Rivers and dams
Recently a reader commented on a posting about Rick Anderson of last March, defending the idea that librarians should be “invisible facilitators of the flow of information in a capitalist society,” which is how I interpreted the intentions of Anderson and others like him (though I am sure that they would take issue with that).
The talk by Anderson that I was blogging about then had the title, “Sometimes a river, always a library.” It seems to me that the River metaphor has been a major part of business thinking in the neoliberal era, going back to the Reagan-Thatcher years. (Laissez couler – “let it flow,” also, “let is sink”). It’s the new age version of capitalism, where the hippy idea of “going with the flow” is translated to mean “do not resist the flow of capital and the natural dynamism of capitalism.”
In libraries, this obviously means that if we are smart, we apprehend the changes that are being brought to us from outside in the neoliberal era, and we brave the whitewater rapids on our little raft of librarianship, avoiding the rocks that could smash us to bits. Only a fool would stand in this river letting the water flow by him, trying not to be carried off.
We have mostly been looking at just one side of this metaphor, which I think is actually quite a useful metaphor.
There are definitely times when the appropriate way to look at it is to see ourselves as taking a raft down a fast moving river. It is certainly ridiculous to stand alone in the river thinking that by standing there you can stop its flow and save yourself from the future. But I think the neoliberal era has progressed sufficiently far that most people can see its logical conclusions, and we can talk about The River in terms of how people have used it historically.
Historically, humans have harnessed the power of rivers by building dams. One person standing in a river does not make a dam, but a community cooperating over time can build a great dam, which is a very useful thing. Sure, dams can have unintended ecological consequences, but where would civilization be without them? Dams create power, make land useable for agriculture, create lakes, create a stability for communities…
We’ve used the idea of the River to suggest a view of rapid change as a force of nature, and to suggest that the changes being brought by neoliberal capitalism are simply a force of nature to which we as profession have to adapt and “go with.” This way of using the idea of the River fits nicely with the pleasurable feeling of “flow,” the expression of emotion, and the mid-20th century rejection of discipline in favor of pleasure.
Capitalism is certainly based on aspects of human existence that are as natural as anything in the natural world. But it is also in our nature to observe, to think, to plan, to control our environment and harness the power of nature. I think it is time to begin thinking of how the laissez-faire metaphor of the River has a useful other side, which is about how its power can best be harnessed by building dams.
What is the meaning of a dam? Yes, it is something that can break, but it is also something organized, something that represents collected power, cooperation, planning, a human creation but one that is greater than any single person can accomplish. It represents the creation of value through collective effort and applied intelligence. It represents human control of natural forces.
I’ll leave it for a later time to think of how this metaphor might be applied to libraries, but feel free to comment if you have ideas…