Library trendspotting if you happen to like Susan Jacoby

Let’s start from the common premise that an important part of being a librarian in this time of rapid change is to keep a close eye on trends. How are things changing? We need to know so that we can keep up, so that we can modify our services to meet society’s changing needs, to have in mind new types of users instead of assuming that users are like ourselves. You might be one who says that libraries have been slow to adapt to the nature of the Millennial generation of users and their 2.0 lifestyles.

Okay, fine so far. That’s what we’re awash in right now.

I’m interested in looking at the way library services have been pressured to change as a result of changes that social trendspotter Susan Jacoby has been noticing. Susan Jacoby has written books about anti-intellectualism and unreason in American sociey, “picking up where Richard Hofstadter left off,” according to one writer. In her new book, The Age of American Unreason, she notes the rising anti-intellectualism and hostility toward reason in our society and posits three major sources for it: The decline of print culture in the television age, the decline of our educational system, and the rise of religious fundamentalism. A month ago she had a good editorial in the Washington Post that encapsulates her views on this nicely. In short, over the last few decades, Americans have become steadily less well educated, less interested in intellectual life, and more irrational in their approach to society’s questions.

I think many of us have observed that libraries, following management directives primarily, have adapted their services to the new anti-intellectual user with consistency and careful planning for several decades, and have justified the dumbing-down of libraries in terms of happier-sounding, euphemized trends (“putting the user in charge,” “customer-orientation,” “making tough decisions in an environment of declining resources”).

I think that if you take a hard look at the way libraries are being dumbed down – from our collections to our cataloging – the question about what we are here for necessarily arises. Are we here to support reason and intellectual life in society? To aid people’s thought? To preserve culture? Or are we here to provide more grease for the skids in our society’s downward slide into an entertainment culture of ignorance and fascism?

Is a trend necessarily something to follow? Or might it sometimes be the thing that we exist in order to counter?