Saturday, September 26, 2015

Confessions of an Anarchist Library Assistant

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

I have something to confess: I did a dumb thing. I went to college and painted myself into the public sector corner with my choice of major: Library Science. Don’t get me wrong: I love it. But sometimes, I find myself thinking things like:
 “That could be automated.”
“Why do we have eight people here, when there’s barely enough work for 5?”
“That could be more efficient if we (insert suggestion here)”
…but I can’t say anything.  I’m the “new guy.” I’m not even a full employee – I’m a substitute. Things have got to be bad when someone from outside your organization and with little experience in the industry can easily identify key dysfunctions in your business model.
But that’s the big problem, really. They don’t HAVE a good business model – like all of the public sector, they don’t have to worry about satisfying customers. Since it’s a government-run monopoly, there’s no free market to give the library an idea if their services are viable, wanted, productive, or valued. There is hostility towards change – the more automation, the fewer jobs there are to go around. With no change, there is no innovation – they wait for the private sector to innovate, and then slowly implement policies that pale in comparison to the private sector alternative.
Amazon-smile-cropA friend posted this article on Amazon’s new venture: a digital library. It would work like Netflix – subscribers pay a fee, and get access to digital materials. There’s no waiting for holds on a limited number of items, you don’t have to trek down to the library and pick up the item, and there's minimal overhead, since digital items don’t need labels, to be inspected, cataloged, shelved, and shuttled from place to place.

Frankly, I feel obsolete.
That’s not saying there’s not a future for libraries – there is. But it most likely won’t look like anything we’re used to today. The public sector is too slow and resistant to change. Public libraries depend on limited funds that are obtained through coercion. Sometimes, they’re able to wheedle donations out of well-meaning civic-oriented benefactors. Sometimes, they can sell their weeded items (items that are old, obsolete, damaged, etc.) to raise a little cash. But mostly, they depend on tax dollars – the library that I work at depends on a levy that’s tied to property taxes. When the value of properties tanked in the 2008 crash, the whole consortium had to lay off employees, cut back service hours, discontinue some services, and the lack of funds also severely restricted the materials budget. Materials budgets not only encompass physical items, but also subscription services like research databases – which can get awfully expensive, for many reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.
When I go to work, I feel somewhat subversive – kind of like that scene in Breaking Bad, where Walter jokes with Hank about being the infamous meth cook that the DEA has been itching to bust.
I wonder what they’d say if they knew I’d privatize the library in half a heartbeat if I could. They probably wouldn’t be too happy – library workers in this area are forced into a public union, and if it’s one thing that unions don’t like, it’s change. There’s no way I can opt out – I live in a forced-unionization state; if I want a job in a public library here, I’d be forced to join the union. Luckily, I’m a substitute – we aren’t part of the union, but we still have to follow the rules laid out by the union contract so as not to threaten any union jobs with our presence: we aren’t allowed to work more than 40 hours a week. We’re limited to 68 hours per month for 8 months out of the year; the other 4 months are unlimited hours, as long as we don’t exceed 40 hours a week. If we go over 360 hours a year, we’re automatically in the union (although, since work is often spotty and hours aren't guaranteed, substitutes don’t have to pay union dues).
This situation is pretty common in the library and information science industry. In non-Right to Work states, workers are forced to join a union and pay dues, public or private sector. There are exceptions – for instance, if you have a strong religious objection to unionization, you’re allowed an exemption: they take the dues money out, and you and the union agree on which charity will receive it. Although if you choose this option, you can’t be sure that the charity is really receiving the money, as evidenced by this case last year.

But, back to the topic at hand: Libraries and Information Science!
It would surprise few people if I said that Information science is changing at a very rapid pace. Way too fast, in fact, for public institutions to keep up with emerging trends and technological developments in the field. Libraries will have to change to survive – and they will probably look a lot different from what we’re used to today.
0511-0909-0119-4522_Elderly_School_Librarian_clipart_imageIn addition to slow bureaucracies, thought processes of library workers are hard to change. For one, it’s a stagnant industry– partly because of dependence on public funds, and partly because library jobs are not labor-intensive. One can work in a library until they die of old age (and this is not an uncommon occurrence), which results in very low turnover. In some places, to get a job in a library, you have to wait for someone to die, retire, move, or transfer to another branch – not an encouraging prospect for the future of public libraries. Taking the length of the average library worker career into account, old modes of thought tend to linger – so much so that outdated technologies are still in regular use in the name of "tradition,", and labor-saving devices are an investment that many libraries are reluctant to implement. Libraries prefer to use their available funds on materials and salaries rather than on innovative labor-saving devices that may make some jobs obsolete.
Despite the song and dance about providing a valuable public service, library workers are like any other public employee: very protective of their jobs.
carnegie_libraryThe history and traditions of the modern library don’t bode well for it, either. The first free public lending institution was created in Braddock, PA in 1888 by a generous grant from the great industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, who benefited from an informal lending library in Pittsburgh when he was just a young working immigrant boy. From the beginning, libraries served a progressive, elitist, interventionist agenda  – the educated upper echelons of library staff (in the beginning all white and all male) would choose not what the public wanted to read, but what THEY wanted the public to read. Classics were the mainstay – popular literature was seen as low-class and undesirable. What the public wanted was irrelevant: it was the library’s mission to educate the unwashed masses, whether they liked it or not. The hierarchical structure in libraries is also worth mentioning – the upper level bosses were men, overseeing an army of subordinate women. It is somewhat different now – women dominate, and industry organizations like the ALA (American Library Association) are aggressively promoting the field to non-whites with grants and other special incentives. The vast majority of public library staff today are white and female.
Melvil Dewey Creator of the Dewey Decimal Classification System
Melvil Dewey
Creator of the DDC
To people not in the Information Science field, classification systems are either a handy tool or a vexing enigma.The classification system most used in public libraries – the Dewey Decimal System – is most beneficial to the educated elite. The DDC (Dewey Decimal Classification system) is not intuitive by any stretch of the imagination. In the past, libraries would work this way: you’d go the service desk, request a book, and the library employee would go hunt it down for you. It was designed to be a form of specialized code, with the library worker as the gatekeeper to the knowledge stored within the musty stacks. Today, it’s different – there are games, classes, videos, and other resources teaching children about the DDC, so they can find their own books without having to annoy the busy library staff. From my experience in the industry, this does little good, though – I've had to explain how the DDC works and how to find things numerous times to people very close to my own age. Put simply, if you don’t work in or frequently do research at a library, classification systems might as well be Greek to you.
This gap in classification system knowledge has led to recent interest in the “mark and park” system – basically what you’ll see in a bookstore. Books are grouped by subject, alphabetical by author, and you browse from there.  Recent research suggests that the majority of library users prefer to browse a section rather than search for a specific title. This system has only been implemented in few public libraries, though, and time will tell whether the change will be beneficial.
The “Third Place” – “social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace” – is the concept with which public libraries are circling their wagons around a crumbling institution. Many libraries are morphing into a collection of creative, social spaces rather than the warehouse of books that we’re all familiar with. Some libraries are putting more and more funds into media - many days, I shelve and prepare holds for so many media items - CDs, DVDs, Playaways - that it feels like I work more in a video store than a library. Some
libraries are investing more and more money into services like Overdrive, which 
allows library users to check out digital books – despite the fact that the service has drawn fire for privacy issues, and suffers from some of the same ailments that physical books do, namely hold lists. With Overdrive, libraries only have so many digital copies of a title available, so users still have to wait in line to read the book as though it’s a physical copy.
So, if traditional libraries are going the way of the dodo (albeit slowly), what will future libraries – or, shall I say, library-like services – look like? I envision a more organic rather than institutional future - especially if the liberty movement gains momentum in the near future. There are a few ideas being thrown into the ring, and more are sure to be developed as technology advances. Some possibilities are:
  • Paid e-Book services such as the soon-to-be-unveiled Amazon service.
  • Book Crossing – a free book-sharing service where you can enter book information, print off a label, attach it to the book, and leave it in a public place. You report to the website where you leave the book, and the label has a number that the finder of the book can enter in and log the book as found. What’s quaint about this service is the language they use:  instead of books being left and found, they are “released” and “caught.”
  • Privately-owned Subscription Libraries – Reminiscent of Andrew Carnegie’s experience as a boy, these libraries can cater to a certain clientele, offer different subscription rates, be small, large, or something in between.
  • Charitable, Non-Profit Libraries –Pretty self-explanatory – simply, a library run entirely with charitable donations.
  • Crowd Sourced Library – Made up of donated books at a centralized location, which may be free or subscription-based. There’s already one in India!
  • Decentralized crowd sourced library – This is something that I thought of while walking the dog one night: If Uber can work, so can this! Imagine an app on your phone, where you can register your physical books, another user in your area contacts you through the app, you meet and physically lend or trade the book. When you move, just change your area and continue sharing!
  • Project Gutenberg – You can already get free e-books whose copyrights have expired here!
  • Digital Libraries, like the Digital Public Library of America.  Despite the name, DPLA is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It is registered as a library in the state of Massachusetts.
  • Espresso Book Machine - on-demand books and convenient self-publishing? Yes please!
  • Little Free Library: users create small, often decorative little libraries on their property, or get permission from the owner to install one. Passerby are encouraged to take a book, leave a book – it’s completely free, no late fees, and no promises to return anything!
  • A library with no books - in San Antonio, TX.
And just for fun…my possible replacement:

In conclbooks_coffeeusion, I urge everyone to take advantage of the services that their public library offers. We don't know how long this gravy train of progressive-style public services is going to last. Make sure to keep in mind that library budgets are often seen as superfluous by local legislators and are particularly vulnerable during a recession. Your library probably offers research databases, special programs, and community outreach events that you never knew existed. Seize the opportunity to increase your knowledge, improve practical skills, and socialize with other library users.
If the system is here, we might as well utilize it to our maximum personal gain.

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