Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Vanishing Librarians

When the business models and practices invades every aspect of our lives, from our public services to our colleges and universities, this is what happens to a profession.

Here's one snippet:
The success of the enterprise is measured in the number of products collected by patrons, now called “customers.” It is no longer measured in the usefulness or impact of the service on the quality of life in the community served.
I had the experience of working briefly in a public library where my manager called all library patrons "customers" and I spent a lot of my time, a professional librarian, showing people how to use the self-checkout station. I didn't stay there long.

Libraries have distinct missions separate from those of bookstores and other businesses. Such distinctions can be found in the ALA Library Bill of Rights and the Code of Ethics. Examples:
  • "Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation."
  • "Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."
  • "Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."
  • "Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas."
  • "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views."
  • "We [librarians] provide... equitable access..."
  • "We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom..."
  • "We protect each library user's right to privacy..."
Bookstores and other businesses are not obligated to:
  • provide resources for enlightenment,
  • serve all people in its community,
  • provide materials providing all points of view,
  • challenge censorship,
  • resist abridgment of free expression,
  • provide equitable access to information,
  • uphold principles of intellectual freedom, or
  • protect their customers' right to privacy.
As long as businesses are beholden to shareholders, their primary mission is making money. Yes, business models and practices can bring tremendous cost savings and efficiency to enterprises, but the values listed above are neither cheap nor efficient to provide. That is why libraries exist as public entities. The community makes available to itself a place where individuals can access the world of information and find a broad range of resources free from censorship with multiple points of view and can read and use those materials privately.

A big part of professional library education is becoming acculturated to and conversant in these values. John Berry's article behooves us to fight for these values and against the business creep into our libraries, whether they be public or academic.


Barbara said...

Good catch. I found that a very interesting article - and commentary on the future (and past)of the profession. It's funny how often "new" is automatically assumed to be "improved" - and that business is more efficient than government funded public institutions. I think marketing has addled our minds, sometimes.

Alec said...

The Ubiquitous Librarian thinks much differently about this article.