Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

All About the Bonus

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.



  1. Frak the public.

    Librarians are gods of information and if you don’t like what we offer, then get lost and go google yourself.

    Have a nice day!

  2. DryerLintDog says:

    Did you spell monasteries wrong on purpose?

  3. ElderLibrarian says:

    Hmm. . . Our library did hire a ex business type for director-with no library experience. It did not work for several reasons: 1. Government mores and politics are actually different from business environs 2. Skills that turn profits are not the same skills as needed to work with nonprofit work places 3. Library patrons are NOT customers and expectations are different-after all they own us!

  4. I believe the roller derby librarian was featured in an issue of “American Libraries” magazine.

  5. For profit librarian says:

    I work in the library of a for profit career college, and I did get a bonus one year for doing my part in cutting down on unnecessary spending.

  6. I also work in a for profit career college and got a bonus for ideas I gave for cutting down on spending.

    Unfortunately, my idea was to eliminate bonuses, so I never got one.

    Ahhhhh, the cruel irony of working in the real world.

  7. Anonypotamus says:

    I actually had a patron ask me as I handed them a book they requested, “Okay.. how much would it be to buy this?” That’s a bit of a reversal, in that the patron thought of the library as a business. I considered telling the patron about these places I’ve heard of called book stores, where they sell (new) books. As for bonuses, they might be feasible in private libraries, but since a public library works on a pre-approved budget, it would become a pain to actually administer. Even though I’m certain I deserve a bonus just as much as some dull personality-less businessman who enjoys the food at Applebee’s. Ultimately I like how libraries aren’t run like a business. It lets me help people out of the goodness of my heart rather than pretend to want to help them so they’ll pay for my dull personality-less kid’s college education.

  8. Techserving You says:

    I don’t know… Roller Derby has become extremely popular in some areas and I actually know at least 10 librarians with whom I attended library school who are very active in Roller Derby. It’s a thing among lesbians and librarians in certain urban areas (and there is a large overlap between lesbians and librarians.)

  9. I have patrons asking all the time how much it would cost to buy the book from us. I usually charge $10 for a hardback.

    It has to be cash.

    I have had some wonderful vacations this way.

  10. I like Applebees and I know I had a personality one time.

  11. Who gives a s(**&t about how you spell monastery. Haven’t you heard … to make all the PCers out there happy and to encourage our continued movement toward a homogenous milksop world, we’re headed to fonetik spelling. It will be oh so much easier to read those confounded Lewis and Clark journals now.

  12. They’re still at it in my neck of the woods – pretending to run libraries “like a business” that is. Like bookstores, in this case. (They haven’t noticed bookstores going broke: the chains in unsellable ways, the smaller independents just quietly folding their tents.)

    However, this will also mean, if my bookstore experience is anything to go by, that before we go broke we will be unable to find anything that isn’t in a dump display by the front door.

    On the other hand, “libraries as a business” got all sorts of MBA-types lots of well-paid and dutyless jobs from their friends.

    So I guess that’s what “like a business” is actually about – the ascendancy of the MBA caste.

  13. I Like Books says:

    I say now that I’m not familiar with the raging “run a library like a business” controversy. But there does seem to be this myth that businesses, being run for profit, are run efficiently and disinterestedly.

    As far as disinterest goes, it seems to be common knowledge outside of business schools that a decision is made, and then a committee convened to prove the decision was the right one. E.g. “We should sell big, powerful, inefficient cars.” And for efficiency, I used to buy used scientific equipment from dealers who got it from departments in businesses like Motorola and Intel who had to spend their budgets by the end of the year or risk getting it cut for next year– no bonuses there for saving money. Heck, my work just lost $2000 unnecessarily because of interference from those a step or two further up the food chain– they knew it and didn’t care. Meanwhile, parcel rates for the US Post Office aren’t significantly different than for UPS or FedEx, privatized prisons aren’t cheaper to run than public prisons, and the stories I’ve gotten coming out of libraries suggest that they’re as concerned with efficiency as anyone.

    Libraries and other public firms may not have investors breathing down the necks of the boards of directors, but they do have external review, and budgets set by external players who are never going to give them as much as they want. And as far as the workers lower down on the totem pole, it doesn’t make any difference at all to them whether their $8.50 per hour is coming from public or private sources. E.g. cashier or page, or phone center at a bank or a department of revenue.

    Basically, I’ve seen no reason to think that private businesses and public agencies are not just two examples of firms. A firm is a firm, and there can be more variation in, e.g., culture and procedures in two private businesses in the same industry than there are between the private and public worlds in general.

    And since a firm is a firm, businesses probably have something to teach libraries as long as you keep in mind that it’s not about the profit motive. But profit or not, there are still measures of success, and methods to achieve them. Look more at project management, quality control, reward systems… The ways that organizations achieve goals generalize beyond businesses making money.

  14. Radical Patron says:

    Once again, AL has addressed an important issue overlooked by many others.

    I’ve worked with hundreds of businesses since 1977 as an employee and consultant, and chuckle every time I see business held up as a model of innovation and efficiency. As the previous commenter notes, organizational behavior is similar across sectors; people tend to glob on to a new idea and bureaucratize, over-professionalize and misapply it until a satirist like the AL or Dilbert holds a mirror up.

    I do applaud libraries’ emerging willingness to take lessons from other sectors — they just need to be a bit more selective about which practices they model.

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