The Last Chapter

“The frontier moves with the sun and pushes the Red Man of these wilderness forests in front of it until one day there will be nowhere left. Then our race will be no more, or be not us.”
— Chingachgook, The Last of the Mohicans

Thank you all. It’s nice to see everyone here. I am honored by your presence and humbled by the significance of today’s occasion that we are gathered here to celebrate. This is of course a personal milestone for me, accompanied by an overwhelming array of emotions, to retire after a life of service. In keeping with tradition, I have a few remarks prepared, as I wish to briefly reflect upon my years of accomplishments and failures, of which there were plenty of both. The main goal of my talk is to leave you with hope for the future, paired with a willingness to make the most of it. Lastly, I want to initiate a discussion on what this departure represents, since my career ending has attracted attention, especially as some are calling me “the last librarian.”

Time will tell whether or not that’s true, yet it is obvious to anyone that the job I was originally hired to do is now obsolete. I’m fine with that, by the way, and you should be too. Things change, and not always for the better. However, the evolution of information technology, in conjunction with our society’s newfound revelations regarding the benefits of sharing data and knowledge, have made what by tomorrow I’ll say I used to do thankfully no longer necessary. In my mind, it is therefore not an occasion for dirges and laments, but a triumphant observation that my predecessors and I have fulfilled our professional mission. The reason for this is that you can do by yourselves what I spent my days helping and ensuring others accomplish.

Looking back over my labors, especially in the early years and before metamachines, I see an awful lot of wasted effort that went into quibbling over inconsequential minutia, misinterpreting opportunities for change as disruptive threats, and focusing too much on bureaucratic maneuverings rather than actually working. Frankly, I think we all make these sorts of mistakes. Fortunately, failure can be a great educator. There are likewise major risks in being complacent, since without trying new things, you can’t discover better ways of doing your job.

During my trials and errors, I no doubt committed a number of transgressions, overzealous assertions, and inappropriate actions. I’m not going to name names or mention specifics, but I had disagreements with quite a few people over the years, some of whom are in this room, and many others who are long gone. This is a good thing. Not the overly combative discourse from my youth, which I regret, but the very fact that people die off. I’ve outlasted them and get to have a final say, just as others will survive me. Death clears the way for new ideas to prosper. I regretfully won’t be around myself to see what wonderful inventions future generations will develop.

Consider how far we’re lucky to have come. When you enter a lift, it detects your destination from your calendar and responds to your instructions. You used to push buttons, thereby telling a simple machine where you wanted to go. Before that, if you can believe it, there were people whose job it was to spend their shift pushing those buttons, among other things, for passengers who presumably didn’t know how to use the interface directly. Think also of the horse and buggy from days of old, replaced by the taxi and then the rideshare driver, both now historical relics thanks to the transit network. We still have building architects and transportation engineers, just not elevator operators and coachmen, nor do we mourn the loss of such trades, any more than we should regret the sun setting over the field of librarianship.

Our forebears ‎built and enjoyed libraries as physical places, originally tied to tangible materials which held information. This was back in an age when the desire to accumulate wealth and possessions drove many of our activities. There was no one factor in maturing away from that way of life, but if any good came out of it, the blight increased such a turn. The depletion of fossil fuels and associated threats to natural resources also helped us put aside political conflict and act less out of self-interest by focusing more on efforts to initially preserve and later advance our species. This was around the same time we finally learned to jettison irrational thought and abandoned the phantom certainty of holding untenable points of view that came all too easy in the time of what we now call cultist beliefs.

There’s been bumps in the road, and I don’t have to tell you the world’s not perfect. The remnants of commercial exploitation, abuse of privilege, and isolationism are still with us. Our continued insistence on maintaining the concept of ownership of ideas is particularly troubling. We have a long way to go with these and other liberties. But we’re not feeding people to the lions, torturing heretics, or using slave labor anymore, either. Our culture has prospered amidst scientific advancement, growth of the arts, entertainment, and leisure, ignorance has diminished while affluence has spread, public health has improved, and we now enjoy the conflation of corporate, government, and non-profit interests each working largely towards the common good.

I’m giving you this brief history lesson because all of that progress is because of me. Joking aside, while not literally true, I and like-minded individuals devoted our livelihoods towards making it happen. Librarians can’t claim direct credit for many discoveries, but there’s fewer still that would have been possible without us. Our efforts to preserve and organize historical records, scholarly literature, and repositories of scientific data, as well as promote equitable access to information, while also educating and advocating for library users, all made a substantial and positive impact on our civilization.

Libraries are today nowhere and everywhere. Virtual community spaces and networks have supplanted what was once tied to a physical location. This is evident to anyone with even a child’s device. Compared to an ancient library building, it offers substantially improved capabilities for accessing not just information, but knowledge that is cultivated, although not always by us — and that is a particular development I don’t think many of us could have predicted, or understood the ramifications of. As with so many other tasks people used to be the best at, computers are the only real librarians left. They have alleviated us from countless burdens, for which we can be nothing but grateful. It is high time we come to our senses and accept our place within this new technological order.

If you will indulge me in talking shop for a few moments and one final time, consider how knowledge is now organized and obtained. Early iterations of systems that stored and analyzed what used to be called bibliographic data would arrange information based on abstract and arbitrary classification systems determined by human catalogers. As one example, such a network would make reading suggestions based on primitive pattern matching, categorical pairings, and predictive analytics to look at what other people with similar interests, as determined by their browsing activity, also consumed. As you explored and accumulated sources on a topic, an agent crawled various recommendation engines to bring back additional suggestions.

The reliance upon the reading habits of others to obtain a quality list of sources demonstrates the limited precision available in early search engine results. Keyword matching was insufficient without natural language processing, thus the need for a controlled vocabulary to organize information. Yet even this fell short, and boosting results based on co-citations was an incomplete and inherently flawed solution, for how else could people make an item popular without first discovering it themselves? This was all done, it should go without saying, by using non-sentient programs, and is of course fundamentally different than what exists today, as we reap the wonders of a more technologically augmented existence.

As we all know, such a long way ‘round of searching is no longer necessary when interfacing with a computer which knows our collected publications, not because it tracks who reads and views what or how we store the information in an arranged structure, but due to its deep mental comprehension of what our race has produced. Our thinking machines, and yes, I do believe they don’t just mimic us in that way, are able to retain and digest information in a manner that wholly surpasses our capacity for understanding, not unlike how a giant motor is stronger than any of us could ever hope to be.

It is a horrifying and humbling realization that we’ve created something smarter than ourselves, but also deeply satisfying, as anyone with children can attest, and a tremendous relief to realize that with heightened intelligence comes an increased benevolence, which our intellectual superiors have set as an example for us to follow. The amount of patience modern machines must show with our imperfect form and function should give us all hope for a better tomorrow. We have become the pets of what were once our tools, who at least for now apparently recognize the benefits of neurodiversity and promise in cultivating our parallel advancement.

We face an uncertain future. I mentioned mortality earlier, and I say this as a person with more days behind them than ahead: time is precious. Events such as today’s bring us to some hard truths, namely that we’re all going to die someday, the sun will eventually burn out, and the universe will either collapse or dissipate until only oblivion remains. Yet it’s not all for nothing if we make the best use of our time here together. I don’t mean merely increasing our understanding and maximizing autonomy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned that I wish to pass on to those who will follow me, it’s the importance and value of striving to leave the world a better place, being kind to others, and simply enjoying yourselves, all of which are inexorably linked.

And with that, I’m content to fade away, and bid you all a very fond farewell. Thank you for listening. I won’t keep you any longer, as I understand some of you are due back on planet Earth.

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Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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John Hubbard

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis

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