Cultural Institutions in Flux
A few years back,* I bemoaned the situation at a local university library, which was then in the process of “updating” the holdings by moving the books to storage and removing the shelves to make room for the ever-increasing Internet café that seems to be consuming most public spaces like an ill-omened Lovecraftian mist. At the time, I was thankful for my hidey-hole on the sixth floor (religion and philosophy), though that floor has now shed its bookshelves as well (future computer arcade, I’m sure), bringing us to a total of four floors of a six-floor library that contain no books. Totalitarian societies burned books, but liberal societies lack the stomach for that: we bury them in warehouses of irrelevance. The library’s soul now lives outside of its body.
I know, I know: enough grumbling; here’s the point, which flashed through my mind while watching bored undergrads deshelving the books: very often, cultural institutions put themselves into a state of flux of their own accord and then get stuck there. The arguments for remaking libraries in the image of an internet café tend to sound like a shallow take on
Epictetus’s Heraclitus’s river that one can never step in twice: something like “change is constant, society is in flux, and institutions must enter into a state flux as well, in order to survive.” The exact type of change needn’t matter, nor should the direction of the change; the important thing is that the institution be seen as willing to continually alter itself and its mission for the sake of change. No institution wants to appear like the French nobility in 1789. This will to change, in any and all directions at once, is seen as suppleness.
Instead, let’s be honest, it reads as weakness. The result in this particular case is an institution that, on the face of it, has no idea what it does anymore. The shelving system has suffered a psychological breakdown and now and consists of a multitude of handscrawled, often contradictory notes taped to walls: P23-P100 have been moved to the northeast corner of the fourth floor, P45-50 are in the Bamalama Library, etc. The old reading room on the 4th floor is now a “new media centre” with museum case displays of old Atari cartridges and large screen internet at every desk. The construction work has been constant for three years, by my count, which means the library is usually teeming with construction workers. One imagines the library is a hell of a workplace. It’s not clear where any of this is going. And it’s not clear that it will ever end. The university library, under the direction, no doubt, of “visionaries” who understand better than the rest of us the “direction” of cultural progress, have willingly put themselves into a state of flux that they seem to have no idea how to step away from. They’ve ceded cultural authority because they were uncomfortable wielding it.
From the outside, however, it looks like a state of confusion and very expensive decline.
*Actually, this was written about a year ago too. Plus ça change, plus Rufus est la même chose.