January 23, 2021

You Never See the Bullet That Takes You Down

The title of this post is a truism that no doubt has been said in many different ways over the years, but I take this latest version from the “Bones” TV show, where I heard it again recently.

Meanwhile, I heard some similar things regarding the publishing and music industries recently that reminded me that you aren’t always the best judge of what will be your demise.

And sometimes these other people are even lining up to take you down. Take YCombinator, a highly successful venture capital firm that has put the U.S. movie industry firmly in its sights. Interestingly enough, a colleague pointed out the above call for proposals shortly after I listened to Sarah Lacy speak at the OCLC Symposium at ALA Midwinter in Dallas. I was a virtual attendee, since I could not attend the meeting in person, but thankfully the technology was such that I probably had a better view of Sarah and her slides than if I had been in the room.

Ms. Lacy is an awesome story teller. Her talk was a series of stories that kept you entranced, made her points, and left a lasting impression with very few written words. One of her last stories was about the fertile film industry in Nigeria. Yes, Nigeria. I realize that Hollywood commands a lot of capital. But the Internet can be an amazing distribution channel that cannot be discounted, and talent will find a way. I’m not trying to say that Hollywood will be brought down by the Nigerian filmmakers, but only that if they do, Hollywood won’t see it coming until it’s too late.

Of course, hyperbole aside, most industries aren’t brought down by something as rapid as a bullet. Most are felled by trends that take years to take form, which at least gives the entrenched players time to admit to reality. For example, the publishing world is now finally waking up to the fact that Amazon is eating their lunch. Is it too late to do anything about it? Likely for most, but agile companies that understand the market and what talent wants may still have a role to play.

Meanwhile, this has me thinking about my own profession. What bullet do I not perceive? Is it, at this very minute, traversing the space from somewhere distant on its way to end my profession? Some would say Google is all but standing over our corpse. But I don’t believe that. However, on occasion I admit to wondering whether I’m simply blind to the possibilities.


Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. I think your examples, YCombinator and Sarah Lacy, point to the startup ecosystem generally as the most likely bullet at this stage. Thinking about the likes of http://www.researchgate.net/ or http://www.mendeley.com.
    Isn’t that what your post might imply?

  2. Is the bullet the concept of the singularity? See http://www.singularity.com/. Or is it the salvation of librarianship where humans are still needed to discern the quality of the information?

  3. Hi Roy – I think about this a lot. My theory is there are 20 or so cultural/technological factors accruing to a library contraction I expect to be in full force by the end of this decade. Some have unfolded over decades; some are new. Some are external to the institution and some are internal.

    In most of the challenges, I see rich opportunities for a library renaissance.

    This may be too difficult to see when you’re in-the-thick-of-it: trying to do your job each day and worrying if you’ll have a job tomorrow. As a library outsider, it’s a pretty low-risk proposition for me to look at the challenges and opportunities. I’m working to articulate them concisely so the library community and beyond may consider them.