How Fragile is the Small Library

By: Chauncey Montgomery
Community Library-Sunbury Image

I just finished reading Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan). Taleb, a former derivatives trader, takes a look at the world and entertains the idea of antifragility. Things that are antifragile, Taleb explains, “benefit from shocks” and “they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.” He explores the idea of becoming stronger when unpredictable, major events or “black swans” occur throughout life. With a background in finance, Taleb focuses on the economy and business, but he also expands his philosophical discussion into areas of technology, health, education, and other aspects of humanity.

This got me thinking about small libraries and how resilient we are. Are libraries antifragile? We could ask this question from a number of perspectives. Economically, are we antifragile? When the state cuts the public library fund do we get stronger. Consider technology. As technology impacts the way ideas are communicated, how are libraries impacted and what is our response?

Unfortunately, when libraries are faced with some dramatic change to their environment, often times there is mass panic, whining phone calls to legislators, and periods of self doubting,viz. are libraries still relevant? Conversely, I have seen responses to change where anything old is dismissed and everything new and shiny is embraced: “take a look at the library’s new facebook site, tablets, librarians on jet packs, etc.” So far we have weathered every change thrown our way; however, these responses make me wonder if we are much more fragile than we realize, and if so, what can libraries do to become antifragile?

First, I think being a small library works to our favor. The smaller an institution, the more agile it is. A small library can make policy or service changes much faster than larger libraries where policies and services need to be logistically implemented throughout multiple branches and to diverse communities. Many small libraries overlook this key feature and tend to wait for larger systems to react and then follow suit, when we could be setting the trends and quickly responding to evolving environments at a much faster pace than our larger siblings. In other words, the small library could be the sandbox for new ideas. A small sandbox is much easier to manage than an ocean shore.

Second, and close to embracing smallness, we need to remain independent. I know many have argued in favor of consolidation, especially during the last recession. Proponents of consolidation argue that a having a small local library (or school district, etc.) in each community is redundant, and by consolidating small libraries into one you’ll have a more efficient and cost effective library system. What is not discussed is how a failure impacts a system of consolidated libraries. The benefits of consolidation can easily be realized by partnerships and consortiums, where libraries work together to get group discounts and share best practices, yet remain independent entities. As libraries remain autonomous, they can each react to changes how they see fit for them and their communities. A bad decision that leads to failure in one library has no impact on the other libraries, other than to demonstrate what practices should be avoided. Contrariwise, a success can be emulated by the other small libraries.

Finally, a way for small libraries to be antifragile is to keep our approach to services simple. We need to make sure we’re focusing on what we do best and avoid being everything to everyone. Defining what we do best is largely dependent on the communities we serve. While I support the implementation of strategic plans, Taleb argues in his book that plans make you blind to optionality. Plan or no plan, you need to continually talk to users to ensure that services align with needs.

At the core of our services needs to be what has made libraries thrive throughout history: commitment to collecting and organizing information for the betterment of individual intellect. I personally think that if libraries continue to focus on improving the intellectual lives of our users, we will not only survive, but grow stronger as we face changes, big and small, in the information landscape.

I do think small libraries are much more antifragile than we may think. Consider the economic hardships we faced over the past several years. After losing a chunk of our state funding, many of us continue to thrive without seeking additional local funding, which I believe is demonstrative of how robust a small library truly is. Those of us that did seek local funding now have redundant revenue streams making us much less susceptible to the whims of legislators. Either way, we have shown that we can thrive despite adverse changes.

There is much more we could say in response when considering the fragility of small libraries, but hopefully we can begin reflecting and discussing the things that will make us antifragile to changes in our environment. I recommend reading Antifragile in its entirety. Whether or not you agree with Taleb, it is an interesting perspective on life.


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