There have been some interesting discussions regarding the agendas of librarians lately, starting with a post from the Feral Librarian (Chris Bourg, Assistant University Librarian for Public Services for the Stanford University Libraries):
“There are those who prefer to think of libraries as neutral repositories of information, evolving in form and function in reaction to changes in higher education, in our patrons’ expectations, and in technology. In some ways, this vision of libraries seems value-free and agenda-less. But make no mistake about it – passivity, delusions of neutrality, and abdication of social responsibility are also agendas.”
She promises a future post detailing a “feminist and queer agenda for libraries”.
In response to Bourg, Barbara Fister from the Inside Higher Education blog wrote:
“This is the kind of thing you rarely hear from librarians. We have strategic plans, visions, goals, and values, but we generally shy away from agendas and often try quite hard not to have opinions, or at least we keep our opinions to ourselves, quite separate from our professional lives.”
Fister identifies traditional library agendas like being against censorship and plagiarism, supporting patron privacy, and encouraging the exploration of different points of view before making a judgment.
What about us?
What could a business librarian’s agenda be?
- Promoting unfettered capitalism and the inherent idealism of self-interest?
- Supporting job creation and economic development, which helps develop the tax base for government services like libraries and public schools?
- Developing both information- and data-literate students with strong business and entrepreneurship research skills that remain useful long after graduation?
Can a business librarian be radical? Hmm.
At the risk of sounding a little paranoid, sometimes in conferences I smell a whiff of disdain from librarians for what business librarians teach in our research workshops. Perhaps some of that attitude comes from folks who are a little afraid of business information and numeric data. But I’ve also been in small groups at information literacy programs with librarians intrigued and envious of the experiential learning and/or community engagement common in the classes we work with.
I remember a library school discussion in Chapel Hill in the 1990’s regarding if libraries should “do marketing”. One negative response was that “libraries shouldn’t be doing marketing – that’s a crass business-world activity”. (Of course, part of marketing is better understanding the needs and desires of your target market/customers/patrons.) With all the talk these days about outreach, innovation, and community engagement in libraries, the “libraries don’t do marketing” attitude may be an historical relic.
An agenda in action
The most visible opportunity I’ve had to act on any agenda was the development of our BB&T Reading Room in Capitalism, Markets, and Morality. I was surprised it took four years of work on these books before I finally get a concerned message regarding a perceived agenda behind the collection.
The Reading Room is one element of UNCG’s BB&T Program in Capitalism, Markets, and Morality, a program funded by the BB&T Charitable Foundation. The Foundation promotes an examination of free markets and Ayn Rand’s ideas. Several VIPs of BB&T, a large and growing regional bank, are big fans of Rand and encourage the reading of her books by their employees. I later learned that some UNCG administrators balked at accepting a grant focusing on the promotion of Rand, so the school worked with the Foundation to reframe the grant to focus on capitalism, markets, and morality. Many southeastern colleges and university worked out their own BB&T Foundation grants, usually with variant program names.
(During the most recent U.S. financial crisis, BB&T made national news for reluctantly accepting TARP funding after having testified in Washington against the TARP program. The bank had not embraced the risky mortgage markets like most of its competitors did and so really didn’t need the TARP funds. But all its competitors received TARP funding, so not accepting the government money would have put BB&T at a competitive disadvantage. BB&T paid back the TARP money as quickly as the government allowed. These developments – as well as the housing and financial crash itself — made the Randian focus of the BB&T higher-ups all the more intriguing at the time.)
At UNCG, most of the money went to funding education, lectures, and debates. The International Honors College, Department of Philosophy, and the Business School were most involved, but many events were advertised campus-wide.
The BB&T collection
The program also included $5,000 a year for five years toward library resources, plus money to establish and furnish the Reading Room. The room is really the stairs lobby of the 2nd floor of the old half of the library, near Special Collections & University Archives. (That’s an area that sees more librarian-traffic than patron traffic.)
I was not given a collection development policy for building this collection. There was an expectation that the existing Ayn Rand books in our collection would be moved to this reading room. Selecting other books about Ayn Rand and Objectivism (both pro and con) seemed logical. I couldn’t limit that selection to Rand and Objectivism — not many books about Rand or Objectivism are published each year, nowhere near $5,000 worth. I asked the first UNCG BB&T program director, a professor in Economics, if she had general suggestions. She just recommended a DVD set of interviews of prominent free-market economists. So I ended up with an opportunity to apply my own agenda.
I decided to collect from all points of view related to the broad themes of markets, morality, and capitalism:
- Ayn Rand & Objectivism
- Religious responses to capitalism (most of which comes from the Catholic tradition)
- Ethics of economics
- History of free markets and capitalism
- Ideological interpretations of the recent housing and financial crash
- Business ethics
- Corporate social responsibility
- Sustainability and environmental economics
Even with all those topics it took a lot of time to spend out the $5,000 annual budget. Many relevant titles had already come in to the library via the approval plan or firm-ordering, and we had begun our PDA offerings for ebooks. I didn’t want to duplicate those purchases (or potential purchases via PDA). So even as most of our liaisons were officially reducing our time spent on selecting books, I still had to struggle to find new unpurchased books worth adding to this collection. Frankly, I was happy when the fifth and final year of funding was over. Librarian workload can be an unexpected consequence of gifts like this.
Someone once snuck a library copy of Das Kapital in the room on a display rack.
A concerned graduate student
In the fourth year, the collection was temporarily moved to the first floor near the current literature and DVD collections – a much more visible and trafficked area – while the 2nd floor lobby and its bathrooms were being renovated. That was when the only serious inquiry about the nature of the collection came in.
A graduate student in the Communication Studies department sent an email to my library dean asking if it was appropriate for the library to host a collection developed from a major corporation. She was very concerned about the library opening itself to any corporate agenda. Around this time there were some stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education about large gifts to universities from corporations or CEO-types with well-known political agendas. The dean asked me to talk to the grad student.
Finally a reaction from someone to this collection! I was hoping to meet her but that never happened. We introduced ourselves via email and then I wrote how I didn’t receive any mandate for the collection from BB&T, the BB&T Foundation, or the UNCG program coordinators. (By now a professor of philosophy was in charge.) I told her about the types of books I had been looking for, and added that many related books (the approval and firm-order titles) ended up in the main stacks or were available as ebooks. She was relieved to learn those things and gave me a few suggestions for other environmental economics books, an interest of hers. That was it.
End of the project
The fifth and final year of funding for the BB&T collection was two school years ago. There’s not much shelf space left up there, so I’m not bothering to raid the main stacks to add new books to the BB&T collection. I would like to see the collection distributed back to the main stacks in the library tower so that all the economics books are once again in the same place. But given that the library funding included furnishing the space, our dean will probably want that room to stay in existence.
So there was my agenda in action. With the need to dig deep to find relevant books new to the library, I didn’t have much choice but to include titles representing diverse points of view and different aspects of free markets and ethical considerations. Was that neutrality an example of “abdication of social responsibility”? I don’t think so, not in this case.