This is an update of the presentation I gave to the Lancashire Libraries annual conference in 2010. I’ve always loved libraries and this was a chance to have my say on the past, present and future of libraries. Which is a much better title than the one I gave it. In my defense, the idea was to buffalo the crowd by starting as deliberately obtuse as possible and then connecting. Which is rather like Col. John R. Boyd’s OODA Loop, if you ask me. Not that anyone got that reference;)
Hello. My name is Richard Veevers, I’m single with one dependant child. I rent a flat in Clitheroe, the town I was born and lived in for 20 years before moving to Scotland
where I lived for nearly 10. Fifteen years ago I returned to Clitheroe and was
fortunate to find employment with the Libraries, where I’ve been and still am very
happy. I was previously employed in catering, mainly front of house positions
occasionally in the kitchen. I also spent time in administrative positions and several
other posts ranging from manual to management. At present I am studying for a
Mathematics degree with the Open University
For this presentation I would like to explain how I think libraries have suffered at
their own hands, how they have become victims of their own success.
To do this I’ll be covering areas including, but not limited to; Chaos Theory /
Fractal Geometry (A relativity young school of maths) and the U.S. Army General
John R Boyds’ O.O.D.A. Loop of Consciousness (compromising his holy trinity of
Heisenbergs’ Uncertainty Principle, Godels’ Incompleteness Theorem and, of
course, The Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
Please…Don’t leave just yet.
At least let me explain before you head for the door.
I’m assuming you will have NO knowledge of the above ideas, or that you may
have heard of them without knowing anything about them. I intend to give my
presentation by explaining rather than selling.
Let me begin by re-assuring you. Let me talk about things you are already familiar
with. Some uncontroversial Library history.
I am thinking here of private Libraries as opposed to the very earliest Libraries,
which tended be statistical, archived records of state.
The first Libraries in this sense must have been personal affairs. Displays of wealth
and power in ever larger accumulations of the written word.
I’d like to pause here and ask you to perform with me a “gedankenexperiment”, a
thought experiment. To imagine, if you will, what it would be like to be raised with
no knowledge of the written word. Not illiterate but someone who has never seen a
book or writing, never hearing anyone even talk about a book. Having no
awareness of reading and writing at all. Imagine what it would be like to be
exposed to reading and writing for the first time?
Please grant me the artistic license here to stereotype, in this case the stereotype of
the missionary and the native. I realize the dangers in stereotyping, but I hope it
will be suitable, even with these limitations.
I’d like you to imagine a meeting between these vastly different cultures.
Imagine a scene where native approaches missionary who is sat at a table
apparently holding a small stick, which is dipped into some black liquid and then
used to make marks on a thin piece of wood. Trying to explain what they are doing
the visitor gestures to their head and then to the markings they have made. Leaving
the native presumably as perplexed as before. They both notice that the ink pot is
empty. The missionary then says that they will ask their colleague for some more
ink. A short note is written and the native asked to deliver the note to another
missionary. The native delivers the note more confused than ever. It’s only when
the other missionary, after reading the note, gives the native the required ink that
the native begins to realise the significance of these strange markings.
This was the significance I wanted to define by asking you to imagine what it
would be like to be exposed to the written word for the first time. To undergo
nothing less than a revelation of understanding in one moment. Not to gradually
acquire an understanding over childhood, as we all did, but to witness the full
authority and dignity of our externalised memories in one short moment.
I’m reminded of the quote
“Memory is itself indefinable yet it defines us ”
This is why we collect books, they are that important.
At some point these early collections acquired an existence beyond their own walls
and began to draw in those seeking these preserved thoughts and memories.
The arrival of these seekers signalled a change in the library. They now, indeed we,
need to be able to retrieve as well as store. To allow anyone to find that which they
For me this was the first important change to the library and began to define them.
I see it as so important that comparable to that change nothing really happened to
us libraries for a long time. For a change as defining we need to fast forward
through to a time when nothing much really happened to us, libraries begat
universities, universities begat schools, schools blah, blah, blah education. Fast
forward until we reach roughly 1900 when we were required to provide access to
this collection, to those without the funds to access it any other way.
Here I pause, to stress the importance of the idea of providing access to those
without the funds. In particular the word funds. It is absolutely crucial to this
explanation of the history and evolution of libraries. It marks the beginning for my
understanding and I suspect for the general understanding of the library, that is the
I stressed the importance of finance here as I think it is an issue that hasn’t had
enough importance attached to it. I scanned through the Government’s first ever
national public library strategy; 2003s “Framework for the Future” document and
saw no mention of the declining cost of books. Yet to me this is the fundamental
problem the library is now struggling with.
Books are cheap.
Would any one like to guess as to the book/wage ratio in 1900?
That is; to compare the cost of an average book in 1900 to the average weekly
wage in 1900? I briefly searched for these details but could not find a conclusive
answer. We’d all agree that the farther back in time we go the greater the price of a
book relative to the average wage. Until we get to the time, pre printing press when
books were beyond the means of any working wage.
Compare that to today, when books are given away free with a box of cereal.
Where supermarkets offer 50% off the latest titles. Where the market for second
hand books has exploded, Oxfam alone sold 11 million books last year. On-line the
main cost in buying a second hand book is the P&P.
Project Gutenberg to date has a catalogue of some 30,000 of the world’s most
popular classic books digitized and available to download for free.
J.K.Rowling has sold 350 – 400 million books, Danielle Steel 560-570 million,
Harold Robbins 750 million, Barbara *@&%$£” Cartland between 500 – 1000
million books. Although considering that she has written over 100 000 books….
Dan Browns’ The Lost Symbol had an initial print run of 6.5 million, not including
There are literally thousands of web-sites that will allow you to upload, publish,
print and sell your own hard backed professionally designed book, with a print run
And you know what, we did this. We the library. We the public library.
Is this nothing short of miraculous? Should we not celebrate?
The public libraries were charged with encouraging reading. And so we did, so
much so that now, not only can nearly everyone read, nearly everyone has their
I’m not going to debate standards, I’m saying more people now than ever before
Across all cultures the ability to read was once a jealously guarded secret. Those
with this knowledge would and did kill to safeguard their power. During the
middle ages across Europe only those privileged enough to be authorised to do so
by church or state would ever learn to read and write.
Allow me to extend the argument here to another thought experiment involving
someone from a time when Augustine of Hippo noted of Ambrose bishop of Milan
“When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning,
but his voice was silent and his tongue was still… for he never read aloud.” from
this commentary we can intuit that reading aloud, today indicative of poor literacy,
was then the norm. Our ability to read has evolved and improved.
Imagine trying to convince someone from this time that today we can send a man
to the moon. I’m sure at first they wouldn’t believe you. Using some basic
chemicals, some simple props and a naked flame. I think the basics of chemical
propulsion would be obvious enough to be explicable.
I doubt, as is my point here, that we could convince anyone from this time that
today not only is literacy so widespread, we have had incredible success with
childhood literacy. Again I’m not debating standards, I’m establishing an obvious
I think explaining childhood literacy would be much more difficult than persuading
someone of space travel. They would have no frame of reference against which to
compare a child not old enough to work, yet who could read. Surely a child who
could read would be considered miraculous or demonic.
Hmmmmm maybe things haven’t changed that much;)
As I proposed earlier, we did this.
Unfortunately in doing so, we did ourselves out of a job.
If politicians and leaders (and management) did their jobs as well as librarians, we
wouldn’t need them. The same could be said for the police, army, doctors and
OK, we did such a good job. We’ve done ourselves out of it.
In December 1965 The Beatles released “Rubber Soul”.
In response Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys decided to create the greatest pop
album ever. In May 1966 The Beach Boys released “Pet Sounds” and many people
told him, including Paul McCartney, that he had indeed created the greatest album
of all time.
“Great” they said “Now what?”
How do you top that? How do you improve on greatest?
Regrettably Brian Wilson didn’t know how to top it either. It didn’t stop him trying.
It’s this trying that is credited with sending Brian Wilson into a decaying spiral of
As to Brians’ state of mind during this time many apocryphal tales have been told.
Because of his celebrity these tales became public knowledge and would pre-empt
any appearance by him, undoubtedly contributing to his condition. I recall the
urban myth that whilst recording the follow up to Pet Sounds, tentatively titled
“Smile”, he entered a busy L.A. Restaurant, sat at a table, ordered his meal and ate
it, behaving impeccably throughout. Apart from the time he tried to butter his own
In all seriousness, right now I’m worried that although we think our behaviour is
impeccable, the library is indeed, buttering it’s own head.
If we are, what are we to do?
My personal belief is that we are anthropomorphising books. As books in the past
were so precious, we’ve continued to attribute a value to them, beyond that which
is useful and which can become dangerous for our survival. I am not saying we
need to get rid of all our books, rather we need to re-assess our approach to them.
When public libraries first appeared we could afford to be exclusive. We had
books. The majority of the population desired books, but simply couldn’t afford
them. They had no choice, if they wanted to read they had to come to us. If I may
be allowed the indelicacy usually attributed to presidents, I’ll quote “If you have
them by their balls their hearts and minds will follow”. This may go some way to
explaining why we are haemorrhaging statistics. While I don’t want to spend too
long debating the uses and abuses of statistics. Even the most optimistic of
interpretations would view a 50% loss of book issues over the past 20 years and
regular usage down to 30% from 70% as illuminating an evident problem.
We have undergone a paradigm change. From being an exclusive organisation to
one needing to become inclusive. Putting it crudely, we need them more than they
For the past few thousand years libraries have had no need of creativity, in fact
there is a strong argument that they abhorred it. Creative filing systems tend not to
be useful other than to the person who created it. What was needed and found was
a dull as dishwater method that everyone and anyone could use.
Over the past 20 years this has come to haunt us. It feels like we are the artist who
is ordered to be spontaneous, NOW!
I have heard many incredibly creative ideas ranging from, less books more
computers and the opposite, to quiet areas. From LAN and WAN parties to every
library becoming a community hub for reprographics and printing. I’m told that
Accrington library, with a pay point installed and combining that with the sale of
bus passes, has been banking over £10 000 per month. Of which the library claims
a percentage. If you were going to pay your bills in cash where would you rather
pay, the town centre library or a corner shop?
So what can do we do?
What did Brian Wilson do?
After several decades of therapy so intense it has become legendary. Brian was
able to top the greatest album ever. In 2004 he released, nearly 40 years after he
began it, “Smile”. A damn fine album it was, released to excellent reviews. Not a
patch on “Pet Sounds” but that is irrelevant, he did it, he topped the greatest album
in the world . He faced his fears, gave it his all and successfully produced a record
that was an evolution of his creation.
I’ll leave you with a question I’ve been asking myself, and I’d like to think that
you’ll be asking yourself
“What’s our “Smile” going to look like?”
If you are wondering about the subjects I mentioned at the beginning Chaos
Theory/ Fractal Geometry, the O.O.D.A. Loop of Consciousness. I did involve
them in this presentation and will happily give a series of lectures on not only the
subjects themselves, but also how we can use them to achieve our goals.
I don’t know about you but I fucking have to know. I have to know. Something, I have to know something even if it’s the most piss-ant-y tiny morsel of a scrap of a something, I want to know it.
If the only true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing. Then entropy’s direction is the very least we can intuit.
“Shit Happens!” if you will.
Entropy’s direction appears in Shannon’s 1948 “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” as a function of information accretion, of the increase in information density. And information accretes increasingly “Every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003”* or more accurately “By 2003, mankind had generated a shitload of information. Now we generate a shitload every day.”**
Denial of shit actually happening is sure to put you in a minority, more importantly put you in a minority that you yourself disagree with. Not a cool culty ‘give us a few years and we’ll be popular’ minority either (unless you class Heaven’s Gate-ers as cool). Trying to stop the accretion of information is similarly absurd and similarly futile.
* Eric Schmidt http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/04/schmidt-data/
** turboneat https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2189882
Invoking Godwin’s Law of Internet Forums: Hitler said nothing wrong, we have the right to repeat his words. The free speech debate is ultimately debating the right to command or incite physical violence. Free Speech must have that right. I have no absolute control over what anyone else thinks and no one else has absolute control over what I think. I wince when I see you stub your toe. I may cry when you cry or when you laugh. But I think, therefore I am.
Why would I want to sound like Hitler? Well it’s not just to piss you off, though I won’t insult and deny. I will speak freely to advance the argument. Thinking the previously unthinkable, however wrong it may be, advances the argument. Even if that advance, is that the idea is wrong.
Physically violent abuse is worse than mental abuse. Mental abuse is inherent in physical abuse. Mental abuse, by definition, excludes physical abuse. Physicality is a constant, touch is binary, on or off, touching/not touching. Mental abuse is a spectrum, what’s devastating to one is a joke to another.
I’ve never worn a name badge.
I came close, once. I managed to get a job in a Burger King and went to a an induction, never worked a shift.
I started my most recent job about 5 years ago, they gave me an I.D. pass on a lanyard. It’s only last year that I’ll wear it outside. I would habitually take it off before going to the shop, rarely if ever forgot to do that. I don’t want to advertise my affiliation.
I’ve been asked to wear a name badge before. Told to, given one and explained though I was required to wear it, I could print my own label. They didn’t really catch on, were mentioned less and less eventually falling out of use. And my “Dick” was retired to my pigeon hole.
I would never, have never and will never, read a stranger’s name on their name badge and call them by it. Knowing someone’s name is intimately personal, shouldn’t be taken lightly. Calling someone by their name after reading it on a badge, is an insult, an abuse of power, an arrogant act . It isn’t natural to let someone know your name when you don’t know their’s. Names are the last of the magic words, a word, a mouth noise* that retains it’s authority from a time before the written word, before proto-indo-european. Before language? Where spells became recipes, chants became chats and curses become swearys, the name retains it’s power.
Try it, call an incantation, scream a spell or murmur an oath and see what super or preter-natural events occur. Stand in an candle lit arcane symbol and call out your demon or deity’s name and wait. After Nietzsche’s mad monk atheism is the norm with only the helpless left proclaiming divinity. Speak someone’s name in a busy hall and they’ll hear it before you’ve said it, probably.
Post LibCamp and pre OU I’ve had a little more time to let my mind ramble of it’s own free accord. An issue that’s often at the periphery of my mind’s eye is free will. I’m drawn to a passage from David Eddings’ Enchanter’s End Game. The context is important, it’s a fantasy, yet does not detract from the meaning of the exchange:
“You let me believe”
“I have no control over what you believe, Pol,” he replied in his most reasonable tone of voice.
“You tricked me!”
“No, Pol,” he corrected, “you tricked yourself.”
“I have no control over what you believe…” that phrase has haunted my judgement of free will more than any other, it’s brevity critiques it’s simplicity. If it is the case, that no-one has control over another, then we must free Charles Manson and dismiss Milgram. But if the reverse is true, I don’t know what to think
They slip through their lives with the greatest of ease.
They find their own path of resistance least.
Through turmoil and trauma, they’ll blindly ignore,
the obvious panic of the facts placed before.
Yet somehow we know those dry eyes are lying.
And beneath a front, they’re killing themselves crying.
So what causes pain, to a mind set thus?
A splinter in it’s eye, could it be because.
These are the minds that also witness,
the shattered path stalked by the witless.
A line or two.
A line or two is all I can do,
for that bit that’s often missed,
for that bit that’s rarely kissed.
I’ll try all I can, I’ll try all I’m able,
to woo your sweet centre,
to gaze at your navel.
Never met a man, worse than I am.
I’m to blame for every death of the war,
I’m responsible for society’s more’s.
I am waste, I am spoil, I am sin, I am soiled.
It is my fault, my hero’s lie.
Buck stops with me, billions die.
Wealth without worth.
Laugh with no mirth.
All this I accept,
these burdens I’ll try,
to shoulder my best,
tears in my eye.
As a life is alive.
I will live it with a love,
coming from within, not from above
“It’s not natural!” We say.
“It’s not right!” Is our cry.
“For a dick and an ass,
to become unified.
Nuclear power, mobile ring tones.
Building bricks and de-militarised zones.
Those are all natural, those are all right.
But it is forbidden, to have a pink shite.
Farming, driving and building golf courses.
Depression, stress, associated neuroses.
Those are Homo Sapiens, all divinely judged.
As you’ll find yourself, if you’re caught packing fudge.
It’s uncivilised you see,
un-human, in our opinion.
For a prick and a bum,
to become one in union.
Here’s the deal, there are only two types of people. Those who have killed someone and those who haven’t. I know that sounds bland and obvious, but it’s honestly the most profound thought I’ve ever had.
Just two types of people. Not male or female, religious or atheist, gay or straight. Just those that have killed and those that haven’t. Any other labelling or categorising is inconsistent. Any other attempt to define by refining, separating, dividing relies on our opinion and reflects our flaws.
The only consistent case for a, them and us, scenario is them who have killed another and us that haven’t. Horrible sentence, grammar and idea. Consistent.
If we are to pre-judge on race, then we can pre-judge on ear lobes and belly buttons. You hate a skin colour, I get to hate those who’s ear lobes join up to their neck. Or those with out-y belly buttons. The freakish fucks.
The very concept of a nation state is an aberration born of wilful ignorance. I was born on the border between A and B, who am I now? And how the fuck do you move a border without recognising the futility.
For every other definitive, binary division you think you’ve found there exists a sub-division. For every atom a nucleus, every nucleus, a charm.
A couples’ post primary coital poem.
Sat up, leaning back against the wall, smoking, duvet covering legs to belly. Looks down
“Are you, my love.
One of them?
one of us?”
Led on side, facing away, duvet to neck. Eyes closed but awake.
“Tell me, my love.
Who are them
who are us?”
Blinking, from smoke in eye and looking away.
“They killed one of us,
They killed one of us.”
Hey! Public Libraries: I don’t know if you’ve realised this, but books are now worthless.
Yeah, sorry to break this to you, I feel that somebody should tell you the truth. Because like the smart-ass know-it-all with the cheating partner, you appear to be the last to know. You’re still stuck in denial, everyone else has been angry, accepted it and moved on. I know there was a time when you were the shit,
See, I remember you when you were
The young new face but you do like to slumber don’t you hon.
Azealia Banks – 212
back when books were worth something and you were exclusive.
In 1964 a hardback novel cost approximately 0.05% of the average weekly wage. Today? 0.0005% that’s a 100 fold decrease. Today I can walk into anyone of a dozen shops in my town and walk out with armfulls of books for free. I can find a shop on my high street who’ll happily give me a box of books without charging me. Imagine what they’d do to you if you were to walk out of a shop with an armfull of books you’d not paid for back in 1964. A few hundreds of years ago, only god knew/knows who could read. At that time, you could be tortured and executed for knowing how to read, for having a book. Imagine trying to walk out of a library then, piled up with books you’d not paid for, assuming you had the keys to the locks and chains.
Yes these illustrations are exaggerations, exaggerated not to prove a point, to orient a general direction. Towards ubiquitousness of information, from scarcity. Information accretes increasingly, like a black hole with unlimited fuel within its’ event horizon. That’s why my illustrations are exaggerated. Like the fabled King Canute, except instead of standing in front of the incoming tide you are trying to stop the only force in the universe defying the second law of thermodynamics. I’m sure you have some romantic notion of history and heritage when you’re say you’re saving books, stop it, shit’s embarrassing. You’re so far behind the curve you actually think you’re ahead of it.
Look at yourself, what does a public library look like? The same as it did in ’64, you doubt me? In 1964 fully two-thirds of the UK’s population used the library on a regular, monthly basis. The most recent studies suggest barely a third of population uses the library annually. Tempus-fucking-fugit folks. Tempus-fucking-fugit, library non.
Anger is an energy, so Mr Lydon would have us believe and whilst anger and hate are close, the rewards from harvesting anger are great. Love, indifference, anger and hate cycle in a loop where at twelve o’clock hate turns into love, which dilutes into indifference, concentrates into anger, sterilises into hate before it turns into love and we start the whole fucking thing again.
I opened this blog with a reference to a loop for a very specific purpose, to talk about historical military strategy. As historical military strategy isn’t normally a subject I associate closely with, mainly because they’re all fucking hired killers, I have to ease you, and myself into it. If I were to launch straight into a tirade about how Boyd was the most influential hate monger ever, I’d end up like him. If I can point out how the most complete understanding of the human condition, the dynamics of the personal/interpersonal and id/ego, came from this same mind, I may be able to capture your attention whilst it’s receptive.
Colonel John R Boyd (notice only a colonel’s rank) flew the first generation of jet fighter in the Korean war. He never fired his guns and never made a kill. Yet he was America’s, and by extension the world’s, greatest warrior. Have you seen the Tom Cruise film Top Gun? Cruise’s character wants to be Boyd, but Maverick(pphhht)’s not strong enough, is too much of a wimp, so he ends up with the girl. Boyd taught, wrote the book and for all intents and purposes was the US Air Force Weapons School, where Top Guns is. He literally wrote the book for them, their tactics manual, the Energy Maneuverability Theory, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, Destruction and Creation. These are now standard military strategy texts across the globe and at their core is what’s at the core of this blog post. OODA, Observe, Orient, Decide, Act
When Boyd was flying sorties during Korea as a wingman, he observed each engagement with relative detachment. When the other pilots were celebrating their 10 to 1 kill (actually closer to 2:1 but still) ratio over the commie bastards, congratulating themselves on their superiority, Boyd orientated himself differently. He decided that maybe there was another reason for their success. Accepting the enemy had equal advantages, he acted. He grafted both plane’s data and noticed two irregularities, one a chance design flaw, the other a design advance. The American F-86 was equal to or inferior to the communist MiG15’s weapons, acceleration, speed and a host of other attributes. But, the F-86 pilot had significantly better visibility, due to a cockpit with more glass. The American plane also had advanced hydraulic controls allowing quicker transition between manoeuvres.
These two observations, oriented as they were by reams of technical data, led Boyd to decide on a course of action that would change his and your life forever. Boyd’s insight into human interaction our Jungian collective unconscious , his OODA loop, begins with his observation about observation whilst observing. His observation was that because of the visibility advantage, the American’s had a better chance of seeing the MiG-15’s before the MiG’s pilot saw them. A better chance of orienting themselves into a position where their decisions would allow the actions necessary to get inside their opponents loop, and with faster OODA cycles, win. From the initial observation the win was inevitable, the compulsion for the MiG’s pilot to make a self-deleterious action almost an absolute. The German word is Zugzwang: a compulsion to move, when any move will worsen a position.
With the loop cycling, events gathered pace. Boyd took to studying seriously this idea, he went to college, read, listened and worked his idea. He also stole a couple of million dollars worth of computer time for the necessary processing. Yup, stole millions of dollars worth of computer time from the US military, remember I said Colonel Boyd. This was a man who, when court-martialed for breaking one of the USAF’s shiny new prototype planes, successfully turned defense into prosecution, demanding to be lauded for saving a lesser pilots life, ” I knew what I was doing when I broke it”. Irascible only hints at the reason Boyd didn’t succeed at the highly politicised Pentagon. Cartoon-like screaming at superior officers through teeth clenched around a burning cigar, leaning so far into his opponent’s personal space he burnt holes in their uniforms.
This is how we win. We get inside our opponents OODA loop by cycling our’s faster. To prove his point Boyd went on to win every one of his simulated dogfights at the USAFWS against the best….of the best. From a position of disadvantage he’d inexorably and inevitably grind his opponent down and wrench victory, within 10 seconds. His “40 Second Boyd” nickname, tells you almost all you need to know about him.
As a way of winning war, this is impressive. Only Sun Tzu’s “Art of War “ is as essential. Fuck Clausewitz, because. What elevates the OODA Loop is it’s applicability. The theory’s simplicity encouraged it’s adoption outside of the military, business and sports quickly realised it’s potential. Boyd even spoke of his empathy with basketballer Michael Jordan when MJ described the supreme confidence of being in The Zone: “The basket appears to be six feet across. [How can I miss a basket that large?] The nine other players on the court seem to be moving in slow motion!”
I first came across the concept as a kid playing a Mirrorsoft combat flight simulator, forgot the game but remembered the advice. Some years later Hugh Laurie’s description in “The Gun Seller” brought it up again and eventually I got to Google OODA. Now I recognise the cycle’s ubiquity, I see loops everywhere. From the peer reviewed scientific method to the set up for a joke’s punchline. The same pattern of observe, orient, decide and act, played out in a myriad settings with dizzying levels of complexity. All drama, all art, all human interaction can be reduced to a series of loops and cycles, if you want to. The mathematics of Bach, Hitchcock’s reveals, or every god-damn soap opera ever.