Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There was a library on the Titanic. Really.
We all know that it is wise to bring something to read when traveling, and when trapped on a vessel crossing the ocean it is best to be able to go get something else to read when you finish the first book. True, the Titanic’s libraries may not have been the most publicly accessible but they were there: one for first class passengers, another for second-class passengers, and perhaps those in steerage shared what little reading material they had with them (perhaps) thereby creating some manner of informal library.
Then there was the thing with the iceberg.
While the people on board frantically tried to get off, maybe there was a librarian who stayed to re-shelve the books that were getting tossed about, or a librarian who grabbed the records of who had borrowed what in the hopes of recovering them later, or one who tried to save as many books as possible before rushing to a lifeboat, or maybe a librarian who just stood there staring morosely knowing that no matter what they might do in that moment that their library would soon be no more. Perhaps, amongst the librarians there may have been some who thought that the library would wash up largely intact upon some tropical island where the books could be dried and an exciting new library could be constructed out of the rubble. Maybe as the band kept playing on the top deck, the librarians kept shelving. But re-shelving books on a sinking ship is not much better than rearranging the chairs on top of it.
All of which brings us to the real question at hand: are libraries sinking with the ship? It’s not the most enjoyable question to ponder. It’s also an odd one. After all, to say “yes” seems like it might be an exaggeration, but to say “no” seems laughably naïve, and what “ship” are we talking about? Perhaps the “ship” is our public sector, our civil society, or our national priorities. Or perhaps it is the historical concept of libraries that now seems as out of date as the Titanic would be today (had it never sank).
To be a librarian today, a person working in a library, a student in library school (or somebody considering library school), or just a person with a passing interest in libraries is to hear a (seemingly) never ending chorus of panic. Libraries are in crisis! Can libraries survive! Libraries must change! Budgets must be cut! E-readers shall replace the books! This degree is worthless! AAAAAAAAAAHH! And so forth.
And yet there is, actually, relatively little panicking.
The stereotypes, it seems, may have some truth to them: librarians are a rather polite lot. A profession that is smiling and nodding and trying to serve the last few patrons looking for a good read before they flee to the lifeboat, even if this means that we are giving precious little attention to the state of the ship and what it will mean for the library.
It can be fun to fantasize about what could have been. What if the librarians had participated in a mutiny that had more equitably distributed labor, goods, and services throughout the ship, an arrangement that might have been able to avoid the iceberg. But the iceberg has been hit, there’s a gash in the side of the boat, and the floor is tilting beneath us, and gosh darn it we’ve got to do something to save the library.
If there ever was a time for creative radical solutions this is it, if there ever was a time for librarians to paint a skull and crossbones on their cardigans and hoist it from the mast this is it, if there ever was a time to not stay calm this is it.
We could just go down with the ship.
Or we could build a raft out of these book cases?
Cutlasses and Cardigans,