I think we library professionals have been having the wrong conversation for the past few decades.
We struggle to fund, deliver and market the content and technology we think our users want. We forget that what makes libraries unique among public agencies is the specialized research skills and service orientation of our professional staff.
Granted, libraries are masters at delivering content, and they have always been early adapters of new technologies. We were among the first to explore how computers could be used to label, store and retrieve information in practical and powerful ways for the public. As mobile digital content has become delinked from containers and locations, we have continued to keep up with the changes.
However, library folk tend not to think in terms of owning information, much less marketing it. More to the point, we know that what the public needs from us is not so much the information itself. Libraries provide that no other public agency does, the expertise of professional searchers, human specialists who can do intelligent, probing interviews, determine what the deeper information needs are, and then provide that information, regardless of format, in the ways which best suit the users’ situations.
Public service or marketplace
Our greatest disadvantage is that libraries are usually not profit-making entities. Precisely because we are not, we tend to be at the mercy of funders who have other priorities. This has always been true, of course. In recent decades, though, governments have replaced the public service needs-assessment model for justifying funding with the retail world's narrower, consumer-driven marketing model.
At first glance this seems to make sense. Given the steady decline of public revenue, it is plausible to assume that taxpayers will be more willing to pay for what they believe they want. That notion has led libraries and our public funders to skew our choices more and more in the direction of constantly shifting and difficult to measure "customer satisfaction."
The rationale given for this shift is that libraries are increasingly “in competition” with retail providers of the same “products” we offer. We have, in effect, been reengineering libraries into “free stores,” trying to stock whatever the most savvy—or at least the most demanding—consumers feel they are entitled to.
The “taxpayer revolt”
However, there are some fallacies hidden behind this shift in funding rationale. The first fallacy is that the decline of public funding is recent, due to national economic troubles. In fact, this decline did not begin with the crash of 2008 or the federal tax cuts of 2001. It has actually been accelerating ever since the early 1980s.
Historical reality suggests that the shift is due not simply to a decline in available revenue but to a broad decline in public and political willingness to fund public social services. Beneath the so-called “taxpayer revolt” of recent decades is a drastic change in core national values.
Many Americans seem to have lost their sense of civic responsibility, the conviction that those with at least basic material stability ought to contribute to the welfare of the whole community, regardless of what they need or want personally. This conviction was undergirded in earlier times by an awareness that such civic benevolence helped the givers as much as the receivers.
We now struggle instead under the illusory metaphor of the marketplace, the dystopian notion that we should only have to pay the government for what we want for ourselves. Even those of us who pay little or nothing in taxes tend to believe that any agency which the public funds should deliver whatever we imagine we are “entitled” to get from it, regardless of what that agency’s actual mandate and resources are.
People, not information
The sad truth is that now we are in a drastic, long-term economic decline. It becomes increasingly difficult to convince the public and the politicians to fund services which they were already defunding in boom times. That makes it all the more important to expose the second fallacy about library funding. That fallacy is that libraries can (and should) find ways to provide comparable goods and services with fewer staff people.
In the private sector it is gospel that, when you need to reduce the bottom line, you cut payroll, the most expensive budget category. Since the corporate world is where our culture “learns” about budgetary efficiency, this notion has been imported into the public sector. The key problem is that, in social services, the key ingredient is not “goods and services” but human interaction.
As I suggested at the start, my contention is that libraries are social services. What makes us unique is not information or access to information but, rather, human specialists who can interact professionally yet compassionately with their users, determine what those people’s needs are, and guide them to the information and to effective ways to use it.
People frequently come to us with ill-formed notions about what information will serve their needs, and with ill-informed notions about how to get that information. Human library specialists are essential intermediaries between these users and the whole dizzying 21st century array of “containers” and “media” for information storage and retrieval.
It is not information which we give away at public expense, so much as it is our expert interviews, searches, coaching, instruction—and, most important, human understanding.
The Surly Librarian post to which I linked earlier in this piece was called “It’s the infrastructure, stupid!” My argument here—my argument with both library administrators and with public funders—is that it’s the people, stupid!
Libraries cannot compete with Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Verizon and Google, etc., etc., etc.... I contend that we shouldn’t have to. What we give away that those commercial enterprises cannot sell is quality human interaction.
Interaction between expertly trained, caring, patient professionals, people willing to puzzle out—sometimes at great length and in the face of customer frustration and annoyance—what each person who comes to us really needs, and what path to satisfaction of that need she should take, either through our own collections or through the myriad publications, corporations, agencies and online archives to which we can lead them.
I’m not advocating that libraries should stop trying to keep up with the mobile digital revolution.
I am advocating that we should insist—demand—that our public funders recognize that our staff are our product.
If we had no collection at all but still had our staff, we could continue to be a public social service.
Am I crazy, or am I onto something?