September 25, 2017

BackTalk: $108…and Some Cents

I do not come cheap. As a reference librarian I am asked, day and night (and every fourth weekend), to thrust and parry every possible question that darts at me here at the reference desk, from the presumed date of Shakespeare’s birth to the location of the nearest study room. I have been doing this for 20 years now.

In return for my services, I have been blessed with faculty status, tenure, and the incremental salary hikes that have come along with some regularity year after year after year. Regularity, however, has also seen change.

When I first came to this small academic library, there was not a single computer in public services. About three years after I started here in 1988, the first feeble attempts at databases arrived. The rest is history.

By the question

To the fresh bloom of the Internet may now be added the untold millions of records in the online book catalog and periodical databases. When I first began my professional life, I was a busy bee indeed (especially on Monday nights). But in recent years I have seen the gradual “emiseration” of my role (to use the Marxist term), and the number of questions I receive at the reference desk is dwindling day by day, as computers wield a silent and persuasive victory over the personal reference interview.

I estimate, today, that I answer fewer than 700 questions a year, and these may be about Nathaniel Hawthorne, Uganda, or directions to Adkins Hall.

Curious, I did a little quick math, attempting to calculate, based on my accumulated annual salary, what a single reference question, cut to any size or shape, actually costs the college where I work.

I controlled for personal vacations on my 12-month contract, all school holidays, the slower summer months, and weekend vs. daily and nightly duties at the desk, adding together the number of reference questions and then dividing by my total salary.

I came to the staggering sum of $108 and some cents per question. This means that if you ask me where the men’s washroom is and then walk away, I have just made $108. And some cents.


In 1994, I published my first article warning of the breakup of librarianship into postmodern bits and pieces, a future in which the human element was disintegrating in the face of the machine (a concept movingly elaborated upon by theologian Paul Tillich in his book Courage To Be).

Since my article appeared, I have witnessed a steady erosion of library values, and that erosion over the past years has been a telling prelude to the loss of librarians and, eventually, even possibly to the loss of libraries themselves.

The problem is partly linguistic. Students are not “customers,” library patrons are not “end users,” and books are not mere “information objects.” The great disciplines of the humanities, properly understood, are the tonic to the dehumanizing tendencies of technology and its general penchant for cheapening everything it touches. It is the humanities that center us.

Among giants

Currently, the language we use to talk to one another reveals an abandonment of traditional values. As a profession, we now find ourselves untethered and adrift in the company of true information giants: corporations without values, without history, and with no real interest in knowledge, only a prurient investment in information as it is accessed, processed, chewed-up, and transmitted, to make money.

It is where money intersects with traditional librarianship that administrators will weigh in and deem the library and its future as exorbitantly inefficient and expensive, a tool that, like librarians, can be “outsourced.”

Death from above

If my theory holds, it will not be patron abandonment that will do us in—as librarians have long feared—but death from above. Older, highly paid professionals like me, who serve libraries and their embedded meaning in history, are simply too expensive for administrators to justify. In the face of the remorseless machine and its beguiling, interactive glow, there would seem to be no place for us, or, at least, a place that anyone is willing to fund.

There is a great deal of justice in this, if you think about it. All along the way, we have cheerfully helped to make ourselves irrelevant. For some 15 years our profession has increasingly preferred pixels over people. We have been happy, in our budgets, to trade machines for books. We have accepted at American Library Association conferences the free canvas tote bags from the information giants at their gaudy and overwrought booths. All I can say is it is very lucky some of us have tenure.

Author Information
William H. Wisner is a Reference Librarian at Laredo Community College, TX. He has written about libraries for various publications and is the author of Whither the Postmodern Library? We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to LJ /BACKTALK, 360 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010
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