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The Right Lines: An Irregular Column from a Thrice-Dipped Tory
The Right Lines: An Irregular Column from a Thrice-Dipped Tory
There never was a free lunch
An Important Anniversary
We all enjoy celebrating anniversaries. They are an ideal time to reflect on the past: times of triumph and tragedy alike. By thinking about what has happened in the past we can also learn lessons for the future. One of the unlikeliest anniversaries has occurred almost without notice this year (1998), and I want to comment upon it because I believe it has a good deal of relevance to the modern day. Did you realise that it is exactly 100 years since the first librarian put pen to paper explaining his disquiet about the increasing demand for library materials that was matched only by the runaway costs of providing those same materials? I owe this knowledge to a paper written by Christopher Wright (1997), and I will use it as a source more than once in this column.
So it is instructive to think about that 100-year-old circular from the University of California at Berkeley announcing that it had adopted a system for the interlibrary loans of books, and calling upon other libraries to cooperate. The issue of costs was "up front" in the circular, and as Wright puts it, "From the very beginning, those most closely involved knew this could not be a charitable exercise." In 1913 the Librarian at Columbia University in New York called for a study of interlibrary loans, examining first the costs and then everything else. In 1922 the Director of Princeton University Library wrote, "We are here dealing with a business problem, not a sentimental nor directly an education one. It has to do with making dollars produce results." And so the list goes on. Charges for loans started to become much more common in the US during the 1930s as the effects of the Great Depression began to bite hard, though the settling of debts resulting from interlibrary loans had been a feature of German librarianship for much longer, according to Wright. The American Library Association ran what would now be called a cost-benefit study on interlibrary loan in the 1950s.
The Golden Age of Libraries?
The purpose of offering this long list of statements declaring the need to make libraries operate like good businesses, and specifically the need to recover costs on interlibrary loans, is to make it clear that for most of this century librarians have had to keep a careful eye on costs and have been willing, when necessary, to charge for services rendered. The only reason this is not so readily accepted today, I contest, is because of the impact of just a few years in the middle of the century the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The large increase in budgets given to public sector libraries in most Western countries in the 1960s must be considered for its impact on the prevailing philosophy of librarianship. Instead of having to watch costs carefully, library managers suddenly had more money than they knew what to do with. This highly significant change to the librarian's world made a huge impact on subsequent developments.
I have often called the 1960s and 1970s the "golden age" of public sector librarianship. Throughout the Western world the dominant political philosophy was "social democracy", meaning, broadly, the levying of high taxes to pay for social welfare programmes and many other "public good" projects. Public and academic libraries, which qualified as "public good" expenditures, entered a sort of paradise. It was during these years that I first worked in a public library, and I was staggered at the way managers would go looking for projects on which to spend their budgets. Managers' pet projects, that I thought then, and still think of, as being just plain "daft", were given the green light and used up plenty of taxpayer's money. Now think about this. If you are a library manager and you have at your disposal a very nice materials budget, you can start to take a rather altruistic view of your role. Money is no longer so important to you quite enough of it appears in your budget on a regular basis, courtesy of the taxpayer. All those messy interlibrary loans, for example, can be paid for by your library without any need to pass on costs to the borrowing library and the individual customer at the other end.
The significance of this lies in the demography of modern-day librarianship. A large number of today's senior managers started their careers during the "golden age" of librarianship. It was also during this period that many Western librarians travelled the world introducing their ideas to Asia, Africa and Oceania. These ideas were influenced, naturally enough, by the prevailing philosophies of the day. It is my belief that many countries in Asia are still heavily influenced by the philosophies introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. Young Asian librarians were told (and who were they to question?) that libraries were innately "good" and must be supported by the public purse. All libraries must offer "free" products and services. I still hear this argument today.
A New Political Philosophy
The problem is that the prevailing political philosophy has changed quite dramatically since then. Many Western countries have dropped their tax levels with an inevitable reduction in the size of the public purse. Public services are now given much smaller budgets. If managers protest about reduced funding, they are told they must find their own sources of revenue. The "market" now dominates our thinking, and instead of passive "users" we use the active term "customers". Decisions have to be made about charging for services because there is not enough money to pay for everything we used to do. Anyway, the old adage about offering a "free" library service always was a lie. It was never free; it was paid for by the taxpayers.
It just so happens that I approve of current political philosophies. So in the eyes of my young students I am a crusty old conservative (at best) and a hated right-winger (at worst). I put the argument to them in simple terms. I don't like paying taxes, so I approve of current low(ish) tax rates in New Zealand, Singapore and other places in the Asia-Pacific region. Public service managers such as librarians have to deal with what is really quite a simple problem. As a hypothetical case, they want to offer services that cost $1 million. If the government will give them $1 million, there is no problem. The chances are, though, that the government might give them around $200,000, so they have to make choices about what services they will offer and what they will not. If they want to offer some services at no charge, then they can't offer all the other services that will carry their total costs over the $200,000 mark. Here my students interject, "But the government MUST give the library $1 million because it is a "public good". Well, so is the police force, so are swimming pools, so are evening classes on flower arranging, and they don't get all the public funding they request. What is the solution chosen for public swimming pools? They charge for use. In the same way public sector libraries can charge for use if they wish to offer products and services that cost over and above the levels of funding they receive from the taxpayer.
A Library Is a Business
My point is this: the evidence shows that for 100 years librarians have been conscious of the need to run their libraries in a business-like manner to get the best out of every dollar. They have not been afraid to pass on costs when charging has helped them provide a service their own budgets could not afford. The only deviation from this came in the 1960s and 1970s, and it is the impact of that aberration which lingers in today's cries for a "free library service". Let's forget it. That idea is dead and buried, and it isn't coming back.
Witness the Association of Research Libraries' commitment to the North American Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery Project, which is taking a hard-nosed look at costs involved with this aspect of library service. The National Library of New Zealand has recently moved to full cost recovery for interlibrary loans, having tried to avoid it for many years. It is not just interlibrary loans I am talking about; they are just an example for similar products and services. The National Reference Library of Singapore now has cost recovery for its suite of audiovisual services. They claim this rationalises the use of expensive services quite effectively that is, customers make choices about how much they value each service and don't use it beyond their needs, thus making that product or service more readily available to other customers. The application of the market to business affairs was always going to be accepted very readily in Asia. It is now necessary for Asia's librarians to abandon delusions about "free" services. Western librarians have been responsible for good and bad things over the years. I believe we did a major disservice to Asia by carrying a naive message in the 1960s and 1970s when a look at the larger picture would have shown this to be a mere blip. Forget the free library service. It's time to love the market.
Philip J. CalvertAssociate Editor of Asian Libraries
Wright, C. (1997), "From barter to business: a moral history of charging for interlibrary loans", in Gould, S. (Ed.), Charging for Document Delivery and Interlending, Papers from the IFLA Workshop on Charging, held during the 62nd IFLA General Conference, 29 August 1996, Beijing, Boston Spa: IFLA Programme for Universal Availability of Publications, pp. 23-30.