raise the obvious question of why it took an emergency for us to enact them—even if they are merely partial and temporary, and nonetheless certain to be rolled back once their associated strategic value or legal mandates dissipate.
Truth be told, as an introvert, this is a pretty sweet chance to recharge. Still, like many others, it’s been a surreal time for me. Aside from the fear of a nasty death (not to mention the whole memento mori thing), or a possible economic and societal collapse, there’s a poignancy to these events, in particular our need for the #closethelibaries movement, for me partially because when I think back on a majority of the struggles throughout my career, they’ve each been moments when I found myself banging my head against the wall over dealing with librarians who don’t recognize how at times the riskiest course of action is not taking drastic measures and quickly making changes.
In other words, this isn’t my first experience dealing with an intransigent chain of command whose default response to new ideas is a sluggish refrain to “don’t be hasty.” That’s unwarranted in normal times, and downright dangerous in a crisis. We can do better. Circumstances such as these, and I say this as someone in a profound state of mourning over the impending massive yet avoidable loss of life, must therefore be a significant catalyst for substantial change—and not the kind of bike-shedding that so typifies our profession. As Eugene Debs wrote, “The most heroic word in all languages is revolution.”
I hope that any libraries remaining open shutter before it’s the obvious choice to make, because by then it could very well be too late for some people. It sounds awfully melodramatic, but when you have deans and mayors talking about the need to provide WiFi or books to students as outweighing an actual life, that’s just as absurd. Another librarian put it to me this way: it’s almost as if we’re after the type of hero worship that comes with bringing water to people after a natural disaster.
I do see some silver linings in a nearly altogether bad situation. The planet is enjoying a breath of fresher air, for example. And maybe we’re similarly due for brighter days ahead, along with an increased awareness regarding the types of changes which are possible, especially in the light of a newfound realization of what’s truly important.
As things start returning to normal, well, maybe they ought not to entirely—since the old normal exacerbated a lot of these problems. Everyone should consider the optimal ways for rebooting a good deal of our traditional practices, when all is said and done, with a few big adjustments for the better. The most positive outcomes resulting from this crisis may be best characterized by Avatar Aang: “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
Meanwhile, we have some tough times ahead of us. We’ll soon face the consequences of those acting with extremely poor judgement. And yet, “The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.” So tells us the character G’Kar from Babylon 5. He concludes, “The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.”