Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Juxtapositions for today's high-minded professionals...

I've been noticing events, postings, and articles that center around the same basic theme - the battle of higher education against the bottom-line-focused executives that either administrate or serve on the boards of our institutions. Marshall Poe discusses the importance of the university press (a service closely tied to academic libraries), with some interesting insights into the problems these services face.  Then there is the UVa debacle with the summary dismissal of the president over "philosophical differences."  These differences were the result of the business-oriented board members' frustration with the "slowness" of the president's response to their concerns.

Those who pursued an academic career (like myself) claim that they purposefully avoided for-profit employment, sacrificing higher-pay and fancy perks, in return for both greater stability and a feeling of bettering the world.  Now that the corporate mentality has taken over politics, government, and organizational governance (even in the non-profit or social services world), we feel cheated. We have the worst of both worlds - lower-than-average pay for the same kind of work, greater demands on demonstrating outcomes, and greater risk of job loss.  This growing pressure also appears to be affecting the "warm fuzzies" we counted on getting from serving the youth, the growth of knowledge, the community (local and disciplinary).

While I do believe that, as custodians and beneficiaries of funding from taxes and gifts, we librarians have an obligation to be efficient and effective in our operations, I also firmly believe that governments and non-profit organizations cannot be run like a business.  A business' primary goal is to make money.  I do not deride that objective - I believe that capitalism based on fair-play is a far better economic model than government-run economies.  But if you look at the mission statements and goals of governments, non-profits, educational and other social services, making money is not mentioned.

Interestingly, I was reading a collection of classic papers and presentations in librarianship, one of which was from Ernest Cushing Richardson.  In his opinion piece published in the ALA Bulletin in 1927, he mentioned a "trend in librarianship in the present day" to "emphasize the method of efficiency, aptitude for action, the methods of modern salesmanship...over reflection, knowledge, learning, tact, sympathy, humane developments and other factors which go to set up a connection between the knowledge which is in books and the knowledge which lives in personality"1.  Richardson goes on to advocate that libraries are, indeed, a "real business which calls for business aptitude, business experience...".  He even points out the many aspects of library operations that have been adopted by business itself, including the use of the card file, the standardization of hte index card, and the idea of standards themselves.  However, he emphasizes that "the main thing about librarianship...[is] learning or knowledge," and that "the neglect of this aspect is even more fatal than the neglect of the business side."

So, it appears that this push-and-pull between running the library (and education) like a business and very foundations of connecting individuals to knowledge is not solely a 21st century concern. How can we, as both librarians and educators, work to ensure that we neglect neither the business nor the human or knowledge side?  Richardson advocates for a "philosophy of librarianship", one that gets to the "real nature and meaning of things."  This was a real problem to librarians in this time period, one for which I believe that Ranganathan made his greatest contribution.

Interestingly, Marshall Poe presents some very intriguing ideas about the decline of university presses.  While he does mention the influence of business-oriented approach to cutting anything that doesn't generate enough revenue, he also discusses the dependency of UP's on libraries to purchase these works (and the current decline in library budgets to continue this relationship), as well as the overall decline in reading in the population, even the learned population.  Finally, he blames the UP management themselves for not "getting" the Internet and how it could be leveraged to reduce the "brick and mortar" expenses and increase exposure and readership.  This, however, requires a major shift in a fundamental aspect of UP's: making content available for free.  This shift in focus from producing a product (a book) to providing a service (editing content provided by academics seeking recognition and promotion) could enable the presses to continue to serve their original mission of disseminating knowledge.

This appears to be one example of how the high-minded professionals in education and librarianship can manage the pressures to "economize" and change our practices and operations while still dealing in our core business of knowledge.

1. Richardson, Ernest Cushing. "Book and Person Who Knows the Book."  In, American Library Philosophy: An Anthology.  McCrimmon, Barbara, ed.  Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1975; ppg. 51-62.

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