These Trying Times
February 21, 2019
As I write this, it’s snowing. It has been snowing a lot lately. It’s pretty, and it keeps covering the dirty stuff up with a fresh, clean blanket, but it’s a nuisance. It’s also expensive. It takes a lot of labor and equipment to clear snow from roads and walkways and clearing snow isn’t something that fits normal working hours. A lot of our physical plant budget will be used for snow removal. It also makes a mess for custodians, all that grit and slush tracked everywhere, but they don’t have a budget for snowy mess removal, so they just have to suck it up.
When we think about library futures, we don’t budget for the weather. We get pretty good at figuring out how to swap things out if our budgets are flat and how to combine roles when lines are cut, but weather can really throw a wrench in the works, and the internet has its own problems. We can’t count on it to save us.
This morning as I watched the news crawl of closed schools, I noticed lot of area schools no longer declare a snow day, it’s a “digital day.” My college is open, and so is the library because at a residential college, the students are stuck on campus. But every day is a digital day because so much of what we do depends on the internet. Watching the snow come down, I was thinking about Amherst College’s recent network outage. That must have been challenging. We went without connectivity (and even electricity) for a few weeks 20 years ago after the town was hit by a tornado. Even once power was restored to the library, the stacks were closed until the broken glass was cleared out. (You’d be amazed at how well glass shards can hide in books.) There’s a kind of comradery that surfaces when things go wrong and you have to figure out workarounds, at least until the exhaustion sets in and people get crabby.
Our tornado was a severe weather event that cut a mile-wide path thorough our town. It felt like Armageddon at the time, but you could walk right out of the disaster zone. Floods are worse. Fires followed by mudslides – I don’t even want to think about it.
But we’re all going to have to, because extreme weather events and rising seas will affect us all, and we won’t be able to walk a mile and get to a safe place. Our digital network infrastructure is at risk for different reasons, but it’s seriously threatened pretty much every hour of the day, both from cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities that come from building gigantic piles of proprietary code on top of a decades-old set of protocols that weren’t designed with three billion internet users in mind.
Will we have the creativity it will take to adapt when disaster comes? It’s somehow easier to imagine a post-apocalyptic world than to imagine repairing the world we have. When I think of things we take for granted, like interlibrary loan, I wonder if we’d be able to even imagine such a thing after decades of market fundamentalism underpinning our understanding of human motivation and social forces. Will we be even know how to follow the natural inclination to help each other out at a scale that is bigger than our mile-wide tornado? Market forces are not magic forces. They won’t fix it for us.