There is a common assumption that trends should be identified quickly so that we can more quickly and more fully adapt to them, in order to stay competitively ahead-of-the-curve and relevant.
But trends are not all the same. Let me give you an analogy. I have heard of two primary policy themes in response to global warming, which is of course a major current trend. The first, and most common theme, is to reduce our own contribution to global warming as much as possible in order to slow it down or reverse it. This is the Global Warming Must Be Stopped! theme. The other major policy direction, which I have heard advocated only occasionally, is to accept global warming as an inevitable fact, even though we can understand our own contribution to it as a process, and plan to adapt our economies to it as it progresses. So in response to global warming there are people who say Resist! and people who say Adapt!, despite agreement on both sides that it is a process that we have thrown into motion ourselves as industrialized nations.
Other trends are like this, though the balance between the Resisters and the Adapters may be reversed, and the threat to us less acute and less easily understandable.
I point this out in order to counter any assumptions people might have that “trends” are different from “problems,” in that “trends” are good, or at least should be regarded simply as “what is,” while “problems” are bad. We ought to decide for ourselves, thoughtfully, what trends are problems and what trends are blessings, and what trends are, shall we say, mixed blessings.
Among current social trends it is possible to focus on certain aspects, and draw out patterns, relations, and consequences.
So, If we consider as trends:
- The increasingly rapid pace of life
- The shift away from print media towards more interactive, sensory-stimulating aural and visual media
- The tendency to share our lives online, by choice
- The loss of personal privacy, not by choice
- The decline in educational standards, at least in terms of traditionally-valued skills having to do with written texts
- The shift from individualized to collective thinking
- The new ubiquity of communication technology and the 24/7 connectedness that it brings
- The decline in literary reading as a pastime (as noted by the NEA a few years ago)
…then I think it is possible to find a broader, emergent trend that ties these trends together. That trend concerns the interior space of a person.
As we lose our privacy, as our lives speed up and fill with signals, and as we lose time set aside for contemplation, the interior space that belongs to each person is progressively being diminished: shrunk down, grayed out, eroded away, and rendered exterior surface by exposure to the social world.
Interior space is something that people can cultivate. It is cultivated through time spent in sustained, imaginative reading; time spent meditating for greater mindfulness or higher consciousness; time spent reflecting on a problem, on an idea, or on past events; or time spent in another way, as long as it involves a degree of solitude and freedom from external demands. What interior space requires for its maintenance is time, solitude, autonomy, quiet, and a freedom from external sources of stimulation.
Interior space is something that the value of which is by nature difficult to explain, since it cannot be imagined in order to be understood without possessing a share of it. Making it harder to explain is that it is not an object, and descriptions imply objects. Attention focused on an object tends to distract one from apprehending its context, and interior space is more of a context-a place or a way-than a thing, and therefore apprehended differently. The attractions of external stimulation and highly dynamic connection to others are attention-diverting, perhaps in an essential way, and distract us from sensing the space we occupy internally. The difficulty of explaining what interior space is makes it difficult to say what is at stake in its loss or potential recovery. I tend to believe that we will miss it and will put concerted effort into recreating it when it is gone. This is my hope.
We know with certainty, however, that libraries, in being quiet spaces with books, are natural allies of interior space. Few other places are socially-sanctioned as allies of interior space. Religious buildings (temples, churches, synagogues, mosques) and nature preserves are two that come to mind. Museums are arguably another, depending on how one thinks about art.
My point, obviously, is that we, as librarians, should not overlook the value of libraries in their traditional sense, and should not be so quick to treat every social trend as inevitable, unquestionably good, or something that we Resist at the peril of a final loss of relevance.
In terms of relevance, it seems to me that what is making us less relevant is our feverish attempt to duplicate what other people are already doing better: social media, pop culture, and dumbed-down information via the web. We don’t become more relevant by making our identity more vague, occupying others’ shadows. It seems to me that what gives us continuing relevance is that what we offer above all – the means for creating and maintaining interior space – is in increasingly short supply, and is even becoming rare. That is a source of, not a threat to, our relevance.
If people have lost interest in interior space, then we should consider that if in a few years they come around wanting to regenerate it (and things tend to come back around), it would be a bad thing if there were no quiet places with books available to help them do it. The more quickly things change, the more disoriented people become. If anything ought to serve as a source of continuity, as something to come back to, a point of reference and a site for recovery of the self, I think it should be libraries.