Tying your library to something like a 3D printer moves you in the wrong direction. It moves you towards manufacturing physical products. It leads you to the tangible – that’s not your job. It is the concept of the intangible that connects all the objects librarians have traditionally dealt with- books, records, photographs, magnetic tape and compact discs. It is this tradition of dealing with the intangible that makes librarianship such an exciting profession right now. -Hugh Rundle, Misson Creep: A 3D Printer Will Not Save Your Library
I really liked Hugh Rundle’s post on the “intangibles” which make up our professional bread and butter, where the tangible and intangible meet, but the heart of the thing is that libraries primarily provide access to the information, the creation of physical objects, however, is of very little import to Rundle. The proposition seems sensible, but David Lankes took issue with it:
Some librarian brought in the first game, and the first scroll, and the first illuminated manuscript. They did this to enhance access, yes, but also to expand the capabilities of the communities they served. They did so not because it was text and therefore OK, but because they were tools that could help. Help, not document the world, but to change it. -David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Missing the Point and 3D Printing
The question I put to Lankes (and he graciously answered) was that at what point are those intangible things not tools? Ideas are some of the most powerful tools we have for Librarians change the world, as do many people, with texts and other tools. And yes, they loan and provide access to tools, but more importantly, they provide access to tools that not only help people participate in their communities, but also to escape or change their community and their circumstances, by evasion or critique. Language is one of the most powerful means we have of shaping and re-shaping our world, and libraries excel at helping people navigate language and its tools.
What struck me as the main issue is an underlying ethos of a “innovation” culture. I think it is central to Lankes’ mission, but as I’ve argued before, it also runs against the conservative grain of librarianship and community. While admirable, in the post-2008 world, I harbor a deep skepticism towards “innovation.” To that end:
“I think it’s great that some libraries are able to lend out items other than books, because it shows that they are responding to the needs of their particular community. But again, I do not see it as a desperate move to stay relevant…. We’ve got relevancy coming out of our ears.” -Jen Doll, Ask a Librarian About the Odd Things Happening at Libraries
There is a tension between “things” and “non-things” and how it affects our relevancy to our communities, but it really sidesteps a larger issue. The “thingness” part is also tied up with “maker culture,” which to a large extent has been adopted by the culture at large, and has frankly commodified. The 3D printer, is arguably a different beast, but the same culture promotes their use: without extensive software and hardware, there is no way to make anything with them, thus continuing to reify a digitally driven “innovation” culture, which may or may not have anything to do with one’s community. Lankes acknowledges the point about 3D printers not being the best fit, but his overall program of innovation comes from the 21st century mindset of constant innovation.
There are a lot of parallels to an ongoing discussion in the Digital Humanities community, where the creation of digital tools is see as an artisanal and constructivist practice:
No matter the type, our tools had one thing in common: overwhelmingly, their own users had made ’em, and understood the continual and collective re-making of them, in response to various resistances encountered and discovered, as a natural part of the process of their use. In fact, this constructivist and responsive maker’s circle was so easily and unavoidably experienced as the new, collaborative hermeneutic of humanities computing, as the work itself that—within or beyond our small community—we too rarely bothered to say so.
“In the Middle Ages,” he tells us, in Art and Labor, “everything that man made was beautiful, just as everything that nature makes is always beautiful; and I must again impress upon you the fact that this was because they were made mainly for use, instead of mainly to be bought and sold… The beauty of the handicrafts of the Middle Ages came from this, that the workman had control over his material, tools, and time.” -Bethany Nowviskie, Resistance in the Materials
Nowviskie tries to separate the hand-coded tools of the digital humanist from their mundane context of personal-computer drudgery and place them in the rarified air of the middle ages, ringing of individual craftsmanship that has little to do with the gross commodification of the 21st century. But the middle ages also were a place of tight guild control of production, a rigorous exclusivity of creation. In reality, there is a part of the digitally-fueled discursive regimes of code/space which still takes hold. In some ways, it feels like the digitally-driven innovation culture nudging its way into the branding of craftsmanship, much like the innovation culture is finding its way into community discourse. Neither of these are bad in-and-of themselves, but they are, effectively, branding operations to make one thing seem more like another.
Like Nowviskie, Lankes, and Rundle, we all participate in the discursive regimes of code/space, in some form or fashion. But Rundle puts the brakes on the innovation culture which calls for continually promoting making and participating in community, because it can no longer uncritically be accepted as “good” for a community. Here’s a solid list of reasons not to innovate post by Gijs Van Wulfen, who is LinkedIn’s innovation expert:
21 Situations when you should not innovate:
- When you are sure your market is not changing in the coming five years.
- When your clients are even more conservative than you are.
- When your old formulas are still giving great risk-free results for the coming years.
- When brand and line extensions bring you a lot of extra turnover and profits.
- When the urgency to innovate is completely absent.
- When you don’t receive enough money and manpower to do it.
- When your company is in a short-term crisis.
- When your organization is working at full capacity to meet the current huge demand.
- When everybody says: “Innovate!”, but no one wants to be responsible.
- When you´re clueless about what you´re looking for.
- When there is no real business need and it’s only nice to have.
- When you can’t form a capable harmonious team that really goes for it.
- When there is no support at the top.
- When the people in your organization are not (yet) prepared to break their habits.
- When people in your company are lazy; content to copy from others.
- When the organization doesn’t have any kind of vision about its future course.
- When long term planning means looking three months ahead.
- When everyone fears failure.
- When everyone will attack and ridicule the newness of an idea.
- When important stakeholders will block it at any time.
- When your latest innovations are so successful and still need further exploitation.
-Gijs Van Wulfen, When Should you NOT innovate?
I think Rundle sees libraries in a number of these points, and calling it out in the midst of an “innovation” culture will certainly raise some eyebrows.