Five minutes to midnight …

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded by a group of Manhattan Project scientists who subsequently became concerned about the danger of nuclear war. The Bulletin’s iconic Doomsday Clock is a graphical representation of how close mankind is to extinguishing itself – at least in the opinion of The Bulletin. The end of civilization is symbolized by midnight on the Clock. When the Clock was launched in 1947, the hands stood at 7 minutes to midnight. Since that time, the clock hands have been moved 18 times. The closest to midnight the Clock has ever reached is two minutes in 1953, shortly after the US and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests. The furthest from midnight the Clock has ever stood was 17 minutes in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and deep nuclear arms cuts by the US and Russia.

This week, The Bulletin moved the hands of the Clock from seven minutes to midnight to five, citing continued US and Russian possession of nuclear weapons, North Korean and Iranian attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, and environmental damage through climate change. This is the closest the Clock has been to midnight since 1984.

Reading about this inspired me to spend some time pondering the fate of humanity, but afterwards, it also made me think about predictions in the not-too-distant past that the emergence of companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Amazon had made the library obsolete – in other words, the library Doomsday Clock was about to strike midnight. Since that time, a number of things have happened which seem to belie that prediction: libraries working with Google on mass digitization projects; the inclusion of WorldCat records in several major search engine databases; innovative efforts to redesign the library catalog to better meet the needs of students and researchers; growth in virtual reference services; the“Find It In A Library” global discovery service; and more.

Suppose we take 1998 – the year Google was founded – as a starting point for the library Doomsday Clock, and assume that, at that time, the hands were set at five minutes to midnight. Where would you set the hands today? In my opinion, the hands should be moved back: after some initial panic, libraries have taken important steps toward adapting themselves to the new information landscape and the emerging workflows of their users. In doing so, they have stepped back from the edge. Shall we say it’s eight minutes to midnight?