Blaming Dewey

On Sunday I read most of the book Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages, by Alex Wright. It’s a quick read and very informative, and Wright actually knows something about libraries, so I didn’t get the odd feeling I do when reading books and articles by non-librarians that discuss libraries–the feeling that people don’t know what they’re talking about. As much as I enjoyed Everything is Miscellaneous, the mention of card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal System almost as if they were librarianship’s last contribution to information organization was strange. I won’t even discuss what I think about Nicholson Baker’s tirades against the profession. Though not a librarian as far as I can tell, Wright has an MLS and has thought deeply about the issues he addresses. Good writing and clear thinking are always nice to come across in a book.

A lot of librarians these days rage against the clunky machinery of the library. Some older librarians look at rapid technological changes and wonder why, while some newer librarians see what look like easy adaptations to changing circumstances and wonder why not. According to Wright, it might all be Dewey’s fault.

“Dewey’s relentless efforts to create a unified national library system, magnified by his considerable ambition, would prove a mix that yielded lasting consequences for American libraries. Dewey’s obsession with efficiency and his strong bent for hierarchical management made him an ideal agent of the industrial age. . . . His hyper-controlling personality exerted an unfortunate influence over the subsequent history of American librarians, who have long struggled with excessive bureaucratization and a process-centric work culture that regularly leaves libraries struggling to adapt in a world of fast-changing information technologies. . . . Many [librarians] spend their entire careers chafing under the often stultifying management culture that Dewey played a large part in fostering.” (174-75).

I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough to judge this quote. I only wonder if the excessive bureaucratization and process-centric work culture, which may very well prevail in libraries, are the result of Dewey specifically, or just an earlier industrial work culture in general, and that libraries are slower to adapt than other industrial era organizations. It could be argued that most organizations dating from the nineteenth century face problems of adaptation.

The failure to adapt quickly enough to change might be explained by other reasons. Consider Wright’s own observations upon Vannevar Bush. “In later years, Bush would lament that the computer revolution had left libraries altogether behind. ‘The great digital machines of today have had their exciting proliferations because they could vitally aid business, because they could increase profits. The libraries still operate by horse-and-buggy methods, for there is no profit in libraries.'” (195).

This seems to me a more likely barrier to change than institutional structure alone. Certainly many libraries are hidebound, traditionally structured organizations, and we might owe all of this to Dewey. One might even say the older and more established the organization, the less adaptable to rapid change it might be. I speak in generalizations, and would never imply that my own library, richly endowed and predating the United States of America, would ever have any such problems. But in general, one might say this. Is it a problem, though, of adherence to Deweyian structures? (Is that the proper adjective? I confess, when seeing it I’m still more likely to think of John than Melvil.) Or does the problem lie elsewhere, most likely in the lack of financial incentive to change. Commercial organizations that fail to adapt eventually go bankrupt, smaller ones more quickly than large ones, but still, it always happens. Sears has been around about as long as the American Library Association, and at one time dominated the domestic retail market; it was a giant that might slowly be dying because it just can’t adapt. Smaller commercial organizations go under more quickly.

But American libraries aren’t commercial organizations. Public libraries are funded by tax money. In my state I think there’s a law that a certain percentage of property tax money has to go to public libraries. Academic libraries are perhaps even less commercial than public libraries, because their clientèle tends to be much more restricted and is, in some senses, a captive clientèle. The way things have been done means a lot, and some of us understand the losses that come with change even as we heartily embrace such change. The other day an elderly professor came asking for a printout listing all our databases. I’ve had such requests before. I didn’t say, hey, get with the 21st century! I explained that we had no such printout and why we couldn’t have such a thing, and instead offered to walk her through the online steps to get what she wanted. Some librarians disdain such professors, but I know that this person had accomplished some great scholarly work in her life, and her slow adaptation wasn’t a sign of incompetence or stupidity. Things just changed quickly without her noticing because she was busy doing something else, and for her the old ways would work just as well as the newer ones, since as we quickly established all she really wanted was an article. This example shows that change can occur too rapidly even for our patrons.

But back to the point. There’s no money to be made in academic libraries, and fashions are largely ignored. Money and changing fashions drive much of commercial culture, so it seems hardly surprising when libraries don’t adapt very quickly. Will this be ever such? Undoubtedly. Will it mean the end of libraries? I don’t think so. Libraries adapt slowly, but they do adapt. To consider the library a relic of the past seems hasty, and that judgment does not come from a habitually sanguine librarian. Librarians may chaff under stultifying management structures, and they may be dissatisfied with the pace of change. But it’s only that the pace is slow, not that the change is nonexistent. I don’t think we can envision the distant future of libraries, but that doesn’t mean we have to believe they have no future. Instead, like the bricoleurs we must be, we take up the tools we have and use them as best we can to solve the problems before us. The structure might very well be Dewey’s fault, but the lack of incentive to change comes from a culture of libraries separate from the structure itself. Without the incentive of money or fashion, it may be that libraries can never adapt quickly enough, but that doesn’t mean they can’t adapt.