Tuesday, April 25, 2006

On Customer Driven Librarianship

John E. Buschman in his book, Dismantling the public sphere: Situating and sustaining librarianship in the age of the new public philosophy, attempts to prove that society is now functioning under a “New Public Philosophy” which is primarily based in economics. The “New Public Sphere” is destroying “the public sphere” and as discussed in the chapter we read, “On Customer-Driven Librarianship,” is causing libraries to abandon its public sphere responsibilities. The new emphasis on a for-profit corporate environment has led to the idea of customer-driven librarianship, where libraries attempt to compete with similar corporations.

Buschman makes an outrageous comparison in the chapter, “On Customer-Driven Librarianship,” between student-driven universities and patron- driven libraries. He claims that universities who cater to students with free booze, GPAs on demand, and few academic requirements would please students but would fall out of favor in society. He uses this example to suggest that that patron-driven librarianship would lead to decreasing public and private support for libraries and would cause libraries to “abandon a number of public sphere roles,” like promoting democracy.

Do we as future librarians agree with this? And, if the library is supported by public tax money what is the harm in placing the library in the hand of the public? Are we as librarians so afraid of that outcome that we are unwilling to relinquish our control and allow customer-driven librarianship to take over?

7 comments:

Molly said...

I don't think that Buschman's comparison was actually outrageous. Buschman uses the student-as-customer model to show an extreme and then goes on to say that "the proper formulation [of this analogy] is that society is the customer, buying the "good" in the form of an educated individual, produced...by the school/university" (120). This concept is most definitely comparable to the idea of “customer-driven librarianship” because the “public” is the customer purchasing “commodities” from a public institution in both instances.

I spent last semester researching the use of ROI studies in libraries across the country and working with Michele Besant on an investigation of whether or not this would be a useful tool for MPL’s capital campaign. We came to the conclusion that ROI studies in libraries are interesting and pretty, but tenuous at best. There is no simple way to convert the goods and services of the library into a business format.

In regards to the question: “And, if the library is supported by public tax money what is the harm in placing the library in the hand of the public?” I think that a great deal of harm would be done. As soon as you make this a reality and convert the library into a customer-driven business model, those who pay more will want to have a bigger say and get a bigger return for their investment. Just as Buschman suggests, the result is that democracy no longer exists in the library.

Nancy S. said...

If we as librarians start to define ourselves as "protectors of democracy" where does that take us? Aren't we as librarians supposed to be providing information services as needed to the public as a whole. If the patrons aka customers are catered to at the library and treated like customers wouldn't their information needs be better met? This is not to say that we shouldn't collect what is rarely used or requested; however, I believe there is some value in placing libraries in the hands of the public. The users know what they want and listening to them can help us as librarians provide it.

Katie Hanson said...

Yes, we should listen to the people using the library, but we have to keep in mind all of the hats we're wearing. We're not just providing information to the public--there are a lot of places (commercial places mostly) that do that and sometimes may do a better job of it for some people. But I agree with Molly--even in the best commercial models, there are some people who simply get left out of the market. I think if we embrace the commercial market too enthusiastically, we'll simply become another one of those information services that operate solely for a profit--and is that what we're about?

Jennifer Gile said...

I found it very interesting that the sources we looked at this week came across as very much for or very much against the "library patron as customer" model. I think a more moderate position is in order. How can you exactly qualify the service a library does for its community? You can quantify it through gate counts or circulation records, and even get some opinions through surveys, but libraries are fundamentally different in that they are NOT out to make a monetary profit like a corporation.

My own personal experiences at bookstores and libraries are drastically different- I recognize them as very different entities and treat them as such. I can't help but feel other people do as well. I can't be the only person that feels incredibly uncomfortable plopping down in one of those big, comfy chairs and reading a book I haven't bought! That's just weird...

I think that libraries do need to maintain their separate identity within the public sphere. One way in which libraries could become a little more "customer-driven" is being a little more creative with display. I know we talked about this in class, and there are logistical problems, but the typical public library is not conducive to browsing. I've tried and I just get a really sore neck...

Deanna Olson said...

I agree that what makes the library stand out as a unique entity is that individuals are not treated as customers. The library is one of the few places in society that does not bombard you when you walk in the door with merchandise or special deals. (As I am typing this I am picturing myself walking into my hometown public library and being accosted by sales representatives trying to get me to buy the latest book.) People can go to the library without feeling like they need to pay for the service that is provided. Where else (besides the Henry Vilas Zoo) can you get that kind of satisfaction or is that feeling uncomfortable bewilderment since we are so used to the idea that nothing is free. Individuals who want the customer feeling have plenty of places to choose from elsewhere.

Gillian D. said...

Didn't we read an editoral earlier on in the semester by a gentleman who was very upset that public tax dollars were going towards buying DVDs of popular television shows?

Libraries always have the struggle of what their purpose is. I think that one of the important things to remember is that we should not only cater to those who use the library now (and are vocal), but also those who might use the library in the future. Libraries collect some materials because people want them, some because people need them, some because people might use them, and (let's be honest) some because people "should" use them. Plus we tend to preserve materials that are of importance to our community.

Once again, libraries really need to have clear missions and policies.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

It seems to be time for all librarians, or librarians-in-training (like me), to go out there, bare our butts in the face of the naysayers and critics, and clearly define our missions and policies. Bookstores do a fine job of being bookstores, so let 'em be bookstores. Let's have our libraries be libraries, with clear goals, policies and missions. (ok, so this is easier said than done, but at least a boat-load of wacko librarians flashing their behinds might get some attention)