Another spring cleaning post…

I came across a small group of students talking in the hallway a couple of days ago, working on developing a Prisoner’s Dilemma-style matrix for reference work: the patron has the choice to fully divulge their information need or not, the reference librarian has the choice to fully answer the question or not. What are the costs and benefits?

This is an interesting exercise in and of itself, but it’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that, in my experience, students (at least those interested in reference) always come to the following point of crisis: Why, students ask themselves, do we give it away? Lawyers and doctors other professions charge for their services. There is an incentive for these professions to not provide full and complete information to their clients on the first visit, and that incentive is to keep them coming back for more (I’d like to believe that this doesn’t apply to doctors). Is there not the same incentive for reference librarians?

To this, I say: mu. Unask the question. This is the wrong question, as it proceeds on incorrect assumptions.

Instead, I would argue that librarianship exists in a different kind of economy. Librarianship does not exist to make money (or any other kind of concrete reward), but to provide education. The role of a teacher should be to make himself obsolete over the long term, to teach students to do it themselves (whatever it is), to carry on with their own education (on whatever topic) under their own steam. I would argue that librarianship is education; librarians are teachers. Our role is to teach patrons to seek and use information, to navigate the library and the larger universe of information, on their own. Without help next time. What keeps patrons coming back for more? Not that we withhold anything, but that the patron’s own situation changes, and they need help with something new. Librarians fill the ecological niche that exists between an individual’s actual and desired states of knowledge. The world is a complex and changing place; I do not believe that this niche will ever vanish. (Though librarians may lose our place as the dominant species in this niche… but, as Joe Janes writes every month, that’s another story.)

But there’s a part 2 to this story. More recently I had a conversation with another student who asked me essentially the same question: why don’t libraries charge for reference service, or at least for the more time-consuming research assistance. I gave him basically the answer above, and he totally wasn’t buying it. Or, I should say, he agreed that this response is consistent with an idealized vision of the library, but why not allow library services to be valued by market forces?

And this, my dear readers, is where this post ended. I suppose I never posted this because I never finished writing it, and now of course I have no idea how I was going to finish it up. So there you are: As Is.