Some Things Don’t Change

If you keep track of library blogs (and if you’re reading this you probably do), then you’re no doubt aware of the many devoted to change and innovation. Sometimes these blogs come across as pessimistic meditations on how libraries will fade away if we don’t change quickly (I find those tedious), and sometimes they’re more cheerful and want to bring good things to librarians and library users (though sometimes a bit too fluffy for me, these are the ones I usually learn something from). There’s a similar thread in the library literature, and I have a small pile of articles on my desk urging librarians to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and savvy patrons–in the case of academic libraries, especially “millennial” patrons who are supposedly so tech-savvy and advanced. I’ve written before that I’m not at all sure our younger users are really ahead of us (or at least me) technologically, which is why studies showing that students aren’t particularly “web wise” don’t surprise me. I also resist the gloomy librarians who think that libraries are nearly extinct. Libraries are far from dead, which to me implies that the urgency of change rhetoric is a bit overblown. Another signal that the change rhetoric may be too hyperbolic is that some things haven’t changed at all and probably won’t for a very long time.

Just to put things in some perspective, I want to discuss something that hasn’t changed much: humanistic study. I work in the humanities, and humanists have been doing roughly the same sort of work for 500 years and show little sign of stopping. 500 years. Think about that. Since the late 15th century in Italy, when humanists began to define themselves against the reigning scholasticism of the universities and study classical literature from a secular perspective, their activity has been more or less the same. They read, write, edit, and respond to texts through texts, especially the treatise and the essay, genres still going strong today among humanists. They write on topics relevant to the human condition. One can read the philosophy or history from that period on and recognize it as something distinctively modern, and as something that we still more or less do, sometimes better and sometimes worse. The subtitle of this blog recalls the topics of the Renaissance era studia humanitatis: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. These are among the liberal arts, so called because they were and are by many still believed to be appropriate studies for the development of free persons.

Technology changes. Nations rise and fall. Scholarly languages go in and out of fashion. Attitudes and values shift. The humanities remain the same, a living tradition of the best that has been thought and said the world over, a scholarly conversation begun in the Renaissance that continues today.

Certainly, the humanities have evolved. Our standards of historical evidence and philosophical argument have grown much more rigorous, for example, and the classical focus has waned. However, even as the humanities have evolved, they have remained recognizably the same sort of thing. Though no longer the central part of humanistic education, the classics continue to engage us. Some fortunate remnant of every new generation inevitably rediscovers Plato, Aristotle, Homer, or Virgil and reinterprets those writers for contemporary needs. Students still study Greek and Latin and gain something by that study. Even though the classics no longer remain central to humanistic study, the topics and techniques are remarkably the same. Humanists write treatises and essays explicating, interpreting, or arguing with other treatises and essays about topics of human interest. They write literary criticism. They edit and translate new editions. They learn foreign languages to enjoy foreign literature or read the work of foreign scholars. They depend on libraries to supply the books and essays they need for their work, and now they can easily acquire almost anything they need rather than scour old monasteries and attics for undiscovered treasures.

Several blogs I follow talk about the need to innovate, or they’ll say, “for those interested in innovation” or something like that, or perhaps they’ll link to that inflated list of 100 bad excuses not to innovate. Since I’m not worried about being considered a luddite or a technophobe or hostile to change (which it should be clear I’m not), I will say I’m not the least interested in innovation. Mere change means nothing to me. Innovation as an end in itself seems to be what some people mean when they embrace the concept, and this seems to me oriented too much toward commercial culture and the constant need to tempt the masses with shiny new objects so they will spend, spend, spend and drive our consumer economy. Such a focus is at odds with the goal of humanistic study, and one could argue also at odds with the attitude appropriate for free human beings. Humanistic study, and to some extent the entire mission of the university and the university library, has a constancy of method that has hardly changed at all, especially since the rise of the research university.

In the humanities, we do have shiny new ideas, but the are embodied in the same old textual discourse of the past 500 years. I’m interested in acquiring appropriate collections and making sure scholars can find and use them. Any innovation that helps in that mission is a good thing. Any other innovation is irrelevant to my needs. But in the humanities, the technological innovations tend to be obvious electronic replacements for traditional tools. Now we have ebooks, ejournals, email, all just e-versions of things we have had for centuries. We have even, if you believe such things, survived the paradigm shift from modern to postmodern thought with no radical changes in the substance of communication, only the means. The rise of new communication technology has been an enormous boon to the humanities and we should all embrace it, but it has only served to aid very traditional methods. We’ve exchanged print for online, broadsides for blogs, but we haven’t exchanged language for grunts (if you except the output of some French poststructuralists).

A lot of the innovation obsession concerns processes. Are we doing things as well as we could be doing them? I have no problem with this. As much as anyone I dislike the we’ve-always-dunit-this-way attitude. I want to know the reason you’ve always done it that way, which isn’t always easy to articulate (probably another blog post there). Regardless, I find senseless resistance to change as foolish as obsession with constant and radical change. If you want constant or radical change, I also want a reason, and the reason can’t be “because we’ve never done it this way.” What’s missing from many discussions are the reasons for innovation.

Not always, however. Sometimes the reason given is that people are changing. There’s a lot of talk of the changing tastes and needs of younger library users, much no doubt accurate. However, it’s not always our mission to adapt ourselves to new users as to adapt new scholars in the humanities to the 500-year-old tradition of humanistic scholarship. We should definitely make it as easy as possible for all scholars, the new and the old, to be able to find and retrieve their necessary books and essays as quickly and efficiently as possible, and in this respect we should innovate as necessary. But we should always keep in mind our mission. In the humanities, the mission isn’t to assume that students don’t read, for example, and adapt to their needs. They have to read, a lot, and well. There’s no other choice in humanistic scholarship.

The humanities are about reading and thinking through language and texts. We can’t assume that they inhabit a “visual culture” and there’s an end on it. There’s almost no visual culture in the humanities outside of art or film criticism. Humanistic scholars read, write, discuss, argue. They don’t make collages or Youtube videos, at least not as a central part of their scholarship. They might record a lecture, but that’s usually much more boring than reading an essay. I don’t know why we sometimes assume that the newest generation is somehow too slow or shallow to be able to adapt themselves to this scholarly tradition. They play video games, and they read books. They make videos, and they write essays. The liberal arts, the studies proper to free and rational human beings, are alive and well. That they aren’t the stuff of reality TV or celebrity websites means nothing, because they have always been the domain of the relative few who seek to question or reflect upon the world around them. Higher education in America gives us the opportunity to expand the benefits of the humanities, not assume that such study is irrelevant to the desires of today’s youth while we desperately flail around trying to seem relevant.

For better or worse, we have to acknowledge that the humanities have in many ways hardly changed for half a millennium and that they aren’t changing now. I rarely work outside the humanities, so I won’t try to extend this argument further afield, though I think it also probably applies to many areas of the social sciences. I’m just putting forth one reason why I don’t feel the urgency or anxiety about innovation or change that many other librarians seem to. I feel comfortable using any new technology or adopting any new service model that comes along as long as I also feel confident that such change serves the living tradition of scholarship in the humanities.

One thought on “Some Things Don’t Change

  1. I agree with many of the things you say, especially about not simply assuming that students are different and that they humanities must change to accommodate their perceived characteristics.
    But, like Dan Cohen, I feel like digital collections and tools will make humanities scholarship different in the future, at least for some scholars. (An important difference is that Dan Cohen is actually helping this to come about, while I’m mostly looking on from the sidelines.) Do you not think that humanities scholarship will change significantly? Or do you think that such scholarship won’t be truly humanistic?

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