Since it's environmental week at the AL, here's another piece with a tangential environmental connection. Last week a kind reader sent me this article about those Jackson County, Oregon libraries that reopened after they'd been closed for a while. You may remember I wrote about the closing back in March, speculating that choosing the spotted owl over human beings was one possible contributing factor to the library closings. Boy did some people get mad when I said I preferred people to spotted owls. My favorite comment on that piece was this: "Personally, I prefer the Redwood Forrest and the Spotted Owl to lumberjacks any day.... And who cares about their library. I can only imagine the sorts of things they checked out." Nice. That's what I get for saying I care about people. If I stick to my usual misanthropy, I'm safe.
Librarians all over the country raised a stink about how much those folks in Jackson County would suffer without their libraries and how important it was to keep them open. Now the Jackson County libraries are open again, but those librarians still aren't happy. You see, the only way they could afford to reopen was to outsource the library services, which are now handled by LSSI. Some librarians are angry about this, including the Glorious President of the ALA. I thought our library services were supposed to be all about the users and how important they are. You know, we librarians love you more than your mama does. All those twopointopians blather on about that when they're trying to pretend they're not a technocult. It's about service! It's about the user! But we know different, don't we. It's not about the user, it's about us.
Check out this from the article: "The practice [of outsourcing library services] has generated a backlash from those who argue that municipalities are employing a backdoor method of weakening the power of labor unions, and those who say that such profit-making ventures go against the notion that libraries are one of the noblest functions of government in a democracy."
Oh, okay. So what's more important--service to library users or making sure municipal unions are strong? I know what the regressive librarians would say, because for them libraries and librarians are secondary (if that) to their radical political agenda, so of course they care more about the unions than the library users. But I thought for the rest of us the test was supposed to be, is this the best thing for the library users? Is it better for the users to have outsourced library services, or no services at all? Let's make the question even harder. If library services were actually better outsourced, then which is better for the users? I can tell you, the users don't care if the library staff are "professional" librarians or unionized staff. They just care about service. It's the librarians who care about who provides that service.
And don't even get me started on "the notion that libraries are one of the noblest functions of government in a democracy." What in the heck is that supposed to mean? How is that at all relevant to this debate? If the services are being provided, and being provided well (or at least as well as public libraries usually provide them, which I realize isn't the same thing), then what difference does it make who supplies the services? The "government," after all, is still paying for these services. The libraries are outsourced, not privatized. Who says that a service paid for by the "government" has to also be provided by that government? Is there much evidence that people working in unionized government jobs do a better job that people working for profit?
Here's one unhappy librarian complaining: "'This is a shift from the public trust into private hands,' said John Sexton." "'Libraries have always been a source of information for everyone and owned by no one.'" Oh, okay. And how is paying for but outsourcing the library any different, especially from the patron's point of view? Does LSSI now "own" the source of information? Aren't we supposed to be thinking of the service to the users? Mr. Sexton, we discover, is "an out-of-work Jackson County librarian who has interviewed with LSSI for his old job," but no doubt his protest is motivated by the noble goal of defending the public from the evil LSSI empire.
Partly this mess came about because Jackson County didn't want to pony up for libraries. "Book lovers complained bitterly about the closings, but two ballot measures to raise taxes and reopen the libraries fell short." No doubt some of you think the US Government should have kept subsidizing this county indefinitely, even if the people there weren't willing to help themselves. But I don't. This shows that the majority of the people of Jackson County don't think it's worth paying more taxes to support their libraries. But, "then LSSI offered to run the libraries, underbidding the public employees union." So here we have a case of a community that won't commit more funding to libraries, and yet they're still getting library services that morally perhaps they don't deserve, because LSSI can do the job more cheaply than the unionized librarians. Just who exactly are the good guys and who the bad guys here? If it were up to the union, Jackson County wouldn't have any libraries. Are we supposed to treat these people like heroes?
"Some bibliophiles fear that the library, under distant, corporate management, will be less attuned to local interests when buying books and will stock the shelves with lots of best-sellers." (Notice how for the writer of this article, library supporters are all "book lovers" and "bibliophiles.") Yeah, I'm sure that's a lot different from public libraries now. We all know how public libraries don't stock their shelves with lots of bestsellers. We don't want our libraries to start stocking popular books and videos and CDs. We want our public libraries to keep providing the intellectually challenging and culturally rich collections they do now. Right.
Even the Glorious ALA President weighs in on this debate. "'Does this company understand local needs?' asked Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, which opposes library outsourcing. 'We have long regarded libraries as different. We deal with intangibles. We are not profit-driven.'" What is this supposed to mean? Her last sentence is clearly in line with her alleged position that librarianship is a "calling" and that money shouldn't be important to librarians. But "we deal in intangibles"? What, like high priestesses of information? Is this another religious interpretation of librarianship? The first question is purely empirical. LSSI will either understand local needs or not, but being a private company has nothing to do with it. Companies try to understand local needs; that's how they make money. Does that bustling deli down the street "understand local needs"? And is it run by the government?
LSSI defends itself, of course. "'The average citizen, when they walk into the library, they will see well-trained, well-educated, customer-service-oriented people working in the library,' said Bob Windrow, director of sales and marketing for ... LSSI. 'They won't know who is paying their salary, and they won't care. They care whether the library is open adequate hours, and are they getting good service.'" Apparently, the LSSI record is mixed, with some satisfied and some dissatisfied customers, but again, the question is empirical. If the Jackson County residents do get good library services, especially considering the option is no library service, then what's the problem? Who is most important to the librarians? The librarians, or the users? We know the answer is the librarians, and what I find so interesting about this debate is the way it cuts through the usual verbiage about how the users are sacrosanct. If the users are the measure, and if the users are happy, then outsourcing the services shouldn't be a problem for any librarians. It's all for the users, right?
And let's consider this from another angle for a moment. I will admit that some outsourcing bothers me. It especially bothers me when some ignorant customer service person is obviously in New Delhi or someplace and has no idea how to satisfy my needs. It bothers me on a different level when American companies move jobs out of America because some sweatshop in Guam makes tee shirts more cheaply than some sweatshop in Florida. I'm sympathetic to the masses of American citizens who are never going to be able to thrive in an information economy, who even with free education just won't be smart enough for intellectual work, but who could still be productive and self-supporting citizens if things were different.
But hey, we're not talking about some automaker who starts assembling cars in Indonesia. These library jobs aren't being outsourced to India (I think the reference could be outsourced to India, but the reshelving would be problematic.) These are still Americans working these jobs, even perhaps "professional" librarian Americans. Okay, so their benefits aren't as good as they were. The other option here, in case it isn't clear, is no job at all. And if the librarians need better jobs, then they'll just have to be mobile and have marketable skills like the rest of us. This "outsourcing" isn't the kind that raises the hackles of many Americans. Americans in general aren't necessarily being harmed by this, and one could definitely argue that Americans in Jackson County are being benefited. Librarians are the ones in danger, not Americans, not the users, and not libraries.
This debate is similar to all the guff about how we have to bend over and grab our ankles to make libraries "relevant" to people. Libraries are relevant or they're not. The people care, or they don't. If people don't want what libraries provide, then libraries will go away, but that's more of a problem for the librarians than it is for the people. What if all "information" was available for free online, search engines had perfected search, "information literacy" was universal, and computers and Internet access were available to all? If that happens, public libraries will probably be unnecessary for the most part. Is that a problem for the people, or for the librarians? Even now it's true for many people. Access to information is cheap. We talk about the "digital divide," but I wonder how many people on the other side of the digital divide can afford televisions and cable.
All this rubbish about public versus private is just, well, rubbish. Perhaps, as one of my commenters last week suggested, this explains the inanity of some librarians considering the profession a "calling." It's the non-profit syndrome, the unverified and unverifiable belief that working for a non-profit somehow makes one nobler than those poor philistines who work for profit. This attitude is rampant in academia, and I'm assuming elsewhere as well. All of us earning our pay from other people's tax money tend to forget that most people have to actually produce things or provide services for a profit to support us. We don't seem to mind people providing us goods and services for a good price while making a profit, then taking their money to provide our salaries, but we then get all misty-eyed when we think of our own noble sacrifice. Yes, we non-profits are soooo noble. We "deal in intangibles." We aren't interested in filthy lucre. Mere "profit" means nothing to us. Trade is so dirty, isn't it. How aristocratic we all are! How noble!
I might also note that this public versus private rubbish implies that public librarians are better librarians than librarians who work for law firms or corporations. Does anyone believe this to be true? Are public librarians so much better than other librarians because they are noble servants of the public? For you special librarians out there in the corporate sector, what do you think of the notion that you're not as good at your jobs as you might be if you sacrificed yourself for the public and lived off someone else's tax money?
It turns out, though, that librarians aren't really so noble. They want to be all "relevant"--so they don't get fired. They want people to come to the library and support the library--so they don't get fired. They would rather Jackson County go without library services than have some private company provide the services--so they don't get fired. They're desperate to seem hip and happening and desirable--so they don't get fired.
I'm not saying many, and perhaps even most, librarians aren't dedicated to library users. I'm saying it's time librarians stopped claiming that user satisfaction is all they're interested in, or pretending that public library service is somehow more noble than going out to work for the Man. If librarians were interested only in user satisfaction, they wouldn't complain about library outsourcing in such a knee-jerk manner. Librarians are interested in librarians, except, of course, when they're not.