Going Corporate – Guilty As Charged

In his recent Chronicle essay titled “Library Inc.”, which was part of special Chronicle Review focusing on the corporatization of higher education, Daniel Goldstein takes academic librarianship to task for selling out to corporate America. Judging by the comments shared by readers the reaction to the essay is mixed; while some agree others take Goldstein to task for blaming librarians for a situation beyond their control. Goldstein focuses the essay on two areas where he sees commercialization of the library most evident. The first is collections, where Goldstein is critical of academic librarians for allowing corporate mega-publishers to take control of the academic journal publishing. If Publisher A buys out Publisher B, I’m not sure how that’s the fault of academic librarians. Maybe we didn’t work hard enough to fight these developments, although I recall a number of academic libraries that joined together to reject big packages and unjust price increases.

I’m not as interested in what Goldstein has to say about collections as I am about the second area where he claims our profession has gone astray – customer services. Far fewer commenters had anything to say about this part of the essay, yet that’s the area where, from my perspective, the arguments are particularly weak and unfounded. As I read the essay, the conclusion I draw is that if you believe there is value in delivering high quality customer services, if you and colleagues go out of your way to understand your user community and design services that meet their expectations, and if you – heaven forbid – believe there is something to the idea of creating a well thought out, holistic user experience for your user community, then you have somehow sold your soul to the corporate devil. Goldstein writes, “There are far-reaching implications to disregarding so much of what a library does in favor of an impoverished, customer-service-centric model.” Goldstein is entitled to his opinion but my response to it: what utter nonsense.

I realize this is a short Chronicle essay, so I won’t fault Goldstein for failing to provide some good examples of what these “far-reaching implications” are, but I think it has something to do with dumbing down a student’s research process so that they actually discover information with simple-to-use interfaces instead of facilitating thorough and precise “systematic research” that leads to the production of new knowledge. That sounds great, but I’m not sure Goldstein has worked with many underclassmen lately – the students who mostly never even bother using the library at all. Does he prefer that to better customer services designed to engage distracted students? Has he paid any attention to the Project Information Literacy reports that document what an unpleasant user experience our libraries can present to overwhelmed students who are greatly challenged to get started on the fundamental research paper? Goldstein waxes eloquently about the noble work of the academic librarian who shepherds students to produce new knowledge in response to “new and unusual” questions. The reality on the ground level is that academic librarians are typically confronted by confused undergraduates struggling with the same research project that’s been assigned to hundreds of other students before them. When you frame our challenging problem more realistically, going corporate – if that’s what you want to call it – looks more and more like a pretty good solution.

As I read Goldstein’s concerns about “a future when libraries look a lot like Google: a vast, undifferentiated mass of information queried by a simple search box”, it sounded vaguely familiar. It should. I wrote pretty much the same thing back in 2004 in a Chronicle essay titled “The Infodiet: How Libraries Can Offer An Appetizing Alternative to Google”. In it I raised similar concerns about how we observed students consuming a steady junk food diet of information rather than the high quality “nutritious” content our libraries offered. Since then I’ve come to worry less about this problem because I don’t think the answer is simply found in wishing for the good old days of…what…just exactly what is it that Goldstein is recommending we do other than “insist that scholarly requirements take precedence over commercial interests.” How exactly do we do that? By abandoning the core value of delivering good customer service in which we empathize with our community members and attempt to deliver a research environment that responds to their expectations?

I suppose the bottom line from my perspective is that there’s absolutely no evidence that establishing a culture of service diminishes an academic library’s ability to help students develop strong research skills. I would argue that if we want students to move beyond dumbed down research, junk food resources, and all that which Goldstein abhors, then the answer might be expanding and improving our services and user experience so that we do a much better job of building relationships with students. We can’t expect them to magically want to become the passionate researchers that Goldstein envisions unless we figure out how to create an emotional connection between them and our libraries – so that they actually perceive academic librarians as trusted sources of information. If we do this right, we’ll create the passionate users Goldstein visualizes, the ones who’ll come to us when they want to learn – not just when they’re forced to by their instructors.

Creating a passionate user is no random act; we need to be thoughtful in designing a holistic library experience that engages students and encourages them to pursue research interests. I believe that corporate America (think Starbucks, Amazon, Zappos, Apple, Ritz-Carlton, etc.) provides good ideas for how to design the right kind of experience for a specific community. That’s not saying our libraries are businesses, or should be run like business, but rather that corporations can offer ideas worth exploring. We need to discern the good ones from the bad ones, and then wisely implement the good ones to the benefit of our user community members.

So I may be a tool of corporate America, but I’m going to continue to advocate that there’s much we can learn from the companies that excel at designing great user experiences. Doing so doesn’t mean that you are commercializing the library. It means that you think there’s a better way to accomplish an outcome we all share. It’s great for Goldstein to share his noble aspirations with us, but it’s better to be realistic about what you can accomplish and how you can best go about getting it done. If you believe there’s value in exploring the business perspective on creativity, innovation, user experience – and all those other evil corporate machinations – come on over to Designing Better Libraries for a taste of the devil’s brew.

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