The Speculist: Library Conference, Day 2


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Library Conference, Day 2

Here are some further thoughts on the sessions I attended at the second day of the Library Futures Conference. My thoughts on the first day are here and here. More on this here.

Libraries and Active Wisdom

Mary Catherine Bateson, Writer and Cultural Anthropologist

The daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, Catherine Bateson is president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies in New York. Here are my notes on her talk, basically a recap of the first three quarters of it:

She started out talking about how essays written by kids who want to get into vet school all tend to have one thing in common. They all include stories about how kids love animals. They all include wonderful stories about a first pet, a sick pet, an injured or sick farm animal that needed to be cared for.

This is all well and good, but vets don’t just work with animals; vets work with owners. Vets work with human beings. These kids are leaving out a key ingredient to be an effective vet.

One doesn’t become a librarian unless one loves books. But that’s also just half of the equation. The critical connection is not just between people and information; it’s between the information and the ongoing growth, search, development of the people walking into the library.

We are living at a time in history when, as individuals, we need to revise our ideas of who we are, what it means to be a good person; what it means to be a good professional. Repeatedly.

Asks high school students what they have taught their parents.

We’re born with the capacity to turn adults into parents. Infants educate their parents from the day they are born. You have to learn how to be a parent to that particular child.

Kids say the have taught their parents how to use technology. They teach them about popular culture – ‘taught my dad how to listen to rap music.’

“I taught my dad not to make cracks about gay people.”

“I taught my dad to be independent.”

“I taught my dad to quit interrupting.”

Our understanding of other human beings have changed repeatedly over the past half century. In each case, we’ve had to adjust our standards, expectations, judgments of other people.

The longevity revolution involves changing self understanding and understanding of the other as profound as any of these other movements. The disability movement is a rights movement, not a needs movement. It’s about full participation in society.

The environment -- we are going through a transition from saying that what’s there is there for us to use to realizing that we have a stewardship role to preserve what’s there.

Through most of the history of the species, average life expectancy was less than 40 years. (Still true in some places.) Today in the developed world, life expectancy is between 70 and 80 years. The women’s movement was linked with contraception, controlling the reproductive cycle. Colonial graveyard – little clusters around one guy who went through three wives, and lots of little graves for children who died. It’s worthwhile, asking the question.

From an evolution standpoint – why would a species need members to live past childrearing? Because we accumulate knowledge and we need people to pass that on. The grandparent generation. The role of the elders in the community. Compare with deer. They live in herds. The survival of a few old females may be the difference between survival and death for the herd – they remember where the water is in times of drought; where food id in times of shortage.

What about books? We have ways of passing on knowledge that don’t involve the presence of a living guide. Maybe libraries make elders obsolete.

Our era is one of rapid change. In a preliterate society, by the time a person is ready to bear children, they are competent in that world. In our society, we are all at risk of becoming incompetent. It’s hard to keep up with the changes. Not just technology, not just popular culture or the advancement of science. Also the deep ethical changes that we need to absorb.

Willingness to learn new things. New ways of thinking.

We can easily and quickly judge the value of a book. Information on the internet is harder to evaluate, but the same skills are required.

How people adapt to change. You have to improvise. But it has to be intelligible; based on past behavior. What was basic to what I’ve always done?

SO we’ve got all these older people, showing up in libraries because of an extraordinary invention called retirement. Very recent – roughly 1900 did the idea of a pension-supported retirement emerge. Before that, you just became incapacitated. Often impoverished and then dead.

In preliterate societies, having three generations present really does make a difference in the survival of infants. We’re becoming a four generation society. It used to be that children were lucky to know one grandparent. Today a some kids have 6 or 7. We’re all trapped in stereotypes of aging, and stereotypes about the virtues of youthfulness.

Libraries have to support a conversation between people who are approaching retirement and people who are already in retirement. Who they are and who they can be in the world ahead. To the extent that people are supported to continue to learn…

Different understanding of time. Things move faster and faster. People make short-term decisions. It’s hard being and adult in this society. We may be overworked.

Because of the extraordinary speed of communications, corporations make short-term discussions; politicians make short-term discussions. Would like to see older Americans focusing on long-term issues. Not self interest. Planting olive garden; building cathedrals. These things take time – and olive grove takes 100 years to become worthwhile. The key is for libraries to become an enabling resource for this growing wisdom pool -- our aging retired population.

These perspectives made for a fascinating contrast with the sessions from the previous day, particularly Treadway's and Kurzweil's sessions. I think the point that Bates makes about librarians (and veterinarians) applies to technologists and futurists, too. We may be interested in and passionate about technology, but the crucial issues continue to be how the technologies are affecting people and what's going to happen to people in the future.

I'm pleased to say that that has been a big part of the focus of the Speculist all along. One of the taglines I've toyed with over the years for this blog is...

Putting the "human" in transhumanism.

But, heck, "Live to see it" is pithier.

I thought her points about demographic shift and retirement were interesting, but seemed a little wide of the mark based on what Ray and Bob had to say. Bob talked about Boomers avoiding retirement either because they couldn't afford it or because they just want to keep going -- maybe in a new career. I think the wisdom pool that she described will be there -- and it will need to be enabled and empowered -- but that much of it will be empowered through the work place rather than through the volunteer pursuits she had in mind. This isn't to say that libraries won't have a role to play, but maybe it's a different role.

The Emerging Demographic Future

James Hughes, Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University

Hughes' session was one of the most number- and fact-filled sessions at the conference, as one would expect from a demographer. I did my best to keep up. Here are my notes such as they are:

The Baby Boom is a demographic tidal wave – we're currently witnessing the middle aging of the Baby Boom; the cohort born 1946-1964; largest generation in US history. Between 1946 and 1964, 92% of all women who could have children had one. One of out four Americans are baby boomers.

The boom has dominated America, changing each phase of life it passed through. From the hula hoop generation to the Woodstock age, then came yuppies followed by Grumpies (grown-up professionals). Boomers are currently aged 43-61. At age 44, I'm one.

Pastime of the baby boom was warding off middle age, but it caught up.

January 1, 2006 – 1st boomer hit 60 – every 6.5 seconds, another one does. This will continue until the year 2024.

Peak year of the boom was 1957. Biggest birth year in US history.

In 2010, the boomers will between 46-64 years of age. By 2010, 43% of American adults will be 50 and over.

1965 – 1976: the Baby Bust; the Sesame Street generation. A cohort of contraction, moving as an indentation in our lifecycle charts. Schools had to resize in the 70’s; universities had to in the 80’s. Currently there's a skilled labor shortage in the 32-48 year old market.

Gen Xer's are far different from boomers. Tribal. Loyal to friends. Lack loyalty to institutions. My wife is a member of this generation.

1977 – 1994: Baby Boom Echo, millennial, Gen y – second biggest cohort in 20th century. Just short of the original boom. Echo boomers 12-30 years old. Growing the entry level labor force. Echo boomers will outnumber their parents between 2010 and 2015. More racially and ethnically diverse than their parents – trust different information sources. They like concise information small bites. Confident and full of self-esteem. My daughter is a member of this generation.

Coming senior surge. Seniors have grown 11 fold over the past century. Senior population of the US outnumbers the total population of Canada. 2/3s of all seniors who have ever lived are alive now.

Average age of seniors has risen. Today’s senior is older than the average seniors in 1990.

12% of the population are 65 or older.

A fifth long wave is linked to immigration and diversity. The population of the US has become increasingly varied in ethnic composition. Immigration law of 1964 reduced immigration from Europe and increased immigration from countries previously excluded.

Since 1965, the population has grown 11% -- the white population grew by only 4.5% blacks 14.5% Hispanics 45% Asians 51%.

America will continue to become more diverse. This is our second great immigration wave.

2005 median household income was $45,000
Asian was $61,000
White $51,000
Black $34,000
Hispanics $27,000

We don’t have to invent our demographic future; it’s already in place.

Hughes' comments speak for themselves, so I don't have a lot to add. I don't think generational identification is as big a factor as demographers make out. Being a late boomer, I never felt like I was truly a part of the group. But then I don't feel much like a Gen Xer either. Still, I guess we have to keep track somehow or other.

When I get the vide segments up, Hughes' comments make an interesting contrast to what most others had to say.

What Got Us Here What Get Us There; Reshaping Your Library for the Future

Joan Frye Williams

I have only a few notes on this excellent wrap-up session:

Information ubiquity. There used to be this notion of scarcity of information; people used to pay four figures to encyclopedia salesmen to buy their kids a single information tool. Those days are gone. Libraries are looking for ways to filter and eliminate information.

This is not an information economy; it is an idea economy.

This session and one other were by far the most library-specific of the conference. I will be writing a separate post about Chip Nilges' session. Nilges is with the Online Computer Library Center; his session inspired my own thinking about the future of libraries, which I will be posting later this week.

Williams' session was a provocative one. Clearly she wanted to shake up librarians in their thinking about how they want to interact with "civilians" -- people like us. I won't go into detail about what was suggested; this was the only session where I felt like a little bit of an outsider and I don't want to tell tales on my librarian friends out of school. This was an opportunity to air a little dirty laundry. Maybe some of what happens in Atlantic City needs to stay in Atlantic City.

But to learn more about Joan Frye Williams, look here.


I'd read and contemplated the "wisdom transfer time" theory for why we humans live so long (here and here), but I'd never thought about how the invention of writing may have reduced the pressure for humans to live even longer. Fascinating.

I think the earlier arrival of the spoken language had the opposite effect. It increase the value of a longer life. An old individual could, with language, transfer very complex ideas that were impossible before.

Today writing, computers, and computer networks are about to engineer longer lives.

The uneasy sibling rivalry of life span and information technology is about to be reconciled.

I've always felt that human longevity was a byproduct of evolution, not a driver or necessary condition. And that the only issue with extending life span - intentionally by choice or by happenstance- was the impact on population.
Memetic transfer sounds cool - but as pressure on the species to evolve it seems doubtful.

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