August 22nd, 2017

Libraries, Personnel Costs, Automation, and Jobs

I observed at a meeting of our local library system recently that the 40,000 foot financial view of our library system is 70% of expenditures on personnel, 10% on collection (buying books), and the remaining 20% keeps the lights on, which includes computer systems, the cost of transporting books from branch to branch, office supplies, furniture maintenance, and all the other minor expenses that go with any business. I spent a few minutes researching and found that this distribution is fairly typical nationwide.

Dealing cards at Harper Reserve on the South Side

I worked in a library for the first time in about 1970, working part time on the desk at Harper Reserve in the University of Chicago library system checking out books and other documents that instructors had placed on reserve for students in their classes. In those days, record keeping was all manual. As I remember, each book had two cards in a little pocket pasted to the inside back cover. Patrons entered their name and borrower number on each card for each book they checked out. Part of the checkout process was to verify that a legible borrower number on the card matched the number on the patron’s library card. One card was filed by call number (the equivalent of author, title, and edition), the other was filed by due date. I may not remember all of this exactly, but I think we were able to determine who checked out each book, and the books due on a given date, but it was nearly impossible to provide a patron with a list of books they had checked out. If they didn’t know what they had, they would not find out until we nailed them with an overdue fine.

After a few months experience, library workers learned to handle three-by-five cards like Las Vegas black jack dealers and put a stack of cards in alphabetic or call number order without thinking about it. Does anyone besides me remember the sorting gizmos with A-Z plastic flaps?

It isn’t nostalgia

I haven’t gone into detail on these obsolete practices for nostalgia. I want to compare it to present practice. Almost all the work of the circulation desk of those days has been eliminated. Accurate alphabetization while thinking about what to say to the girl who sits across the table in Western Civ class is no longer a bankable skill. The activities that most of my cohort were hired to perform are now part of a computerized integrated library system. The checkout station scanner scoops up the bar code on the patron’s card and the bar codes on each item to be borrowed. The computer system takes it from there. In our library system today, a patron can check out a book at our “Express Library” with no human contact or touch. Only a few tasks I was paid to do at Harper Reserve in 1970 are still performed by human beings today: getting books for patrons from the shelves, re-shelving them from the return bin, and shelf-reading (checking for miss-shelved materials), all tasks that involve physically handling the books.

Integrated library systems

The system does a better job than we did in 1970. It’s faster and more accurate (the computer is never distracted by thoughts of the girl across the table in Western Civ), and the computer tells the patron which books they have checked out, when they are due, and offers them an opportunity to renew, all on a web site pleasantly decorated by a skilled graphic designer, instead of talking to a bored student who smells like wet wool.

The integrated system does it all, and does a much better job than we did in 1970. You would expect that personnel costs as a share in the budget would have shrunk significantly, since much of the work done by personnel in 1970 has been shifted to computer systems, which are funded as overhead, not personnel or content.

Library personnel today

This takes us back to the 70-10-20 split in library expenditures. I find it surprising that libraries still invest 70% of their revenues in staff. Investing in human beings is good, but I have to understand how it works for libraries. Today, we worry that digitization is eliminating jobs and making decent livelihoods a prerogative of a privileged few. I have no idea what the present equivalent of “Harper Reserve” is like at the University of Chicago today, but I do know a little about what happens today in our local public library branches.

I have not been able to find reports on the distribution of public library budgets in the 1970s, but I am willing to guess that they have stayed about the same because it simply feels the same to me. I notice that libraries today focus much more on hands on customer service as opposed to the rote work that took up time in the past. I argue that automation has freed up library workers for more productive purposes instead of eliminating jobs. Checking for legible checkout forms, shuffling cards, and poring over bins of paper slips to fish out circulation records is not good use of a human resource. Humans are better used in helping a patron find the book they need or want, by speaking to them and leading them to the resource, putting out informative displays, directing useful programs, and any number of tasks only humans can perform well.

Jobs and unemployment

Can this model be applied to other endeavors? Sometimes yes, but it’s hard for me to imagine finding a more human task in a factory for a punch press operator who has been replaced by a robot. Certainly, their are better uses for people outside of factories, but that is cold comfort for workers who have earned their living from their patience and diligence rather than special skills. Patience and diligence have always been, and still are, honorable human traits, but they are exactly what automation supplies cheaply and abundantly. Hence, they are devalued in many settings.

This, I think, is sad.

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