What if Libraries Were Run Like a Rapacious Corporation?

Remember when Steve Coffman asked us “what if you ran your library like a bookstore?” (American Libraries, March 1, 1998.) Not just any bookstore, but a mega-chain that has its books selected centrally and doesn’t pay its floor workers much because, hey, reference services are an unnecessary extravagance anyway.

Now digital media consultant Joseph Esposito asks “what if Wal-Mart ran a library?” He predicts our days are numbered because we’re simply too expensive and inefficient.

If Wal-Mart ran a library, there would be fewer libraries, but they would be much, much larger. Wal-Mart would study the entire supply chain, from authors all the way to readers, to root out inefficiencies. If a particular vendor proved to be hard to deal with, Wal-Mart would encourage other vendors to enter the area. Wherever possible, solutions would be sought with information technology rather than high-cost First World labor . . . It is not only the cost of academic journals that is unsustainable, but also the behavior of entire institutions that are currently operating outside the demands of a globalizing society steeped in industrial processes and a stubborn, if narrow, view of accountability.

Of course, if there were fewer libraries, and those that survived were run this way, we’d stop supporting academic programs that were small or unproven, we’d avoid stocking material that wasn’t sufficiently popular, we’d outsource as many functions as we could, and (like Coffman’s bookstore model) we wouldn’t bother building collections geared to local needs. Not to worry: higher ed as we know it is doomed, anyway.

We’d also be enough of a monopoly that we could bully publishers into meeting our terms. Lest you think “hey, he’s got a point” – consider SPARC and other efforts to reinvent scholarly communication. We’re already having an effect. But Esposito would disagree: he thinks open access is a bad idea and will end up costing more than traditional publishing, redirecting the expenses from libraries to authors and their institutions.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

5 thoughts on “What if Libraries Were Run Like a Rapacious Corporation?”

  1. One can see why people compare libraries to businesses, but it seems very unhelpful. They have different missions which means that lots of other things will be different.

    It also obscures the real issue by diverting attention. One wants to run libraries, and the collaborative and other frameworks within which they work, as efficiently as possible. This means that libraries should be interested in best practices for marketing, human resource management, supply chain management, and so on. One is not interested in these approaches because businesses emphasise them; one is interested in them as ways of making libraries work better to support their missions.

    I thought that Jim Collins’s ‘Good to great and the social sectors’ very interesting in this regard. See http://orweblog.oclc.org/archives/000915.html

  2. I had started writing a reaction to this same piece. Here’s a bit of what I thought about it:

    It isn’t enough that we must listen to an endless parade of pundits, both within and external to the library profession, who blather on about Amazon, Netflix and other web-based consumer emporiums as good models of practice for libraries to emulate. Now we have another great idea to mull over, applying the Wal-Mart model to the practice of librarianship. I found it interesting the Esposito says that he’s never patronized Wal-Mart, yet he seems to think quite highly of the retailer.

    Perhaps the contemporary American higher education model with its thousands of institutions all teaching many of the same courses and their libraries that all contain copies of the same books, does seem a bit outmoded in the digital age. Why not have a mega-provider that brings the big box store model to higher education. In fact, for-profit institutions such as University of Phoenix or DeVry University, are already doing this – and they have their centralized library with highly efficient research call center to go along with the program. And just as Wal-Mart presents stiff competition for the mom-and-pop stores, so too are the for-profit behemoths generating competitive pressure on traditional IHEs. But one of the reasons why the American higher education system is perhaps the world’s best is because of the diversity of institutions and options it offers.

    Academic libraries are certainly challenged in more areas than just scholarly publishing, and it certainly makes sense to look to business for potential ideas to improve our services. After all, where did the idea of all those library cafes come from? But it may be simplistic, given the complex nature of our library organizations, to point to big-box retailers, whether virtual or physical, as paragons of operational excellence that should serve as our models. And by the way,don’t libraries already have better everyday prices than Wal-Mart?

  3. Esposito writes, “perhaps we should all work toward an era of ‘Everyday Accessible Scholarship.'”

    M-W’s Online Thesaurus lists “common” and “ordinary” as synonyms for the adjective “everyday.” (It also lists “commonplace,” “lowly,” “mundane” and “unremarkable.”)

    Is Joe arguing for common / ordinary / lowly / mundane / unremarkable scholarship?

    I think Wal-Mart touts its every day low prices.

  4. Lorcan, I do agree that efficiency and good marketing aren’t only the province of for-profit businesses; I liked the post you linked to. We can do it even when not driven by a profit motive.

    And yes, “everyday low prices” isn’t exactly the note we want to strike. Can’t get much lower than free. Unless it’s free and convenient or free and high quality or free and a pleasant experience to boot.

  5. “everyday accessible scholarship” “every day accessible scholarship”

    That’s all I was saying. 🙂

    Rather than something along the lines of “scholarship that’s always available,” he says something about unremarkable scholarship.

    Which is probably exactly what you’d get with Wal-Mart.

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