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« Cicero Is Dead (Joe) | Main | The varying shades of racism »

August 31, 2009


I spent more than a decade at a public library in Southern California, where we were always trying to design or tweak services to suit the communities of users. I would have been on board for something like this. Heck, I wanted the library to be open 24/7, and I would have offered to take a few graveyard shifts myself. I'm amused by the comments at the Houston Chronicle site: "Heaven forbid a Houstonian would have to get out of their car and walk," and "The library is catering to the lazy." There is probably something to the complaints, but I have no doubt that parking is a genuine problem, too. (Besides, even caterers cater to the lazy!)

I disagree entirely with the Library Director, though.

"The library is no different from any other business organization," she said. "For you and I in society, technology is the way of the world."

Her first sentence is exactly wrong. Not at all being a business organization itself, the library is wholly different from every business organization. I wish otherwise competent people would stop purveying this myth. This isn't to say that businesses don't have a lot to learn from libraries and how they are run. In my experience, libraries are efficient to a fault, prudently daring when it comes to exploring and accommodating change, and masterful at the ad hoc in a crisis.

The second sentence by the Director sounds ominously Heideggerian, but I suspect she means something more demotic like, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Maybe so, but it certainly hasn't taken long, not even an era, for the euphoria over new technologies to quell. See, for instance, the recent stories in the NYT about the deceleration of growth of Wikipedia and the confounded founding fathers of the Internet. There is so much to be said about that Internet article--it's a gem of journalistic vagueness--but I think one of its important, if unintended, messages has to do with the blindness of the guys who built it, which the article generously refers to as "idealism." More simply, the 'net and Web were crafted by boys with their toys. The result we call innovation. When things turn sour, it's on account of unanticipated "barriers." Poor Tim Berners-Lee. He never wanted barriers. Anyway, libraries have dealt heartily with these developments, barriers and all, in the face of the idealistic hype about efficiency and democracy these guys spewed daily. For libraries, deployment of immature technology is of a piece with managing a dearth of parking.

Hey Dean, I am glad you approve.

The comments are mostly disapproving, I noticed. But then given the notorious reputation of Houstonians for their aversion to getting out of their cars and that Houston has been featured more than once as the "fattest city" in the US, the snark is somewhat deserved. On the other hand, the two libraries mentioned here are located in horribly congested parts of the city as one comment noted. The innovation is therefore cheaper than building yet another parking lot as said another. I agree that the library staff should receive extra compensation for the service.

As for libraries being business organizations, who is not hankering after that venerated label? The universities are businesses and students are clients. The science faculty is treated according to grant getting talents rather than pedagogic prowess. State funded teaching hospitals try to fashion themselves as private for-profit outfits and provide luxury rooms to those willing to pay the price while the uninsured and the poor are treated as liabilites. Religious organizations, like the mega churches in Houston for example, who supposedly heal the spirit, are the biggest and shrewdest businesses of all although they would never admit that!

The late Bill Readings had much to say about the trope of university-as-business in his The University in Ruins. I won't tell you how it ends, if the title hasn't already spoiled the outcome for you. A couple passages at random (c/o Amazon's glimpse):

[Q]uality is not the ultimate issue, but excellence soon will be, because it is the recognition that the University is not just like a corporation; it is a corporation. Students in the University of Excellence are not like customers; they are customers.


As an integrating principle, excellence has the singular advantage of being entirely meaningless, or to put it more precisely, non-referential.... Today, all departments of the University can be urged to strive for excellence, since the general applicability of the notion is in direct relation to its emptiness.

...and finally, veering back to the original post...

Cornell University Parking Services recently received an award for "excellence in parking." What this meant was that they had achieved a remarkable level of efficiency in restricting motor vehicle access.... [E]xcellence could just as well have meant making people's lives easier by increasing the number of parking spaces available to faculty.

(That closing remark is telling. People's lives are made easier by providing parking to faculty. But that's another story.)

Hitting rather close to home, this LA Times commentary from a month and a half ago tacitly, uncritically accepts that universities are businesses, plain and simple. Thankfully, this retort, also from the Cal community, complicates the picture.

They ought to combine this with another innovation prevalent in Houston and NOLA:

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