A number of years ago (probably 2002 or 2003), I attended the President’s Program for the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) at the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando.  I was the incoming president of ALCTS and the current president, Brian Schottlaender (University Librarian at University of California-San Diego) has selected a book called The Clock of the Long Now as the focus of his program.   The relationship to libraries was our role in the long term preservation of the culture of our civilization.  Yes, civilization, the focus of this book was 100s and 1000s of years rather than the decades and generations about which we usually think.  I received a copy of this book as part of the program.  I have to admit that it languished in my “to read” pile until sometime last year, 2010, when I uncovered it during the move to Columbus.  It’s a small book and I finally felt any guilt build up that I managed to read it.

I won’t subject you to a long explanation of its thesis – if it intrigues you, there’s a copy available on the 4th floor of the Thompson stacks (at least that’s what our online catalog indicates).   But there are a few quotes from the book that resonated with me as it relates to our recent past and the future .

Moore’s Law – p. 12-17

Lots of us know about Moore’s Law in general – something about the rate of increases in computing power – but this chapter reaches back into more detail about its inception in Gordon Moore’s 1965 paper in Electronics.

“the pace of Moore’s Law has become the pacesetter for human events.  According to a rule of thumb among engineers, any tenfold quantitative change is a qualitative change, a fundamentally new situation rather than a simple extrapolation.” (p.14)

This intrigues because I think we have an example of this in the renovation of the Thompson Library.  The changes wrought to the Library through the renovation have resulted in a tenfold qualitative change for our users both in the physical facility and the services we provide.  Beyond the physical changes, Thompson has reopened with a change in our food and drink policy and the presence of a more extensive café.

When I think ahead to this spring’s arrival of the remainder of our new associate directors, I believe we will see a tenfold qualitative change again.  Infusion of 5 new individuals into our leadership team will create new energy and new ideas.  It’s also likely to create much need for education about where we have been, what we have accomplished thus far, and what we want to come next.  Those new leaders will combine with you – a very talented and hard working faculty and staff to move us forward.


In a later chapter, the author talks about a culture of immediacy.  He notes a headline from a late 1990s Christian Science Monitor:


He goes on to talk about:

“A British credit card company called Access had as its advertising slogan, ‘Access takes the waiting out of wanting.’ A book from the period began, ‘Imagine a world in which time seems to vanish and space becomes completely malleable. Where the gap between need or desire and fulfillment collapses to zero.’ This was in Real Time, by Regis McKenna. … ‘In real time, the best is the enemy of the good.’ In other words, if you take time to perfect your product, you’ll be too late to market.” (p.25)

Let’s remember that this was written in the late 1990s, and surely we have seen the changing expectations of our students and faculty.  There are two lessons in this for me as it relates to our libraries

  • The need to move the user quickly from discovery to fulfillment.

We’re doing a decent job of this for journal articles.  We have linkage software which transparently (at least most days) quickly allows the user to locate the full text of an article.  As we add significantly more backfile content this year, this will get easier for the user.   We’re further behind in providing electronic books – both in the content we are able to provide and because of the difficulty of the readers available and the controls imposed by publishers through digital rights management.

  • The need to perfect products and services before we role them out for usage

We obviously worry about making things working extremely well, planning for every contingency or possible glitch before releasing the new service or product.  Perhaps we should learn from the “playground” sorts of sites that many Internet services provides, clearly noting that something is a pilot or an experiment and seeking user input on refining.

Progress and Change

This Moore’s Law chapter goes on to talk about the speed of change including a remark from Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum, in which he notes that “we are moving from a world in which the beg eat the small … to a world in which the fast eat the slow”  (p.14-15).  The lesson in this for us is the speed with which we need to evolve and change our services to meet the needs of our users.  The author goes on to note:

“Now that we have progress so paid that it can be observed from year to year, no one calls it progress.  People call it change, and rather than yearn for it, they brace themselves against its force.”

I know we all hear lots of admonitions about the need to change and evolve and it’s true.  At the same time, there are some constants which should guide our decisions about changing:

  • Remaining true to the fundamental role we play in preserving information and artifacts for the long term – our preservation role
  • Designing services which meet the needs of a variety of constituencies – our customer service role
  • Making the wisest use of our financial and human resources – our stewardship role

We know we will be faced in the year ahead with new opportunities and new challenges.  If we can manage to keep these primary roles at the forefront of our thinking, we will make good choices from among the array of options that present themselves.  I can’t imagine facing those opportunities and challenges without your help, support, and sound thinking.

Stewart Brand.  The Clock of the Long Now: Time & Responsibility.  New York : Basic Books, ©1999