In two of my recent columns (this one and this one), I’ve made reference to a problem that plagues libraries and publishers alike, regardless of whether we recognize it as such. It’s the problem of surplus value.
The concept of surplus value has a particular definition in the context of Marxian economics, but I’m using it here in an almost mirror-image sense. Whereas Marx saw surplus value as, basically, the profit margin that capital owners realize when their workers create more value than it costs to employ them, I’m using the term to mean value that sellers add to their goods and services that is in excess of what their customers actually need or want. This is something like the sense in which Karen Calhoun used the term “excess capacity” in her landmark study on cataloging practices in libraries: very often, as she demonstrates, libraries’ cataloging operations are set up to provide more comprehensive (and sometimes more painstakingly accurate) information than library patrons actually need in order to do their scholarly work.
“Surplus value,” in this sense, is a concept that I often invoke in conversation with journal and database publishers who explain large price hikes by invoking the value they believe they have added to their products since the last invoice. They say, “look at all the improvements we’ve made to the search interface.” Or “We now publish 10% more articles per issue than we did last year.” Which is lovely, except that this arrangement forces the customer to buy the more “valuable” product at a higher price regardless of whether the customer can afford the upgrade, or even agrees that the new features really constitute improvement. In many cases, we would prefer to pay the same amount we paid last year for the older, “unimproved” version—but this is never an option. In such cases, the improvements represent what I’m calling “surplus value,” and paying more for these putative value-adds constitutes a waste of money.
What Libraries are selling
This concept clearly works well in a marketplace context, where goods and services are exchanged for money in real time, making it easy and intuitive to think in terms of value versus cost. But what relevance does it have in the library context, where services are (or seem to be) provided at no charge?
There are two answers to this question.
The first is that the “freeness” of library services is a pernicious illusion. The reality is that libraries do indeed charge for their services—they just do so in hidden and indirect ways. Students pay tuition and fees, parents pay taxes, etc. The illusion of freeness is pernicious not only because it encourages those who harbor it to undervalue library services, but also because it fosters (even among librarians) a dangerous naïveté about the cost of scholarly communication. The more we believe that libraries provide important scholarly services for free, the more we tend to underestimate—and even denigrate—the work done by publishers, vendors, and others who are working in an environment characterized by a more transparent economic exchange.
But the second, and more important, answer is the fact that libraries are indeed selling something directly to patrons, though the “selling” doesn’t involve an exchange of money. We are selling information access at the cost of time and attention. And we are faced with an ever-growing array of competitors for our patrons’ time and attention, many of which are much more concerned than we tend to be with rewarding that investment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a big reason Google has eaten our lunch as a discovery tool is that Google does not try to turn people into better Google users. Instead, Google learns from its users’ behavior and turns itself, accordingly, into a better product. Where we give our patrons bibliographic instruction, Google takes instruction from its users.
Our patrons’ time and attention are increasingly scarce, and our competitors for their time and attention are increasingly numerous and skillful. This reality does not bode well for traditional library services. Our response to this situation cannot be simply to increase the putative value of what we offer. I regularly warn publishers about the danger of claiming to provide added value when all they’re really doing is increasing their investment. But this same warning applies to libraries. In order to retain institutional support, we had better be adding the right value (i.e. value that is directly felt by our constituents) in the right amounts (i.e. proportional to costs).
The right measures
That’s easy enough to say, but how will we measure “rightness” along these dimensions? The answer is deceptively simple: according to institutional mission and patron behavior.
Institutional mission has to set the value parameters according to which we define the focus of our collections and services. A responsible collections librarian does not simply ask “Is comparative literature a valuable discipline?” or “Does civil engineering matter?” and then select materials accordingly; he or she will ask “What is the relative importance of comparative literature and civil engineering on this campus?” and then select materials accordingly. An excellent civil engineering collection will likely represent surplus value (and thus a waste of resources) on a campus with no civil engineering program. This is pretty obvious, and probably not too controversial.
Less obvious, and more controversial, is the relationship between surplus value and patron behavior. A service that no one uses is a service that provides no value—regardless of its objective quality or the value it would offer if only it were used. More subtly, a level of service quality that goes beyond what is needed or desired by patrons also represents surplus value: a fourth subject heading in a catalog record that makes no meaningful contribution to the item’s findability, a rush order invoked automatically when the requesting patron was in no hurry, a book purchased that is never subsequently checked out or even consulted—these all constitute very real investments of time, energy, and funds, and they do no one any good. Do they offer value? Arguably, yes. But they do not represent the right kind of value in the right amounts.
In libraries, we absolutely love talking about value. We love it because it’s easy to do and makes everyone feel good; there is almost nothing we do that cannot be defended in terms of its value. What we hate talking about is priority: given limited resources, what will we put first on the priority list, and what will fall to the bottom? Even more difficult is confronting and accepting the fact that not all of the valuable things we do are equally valuable to the people and institutions it is our job to serve. But unless we accept that fact and act on it, we will lose the support of our institutions. And that will be exactly as it should be.