From Sustainability to Resilience

The verdict is in, and the verdict on this particular occasion takes the form of student evaluations. Let me tell you, you never stop feeling a bit wary of them. When the envelope comes, or—as in the past two semesters—the PDFs, my heart skips a beat before I begin to read them. But that is a little beside the point. I was just reminded of the downside of the one-size-fits-all evaluation form we get from the Brooklyn campus, namely the question asking students to indicate to what degree the course increased my understanding of environmental sustainability. Sustainability? Why am I asked to teach sustainability? When did that become an overarching societal value? Why should my courses not increase compassion, or reflection, or social responsibility, or understanding of First Amendment rights, given that we are an information school?

And to this list of values I would like to add resilience. Resilience asks “how to support people and create systems that know how to recover, persist, and even to thrive in the face of change.” Andrew Zolli is a “thought leader and curator of a new idea, ‘resilience thinking,’” and was recently interviewed on On Being [all quotes are from the transcript] about his ideas and his book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.
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Zolli tells us that

the ecological system, the economic system, the geopolitical system, the climate system, the food security system are all connected to each other in ways that cause very complex highly unpredictable nonlinear outcomes. So all of those systems being connected leads us to a place where increasingly instead of trying to find an equilibrium in a planet that’s out of balance, we also have to try and manage with the unbalances, the imbalances.
We have to manage in a world that’s intrinsically out of order.

He goes on to describe the decade that began with the events of 9/11 and continued through expensive and deadly wars, economic crisis, international terrorism, and unprecedented natural disasters. Zolli asks how can we weather such system failures, and answers that in a world where systems are so interdependent, we need to have redundancy in our systems. He says:

… a big part of that story is about emboldening the local. Because we’ve so tightly connected all of these systems, it’s important that we have redundancy. It’s important that we have spare capacity. It’s important that we have the right kinds of social networks, so that we can share with each other. It’s important that we have a shared wisdom, a body of knowledge that helps us be more locally self-reliant.

While this is my first introduction to Zolli (copies of his book are on order at PMC), creating redundancy in systems so that they are more resilient against vulnerabilities is a familiar notion in collection preservation. In fact, it is the principle at the heart of LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), a dispersed digital preservation system from Stanford University. Instead of preserving materials in a centralized way, exposing content to system failure, LOCKSS allows each participating library to preserve its own digital collection through a distributed network, cooperating with one another to assure that the content remain accessible and intact.

This is just one of several examples that ran through my mind as I was applying resilience thinking to libraries and models of scholarly communication. I hope to further explore these themes in my fall course, Academic Libraries and Scholarly Communication. I am excited about introducing students to the concept, and discussing with them its relevancy to academic libraries. Resilience thinking could provide libraries with a roadmap to growth, while sustainability—for all its emphasis on the future—has had very limited positive affect on libraries. Time to write the syllabus.

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