Do Librarians Work Hard Enough?

The bizarrely ill-informed opinion piece by David Levy, “Do College Teachers Work Hard Enough?” in the Washington Post caused a lot of predictable outrage among college teachers. I was reminded of it when I read a new essay by Steve Coffman, "The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire." 

April 2, 2012

The bizarrely ill-informed opinion piece by David Levy, “Do College Teachers Work Hard Enough?” in the Washington Post caused a lot of predictable outrage among college teachers because it accused faculty of being slackers, assuming (as many outside the academy do) that the only obstacle to professors teaching classes twenty hours a week, 11 months of the year, is arrogant laziness. Apart from the title being a loaded question (have you stopped beating your wife?), the fact that it was published in a well-respected national newspaper gave it a more weight than it would have had if published elsewhere – say, on a blog or at The Onion. About the only statement in the piece that most academics would agree with is “the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth.” To those who mark papers at night and catch up on grading and course prep on weekends, that number seems low. To those who get paid by the course and make less than a living wage while commuting between jobs, it’s infuriating for other reasons.

Why did the Washington Post publish advice for academics and policy makers from someone who seems uninterested in information that might inform claims like “even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, [faculty] workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals”? I realize this is an op/ed piece, but editors commonly raise queries about statements like this. Someone should have. Levy also doesn’t pay enough attention to the issue he’s writing about to know that his assumption that only R1 universities have research expectations is so untrue it’s ridiculous. Though he claims to be a “career-long academic” he seems bizarrely uniformed and cavalier if not contemptuous about the role evidence might play in constructing an argument.

Being a faculty brat, I remember watching my father struggle to control his blood pressure when his much wealthier older brother, whose contribution to the world was placing winning bets on commodity prices, asked him what he did with all free time, with so few courses to keep him busy.  The majority of his work - mentoring graduate students, conducting research, managing a department, trying to figure out how to help students who lacked basic writing skills – was as foreign to my uncle as the factors affecting the price of soybean and pork bellies was to us, but there was a difference. When it came to how he spent his day, my uncle's Cadillac and North Shore home was all the answer most people needed.

I had a similar reaction reading a new piece by Steve Coffman titled “The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire.”  After reminding us of how silly librarians were in the old days, when we tried to collect and catalog useful web links, he argues that libraries today are mostly inconvenient and unnecessary. If you want free books, you can download lots of them from Amazon, and you can search PubMed without requiring a library (though the National Library of Medicine might question that claim). Hardly anyone needs access to the Internet provided in public libraries, he argues, now that everyone has a cell phones. And in an age of Wikipedia, who needs reference librarians?

There’s some truth in what he says. We did try to corral websites into organized lists, which now seems a bit ludicrous, and many librarians worried that our skills were growing irrelevant as the web provided easy access to basic information and the number of reference questions declined. We still protest too much when we argue that "you get what you pay for," and say that libraries’ main value is providing access to articles that are so much better than what you find online for free. That’s entirely the wrong argument: we should be doing everything we can to support open and equitable access, not bragging about our shiny tollgates. (I can’t help mentioning that the company that employs David Levy is a major database vendor.)

But the real flaw in Coffman’s argument is his assumption that librarians had imperial goals. We have never tried to corner the market on information or drive any other organization out of business. We’re the opposite of empire builders. We’re trying to preserve access to common ground where ideas can be shared openly, not a trading pit for buyers and sellers. We’re not serving customers, we represent the will of the people so they can help themselves and be part of a community that learns.

I’m not surprised Coffman doesn’t get it. This is the guy who wrote a provocative piece in 1998 asking “what if you ran your library like a bookstore?” If he had meant “like an independent bookstore that supports local culture and serves as a social hub” I would have been interested, but he actually meant “like a giant retail chain” – centrally managed, staffed by low-wage workers, favoring popular materials, and selling expensive coffee, all innovations of the big box bookstores that were at that time doing their best to exterminate local bookstores. He took his own advice and helped found a company that now takes public funds to run libraries for profit, popular with municipalities that want to bust a union or insulate themselves from local anger when library hours are cut.

Levy and Coffman have something in common. They think of these social institutions like universities and libraries in terms of what customers can get from them, and how they could get it for less. In short, they have no idea of the common good. It’s the logical outcome of the near-religious faith that markets are always right, just like customers.



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