Despite all the great benefits from running libraries like businesses – from three martini lunches to government bailouts – we all know this wouldn’t really work. Oh sure, go on about being "responsive" to the "customers" all you want, sensitive pony-tail man, but all this talk about libraries as businesses ignores that fact that libraries don’t provide a product or service for money. Without that, we’re missing two crucial components of the business experience: profitability ratios and incentives.
Though the phrase grates on my nerve, some librarians nevertheless like to talk about the "bottom line." In libraries, there is no bottom line. Without some way to gauge profitability, it makes no sense to talk about a business model. How would you really know if you were successful? Especially if you’re trying to perform an actual public service, and not just try to get people through the door anyway possible? Businesses have gimmicks to get people through the door, but they’re assuming people will buy things. But in libraries you get them through the door to play Guitar Hero, and they…play Guitar Hero, which serves no public good whatsoever. I guess if the goal is to get people to play games, you’ve succeeded, but that’s a pretty worthless goal to fund with public monies.
And then there’s incentive, or the lack thereof. There’s always the disincentive of being fired if you don’t put on a happy face, but that’s hardly the way to motivate people to be their shiny happy business selves. Bonuses might work, but since libraries can’t possibly show a profit, there can’t be any bonuses. Some commenter last time talked about how librarians fear the profit motive. I don’t fear the profit motive. It’s simply that I’m sensible enough to know when discussion of the profit motive is appropriate (i.e., when there is some profit to motivate) and when it’s not (i.e., in libraries). You can’t have a profit motive without profit. I should think this would be obvious.
Even when it comes to the worst disincentive, the extinction of the library is hardly going to happen anytime soon. Some librarians prattle on about how libraries need to be everything to everyone to be more "relevant," but the only time we see libraries closing are during severe budget crunches, not in the general run of things. And if that’s the case, as I argued a couple of weeks ago, none of the trendy nonsense peddled by some librarians is going to save any libraries. So while directors might be able to fire people at will, that’s not necessarily going to motivate anyone, and with librarian salaries what they are it’s not clear why anyone would become a librarian at all. With the low pay and the lack of prestige comes the knowledge that your job is more or less secure. Otherwise, why not just work in retail or commit some crime where you can be sent to prison?
I just don’t understand why some people want to read fluffy management books and try to find new models for libraries. We already have a model that works for libraries, though. It’s the charity model.
The charity model begins even before the job, with the library school. People just hand over money to these library programs for little in return. This is the essence of charity. This charitable contribution keeps the library school professors from having to work too hard. If teaching at a library school weren’t such a cushy gig, those professors might have to go out and work in actual libraries. The charitable contributions of library school students in the form of tuition protects them and us from this horror.
Upon getting their MLS, these charitable librarians go out into the world prepared to do good works for little reward. They apply for job after low-paying job in the hope that they’ll be able to serve their fellow citizens and do good for them. Eventually, they land such a job and suffer the drudgery, tedium, and intellectual stultification that comes with so much library work for the off-chance they’ll get to service a genuine information need. Their salaries usually remind one of the Sermon on the Mount. Librarians are the meek who hope to inherit the earth. They are the last who hope to be first. See the librarians in the field; they sow not, neither do they reap. Etc. Librarians receive very little material reward. Often enough they’re abused by the very people they’re trying to serve. This is because while many of us like to act charitably, people often resent being the objects of charity, and the people who use public libraries the most are definitely the objects of the (coerced) charity of others. Hence they sometimes act like resentful proles who have just discovered they can’t buy NASCAR tickets with food stamps.
The whole library system depends on the charitable instincts of librarians, and thus libraries attract charitable people. Librarians tend to be nice people. Suckers, certainly, but nice suckers. Sure, they use too many exclamation points and wear too much clothing with animal pictures on it, but they’re good people who are just there to help.
Are there some uncharitable, mean librarians? Absolutely. You’re reading one, apparently. But they’re the exception.
We shouldn’t discourage the charitable instincts of librarians, and jabbering about business models is bound to do that. Libraries are never going to get much money, and they’re never going to be like businesses. That’s why we should all start talking about the charity model instead. The ALA assumes it anyway most of the time. Librarians are the saviors of the earth! They do what they do for the people.
These assumptions should just be made completely explicit. "Go to library school to serve humanity!" Make it absolutely clear from the very beginning that librarianship is a calling, like the religious life. Just as religious have to undergo privations and suffering on their way to beatitude, so do librarians, only their privation and suffering is called library school, and instead of vows of silence they have group work. The vow of poverty is the same.
Don’t you see, businessy librarians, that all your talk isn’t going to transform non-businesses into businesses? That just can’t be done. But it’ll discourage the altruistic, selfless folks who flee the heartless world of commerce and flock to librarianship not because they want to do well, but because they want to do good. These selfless altruists need to be encouraged with kind words and maybe some smiley face stickers, not set up as the object of your businessy ridicule.
So I offer my kind words to the selfless saints who work hard every day serving an ungrateful public, those honest, unassuming, unwept, unhonored, and unsung heroines and heroes who show up each day with a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts. Here’s to you, librarians!
Charity begins in the library. Help the (information) poor: Become a librarian!