or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 3/10/13

   March 16th, 2013

This week is actually a crowdsourcing request to find the answer to a question. Last month, a friend of mine at the Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, tweeted:

Tweet from @itsokihaveabook  Has anyone seen a historical chart of when things can't be repaired and must be replaced instead? Pls send link if you find it!

I followed up with her and got a little more detail on what she's after:

What I am looking for is basically a timeline showing when repair of certain things became obsolete; for example, approximately when most people stopped taking their shoes to a cobbler and just bought new shoes, or when radio or toaster repair became a thing of the past and you just had to get a new one instead.

That sounded like a chart I'd like to see, and I'm always happy to help, so I started researching to see what I could find. The search so far has been unsuccessful, and earlier this week she posted an open request on her blog asking for help. If you're interested, please lend a hand - unanswered question bother me.

Apple connectors that change with every generationThe search has turned up some good stuff though. I like making and repairing my own things, so of course this question - and the notion of planned obsolescence in general - interests me. Jenny listed some of the resources we've found so far, including the one I found most eye-opening, "Consumer Society Is Made To Break," because of this:

“Planned obsolescence” may sound like a conspiracy theory but it was once openly discussed as a solution to the Great Depression. In fact, most scholars trace the origin of the term to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which London blames the global economic Depression on consumers who disobey “the law of obsolescence” by “using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”. London’s sinister solution was to propose a government agency that would determine the lifespan of each manufactured object whether it is a building, a ship, a comb or a shoe. Those frugal consumers who insisted on using their products past the expiration date would be penalized.

The full text of the pamphlet is included in their post. To me, planned obsolescence did seem like some kind of manufacturer's conspiracy, so I was surprised to read it originated as a solution to the great depression. I suppose that makes sense, but the idea of deliberately building a short - and unextendable - lifespan into products to force people to spend more money on a replacement is just offensive.

Anyway, if anyone manages to find what Jenny is looking for, please let her know (and me too). Thanks!

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/10/13”

  1. Jenny Says:

    Brian, thanks so much for giving this a wider audience! I hope we find it, but even if we don’t, we (mostly you) found a bunch of other interesting stuff as well, so it wasn’t time wasted.

  2. A Says:

    Something like this?


  3. philip willems Says:

    Hi Brian,

    Not exactly what you where looking for, but it is something a saw on tv regarding the expiration date of food. You could say it is the same as the planned obsolesence of appliences. Food manifactures have to print a expiration date for food on the package. This date is requiered by law. But the manufactures stay well inside the requiered timeframe the law provides. This is not only to be save but also to make more money, because the shop is requiered to throw away the food on the date stamped on the package.
    Here are some numbers for the Netherlands:
    Each year in the Netherlands 3 million tonnes of food is wasted
    This is equal to 4.4 billion euro (5.70504 billion U.S. dollars) (EUR 2.4 billion and 2 billion consumers in the chain)?
    The total food wastage is 6 million tonnes of CO2 (which is equal to 50% of the reduction as agreed in the Dutch part of the Kyoto Protocol)?
    The situation is similar in other countries?
    one of the objectives of the food bank is to counter this?

  4. Andy Says:

    I had just copied the url mentioned in comment 2, before seeing it there. Did that do the trick?

  5. Joyce Says:

    Fascinating topic. Please keep sharing additional information as it comes in. The university I work for has a theme for each school year and the 2013-2014 theme has to do with sustainability. I think the library will use some of these links for posts on our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @A & @Andy: thanks – that seems correct content-wise, but format-wise it seems like a different chart. Jenny said she’s signing up for an account through that website to be able to view the entire thing. Even if it’s not what she originally saw, it still looks like a great representation of product lifespan.

    @philip: thank you – and I’ve heard of something similar going on in the US as well. Certainly I’ve heard that many foods (and even medications) are perfectly fine well beyond their expiration date – but whether that date is chosen to force inventory turnover, or on a just-to-be-on-the-safe-side basis, I don’t know. But I think this area is doubly-sad – have to replace a prematurely-worn out and unrepairable fan or something is one thing, but unnecessarily throwing away perfectly good food while people are starving should be criminal.