When asked recently about the future of public libraries, I shared my concern that they would fade away, as local pharmacies have in the past 10-15 years. With continued tight municipal budgets, increased unemployment and home foreclosures and the proliferation of online services for guided search, reader’s advisory and digital entertainment, I can easily see this happening in all but the wealthiest communities and some large cities. I also see signs of social, political and economic developments over the next decade that favor a public library renaissance. So, which way will it go? We’re sure to know by 2019.
A decade from hell
For many Americans, the millenium’s first decade was incrementally as disruptive as some feared it would be on its first day. Time Magazine called it the “Decade from Hell“. A recent NBC/WSJ poll recorded just under 50% of Americans feeling we made progress in science, technology and race relations and greater numbers feeling we lost ground in health & well being, peace and national security, the nation’s sense of unity, treating others with respect, moral values and economic prosperity.1
The 00′s delivered setbacks for most Americans and many are really hurting. I’m sure we’ll pick ourselves up though, for we have a deeply ingrained sense of progress and forward movement that will motivate us to do what we can to avoid looking back in ten years and saying we’ve lost more vital ground.
Putting technology in its place
It was hard not to be swept away by the high tech developments of the past few years. Low-cost, user-friendly publishing platforms gave rise to an abundant crop of futurists, commentators and gurus (including me, I suppose). Many were technology apologists and afficionados who extolled the commercial and societal virtues of a networked, digitally mediated world. A few prominent analysts, though, have recently applied a different lens. In ShopSavvy, Tim O’Reilly urges readers to support local merchants by buying where you shop. Journalist Nicholas Carr pondered the relationship between information and knowledge, concluding that “Truth is self-created through labor, through the hard, inefficient, unscripted work of the mind, through the indirection of dream and reverie. What matters is what cannot be rendered as code. Google can give you everything but meaning.” And Kent Anderson of The Scholarly Kitchen just published a critical analysis of Google and Facebook’s efforts to reduce privacy expectations, noting that “nobody survives in a culture in which privacy is not acknowledged as a basic barrier to authority.” It’s good to see us becoming more thoughtful about the role technology plays in our lives.
Going slow, local and small
The rise of movements such as Slow Family Living, Slow Food and Slow Money suggests concern about our “always on” culture and a desire to focus on what’s truly important in the face of modernity’s distractions and pressures. Organized slow movers aren’t the only ones shifting their lifestyles. The NY Times recently reported that people are “doing more and buying less”. The recession has a lot to do with it, although there may be more than economics at work here. People across multiple income levels are making the change and, unlike previous recessions, “people seem to be keeping up with experience consumption and cutting back on other necessities.” Also noteworthy are the experiences they are creating. In addition to spending more time with family & friends and pursuing hobbies, folks are visiting parks, museums and other cultural centers.
They’re also staying closer to home. Recent census data reveals Americans are now less mobile than at any time since WWII.2 While economists speak of the negative economic effects of reduced labor mobility, others point to positive social impacts including: increased social capital (the stock of trust and support we draw on in daily life); lower crime rates; reduced political polarization and greater community investment by affluent residents. The transfer of wealth from the middle to upper class, combined with the inevitable rise of fossil fuel prices, will reinforce reduced consumption and mobility. With so much of our material life predicated on cheap oil, changes are bound to be dramatic as prices rise.3 Everything from the food we eat to the communities and homes we live in will be affected.
Political factors are also driving a renewed focus on local endeavors. The Slow Money Alliance asks “What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?” and Arianna Huffington has launched Move Your Money, encouraging citizens to work with community banks versus the “too-big-to-fail banks profiting from bailout dollars and government guarantees.” Security and trust are implicit in these campaigns — and I expect we’ll see a lot more of them in the coming decade.
Bringing it home
What does all this mean for public libraries? For one thing it means libraries aren’t the only institutions that need to change. Most do. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of an established social or commercial entity that will thrive by doing things the same way they’ve done them for the past 10-15 years.
I think we’re entering a period of positive disruption characterized by public engagement. For the past generation we’ve been coaxed into putting our faith in wise men on Wall Street and Washington and Silicon Valley. And it hasn’t gone so well for most of us. So we’ll start trying things that work better. Public libraries can become a part of this rejuvenation. Indeed, I’d argue they must.
1Percentage who felt progress was made in science & technology (46%) and race relations (40%). Percentage who felt we lost ground in health and well being (46%), peace and national security (50%), the nation’s sense of unity (54%), treating others with respect (55%), moral values (66%) and economic prosperity (74%).
2Fey, William. (2009). The Great American Migration Slowdown: Regional and Metropolitan Dimensions. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.
3For a fast and interesting read, see Christopher Steiner. (2009). $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better. New York: Grand Central Publishing.