So many kind readers sent this story to me that I had to comment. Some of you might already have seen the CNN story on the roller derby-playing librarian. Perhaps some of you have already, like Jim Croce, fallen in love with a roller derby queen after seeing the video. Unfortunately the story only works as news because it’s supposed to "break stereotypes." That it does. I’ve known plenty of physically active librarians, but none who have played roller derby. Next I hope we can have stories of librarians driving in NASCAR races or demolition derbies.
The gem of the week was this essay from Inside Higher Education someone sent on to me: End of the Business Simile. It’s a pleasant and good-spirited criticism of those in higher education who want to run universities "like businesses," in this new era of big businesses failing left and right, or staying afloat only by massive infusions of public monies. I just wanted to substitute "library" for every occurrence of "university," and almost did exactly that except I feared Inside Higher Education would sue me or something.
Are we nearing the end of the business simile in librarianship, I wonder? Has it been months since someone has tried to tell us that libraries should be run like businesses, or is it just that we’re not paying attention anymore? Has Markety Mark the Marketing Librarian tried to turn us into hucksters lately? Have the management gurus thought of further ways for us to humiliate ourselves and grovel before the public? Somewhere in the annals of the Old AL blog is a post criticizing a librarian who thought we should all act more like Walmart greeters. Have we heard from this person lately? Is the insanity over?
We could turn the lesson around, I suppose, and regret that businesses weren’t being run like businesses. Many of the largest financial institutions weren’t efficient or sustainable. However, they were being run like businesses. The businessy people in libraries and academia seem to believe businesses are there to move product or allocate resources efficiently or something like that. It’s a very business-school view of business, when as anyone who actually pays attention should know, the goal of a business is to make as much money as possible. Thus, the Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns and their confreres did exactly what they were supposed to do: make money. And they made a ton of it, you know, before crashing and burning and soaking the taxpayers for billions of dollars.
The problem with the businessy librarians is that they don’t really understand how businesses work, because if they did they’d know you can’t run libraries like businesses, because libraries seldom generate this little thing people in the business world like to call "profit," and if they do manage to generate any profit, it’s a very little thing indeed. One can’t run a library to make as much money as possible, thus one cannot really run it like a business.
Some librarians, like some academic administrators, think running things like a business means "eliminating waste" or some such nonsense. Successful businesses make enough money they don’t have to worry about waste. When the investment banks were flying high, do you think they went around making sure no one was using too many paperclips? No, they were making tons of money so they didn’t have to worry about that petty stuff.
And of course successful businesses have these things called "incentives" that businessy people in librarianship never seemed to have heard of. Has anyone heard of a library where if the librarians answer more reference questions or teach more instruction sessions or catalog more books they get bonuses? Yeah, me, neither. The businessy librarians don’t want to run libraries like businesses; they want to run them like monestaries.
I don’t have much hope that the business simile will be ending. From what I read, the financiers and bankers in New York and London haven’t been chastened by their evident failures to do anything other than make gobs of money for themselves while screwing the rest of us over. If they’re still thinking it’s "business" as usual, what chance do we have with the businessy librarians? Our only hope is that they realize what being run like a business really means, and they’ll stop prattling on about efficiency and waste and finally realize it’s all about the bonus, baby. When the businessy librarians start talking about profits and bonuses, I might even deign to listen to them.