Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Article Note: On Libraries and a Future without Petroleum

Citation for the article:

Hecker, Thomas E. "The Post-Petroleum Future of Academic Libraries." Journal of Scholarly Publishing 38.4 (July 2007): 183-199.

Read via Project Muse.

This article seemed a bit of a departure in terms of the types of article one would expect in the LIS field. The reason I say that is because this article is basically a speculative piece that at times is more reminiscent of something like A Canticle for Leibowitz than an actual scholarly article. However, the author does provide some serious scholarship, and it was overall an interesting read.

The article speculates on the future of academic libraries in the context of a world where petroleum is scarce and/or gone. The author goes on to suggest that based on the fact that our information infrastructure does require energy, when that energy becomes depleted, the infrastructure will collapse. So in brief, there goes your nice digital academic library. It will be pretty much useless. Hecker writes, "that our electronic utopia is founded on limited and unreliable energy supplies is little appreciated in the profession. Future libraries will likely be much simpler technologically and much more local in scope" (183-184). Given that gasoline prices continue their rise, somehow this seems a bit ominous. Sure, Hecker's vision is not about to happen anytime soon, but the fact that it can happen sure makes one think. By the way, when I read that statement, I wrote on the margin that the statement assumes librarians still exist. Given the constant cuts and library closures, often due to short sighted attempts at savings, I did wonder if we would have libraries at all. Hecker is a bit more optimistic.

Hecker goes on to review the literature of peak oil and oil depletion. One of the documents he draws upon is the Hirsch Report (note PDF, about 91 pages. If you don't want to read it, Hecker seems to give a pretty good sense of the report). He reviews how the oil depletion will lead to various environmental and social changes. This is not new. There are a few books out there on the topic, some of which Hecker includes in his sources.

Some highlights from the article:

  • The big picture: "Without cheap and plentiful supplies of oil, ground, air, and water transport; agricultural production; chemicals used in myriad products from fertilizers to plastics to clothing to paints to cleaners; pharmaceuticals; construction; and much of our physical infrastructure would be sharply curtailed or would cease to exist. Electronic components for computers and other devices would no longer be manufactured. Information technology and our taken-for-granted electronic infrastructure would collapse and disappear" (184-185). It does not get any more extreme than that.
  • And if you think those alternative energy sources are going to save the day: "But the energy deficit caused by the worldwide depletion of oil and natural gas cannot be surmounted by coal, nuclear, and the soft alternatives people clutch at as their saving straws" (187). Hecker, in a brief section of his paper, goes over the soft alternatives such as ethanol and hydrogen cells to show why they will not work. He is drawing on sources such as Beriault's Peak Oil and the Fate of Humanity as well as some other sources like an article in Scientific American for this section. Overall, I think an interested reader would be able to read most of the sources from Hecker's article with ease as they are accessible.
  • Something to ponder: "At one time, the progressive betterment of the character of individual human beings was considered the worthiest goal, but now the betterment of industrial products and technological gadgets is the fashion. Although a comfortable measure of material wealth is necessary for human welfare, and although technological progress has made amazing and disruptive changes possible, economic growth and technical tools should be means, not ends in themselves" (189-190).
So, where does academia come into all this? Read on.

  • Based on the above, the author observes that we have an economy that is more geared to little niches. He uses Catton's image of a detritus ecosystem. In brief, this is the type of ecosystem where, for example, algae in a pond initially flourish only to die off as soon as the algae depletes the pond's nutrients and resources. Catton sees the current industrial society like the algae in that pond.
Allow me a brief digression, but this reminded me of the lines from Agent Smith from the film The Matrix:

"I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure."

OK, maybe not so much the part of Agent Smith trying to eliminate humanity, but the part of moving into ecosystems and consistently depleting them without any thought. Some may have to admit, the guy does have a point. So, back to academia then, this is where higher education fits in.

  • "Higher education is currently geared to producing graduates to fill niches in our detritus-dependent industrial ecosystem, but when oil depletion causes this unsustainable and artificially complex system to collapse and simplify, many, if not, most occupational niches will cease to exist" (191). In plain English, if you don't have some practical skills, you will likely not get very far in that future.
  • Hecker cites James Howard Kunstler's book The Long Emergency. Kunstler "suggests that, for a time, higher education may cease to exist completely and that, if it does recover, it may then be at the service of a small elite" (qtd. in 191).
  • And here is more: "Our university system, as presently constituted, may soon be irrelevant--or, at least, significantly less relevant as social complexity winds down to simplicity and the plethora of occupational niches contracts to a handful" (192).
We finally get to the libraries.

  • "Libraries that resisted the temptation to throw away or incinerate their paper resources and microforms in favor of the deceptive promise of digital resources will be filled with the intellectual and artistic treasures of ages of human striving, worth every effort to maintain and preserve" (193). I don't think this is something certain segments of the library profession or higher education, who are embracing everything and anything electronic, want to hear.
  • "Since few fresh publications will appear, and since digitized resources will disappear, the future emphasis on library management may be on the conservation of physical resources. . ." (193).
  • "With petroleum-powered land and air transportation curtailed or eliminated, academic libraries may become localized archives of precious resources, serving only those in a circumscribed area of counties or perhaps an entire state or region, for those who can make a longer and more arduous journey" (193). I could make a couple of snarky cracks here, but I will refrain. In essence, this would be a form of monasticism.
  • As for librarians, we are looking at "informed generalists who understand and can interpret the texts they protect--this along with the ability to grow their own food and to clothe and shelter themselves" (194). And yes, you better hone your skills in defense and arms too. When they say the librarians will have to protect the library, it may be quite literally. Hecker is drawing on Roberto Vacca's book The Coming Dark Age to illustrate this point.
  • "Academic libraries may indeed survive and form the core of Vacca's envisioned monastic communities, with librarians evolving into the secular monastic order that protects and interprets the collection" (195).
  • As for the graduate students, they "could become the monastic novitiates who would be gradually initiated into the recondite contents of the collection" (195).
  • If you do collection development, there is still some work: "Collection development may remain an extremely important activity, but efforts will be put into determining which texts to maintain and reproduce and which to abandon to decay" (196). Some things will not change as it seems librarians will be using their professional judgment to determine what goes or not into their collections.
  • Oh, and for those of us who do instruction, there will still be some BI: "Bibliographic instruction may still take place, and specialties may still be cultivated, as suitable apprentices are taught how to interpret the collection so they may carry tradition and heritage forward" (196). I always knew this type of work would have some degree of job security.
Anyhow, the article makes for an interesting piece of reading. A bit different than what you usually find in the LIS literature, but still worth a look.

No comments: