First, a great big thank you to Tom and Phil of EscapingNYC for pointing out that Library Journal has finally published an article about peak oil and what libraries should be thinking about in terms of dealing with it. (If you guys ever do manage to escape, please leave a forwarding address.)
It’s a good article overall, but I’ve got a few relatively tiny problems with it. The author has clearly read a fair amount of James Howard’s Kunstler’s work, which is great, he’s a terrific source for this subject. But then she writes:
If grand-scale fuel conservation and creation of alternative
liquid fuels had begun two decades ago, the results of the decline
would have gone largely unfelt. The demand for oil would have been
lower and the rate of decline in production slower.
Possible, but I think unlikely, if only because alternative-liquid fuels (biodiesel, ethanol and liquefied coal to name three) are a scam and were just as big a scam then, just less heavily subsidized scams than they are today. Note that the term "scam" here means "requires greater energy input per unit of production than is contained within that unit of production." Ethanol is a particularly cruel joke in this regard, as it’s made from corn, which can be, I dunno, eaten by hungry people. (Do you think it coincidental that food riots erupt in 37 countries just as our supply of ethanol explodes? I don’t.)
I think what we could very easily have done twenty years ago was refurbish, modernize and expand our rail and water-based transportation infrastructure. We also could have built better, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, re-thought how electricity was generated and delivered, and not built more 3,000 sq. ft. houses than we could afford to buy. Oh, and we could have not exported nearly all of our manufacturing jobs to the Far East. All of these points have been made by Kunstler in the recent past.
Oh, well. Pet peeve over. It is an excellent article, and you should read it.
Stuff has happened since I first starting posting on this subject. I’m told by friends who have relatives in the oil business that had you suggested even a decade ago, with oil at $12 per barrel that we’d see such a remarkably steep price curve, due to stagnant supply and climbing international demand more than anything else, you’d have been laughed out of the room. (For the record, some did, and they were.) And I don’t think that Peak Oil means the end of the world as we’ve known it, or even the end of libraries. But I do think it means that our current model of converting absolutely everything to digital media will be more expensive to maintain and more difficult to implement, if only because if the increased risk of losing access to those collections due to–of all things–lack of electricity.
Electricity is easy: take a pair of magnets, wrap them with copper wire and spin them around each other, and you get an electric current. Simple. What’s a good deal less simple is how to provide a particular type of electrical current–in the case of the U.S., 120 volts at 60Hz frequency–in quantities sufficient to power 150 million+ homes and their attendant gadgets, gizmos, and appliances in a consistent manner.
"Consistent" in this case means, "always cheap and always on," neither of which will be a given 10 years from now. (Heck, it’s not always a given now.) In 10 years, the word may come to mean "10 consecutive hours a day, Monday through Friday." 20 years from now the concept of a reliable civilian power grid could well be ancient history. So imagining how to revitalize our electricity-based ILS’s and OPACs using the assumption that we’ll always have all the PCs in the library at our disposal may not be the best use of our time. Granted, such things will help our patrons in the short term (if 10 years is a short term to you), but the real question is one that the author touched on in her article: you’re maintaining a public library, and resources are short; your computers are old, and getting older. They break more often and each time, it takes longer for someone to actually fix it. Worse, the parts needed to maintain it are becoming more difficult to find at any price. People will naturally move away from exclusive reliance on the PCs and go back to the stacks where the "real" books are. Also the supply of brand new books will shrink as deliveries become less predictable (and the mass market paperback publishing industry goes belly up, one publisher at a time) such that donations become primary sources for our collection.
We may want to think about how we’ll track our stacks materials and update our card catalogs under those conditions.