Dumbing down is a consequence of worshipping management skills
Dumbing down is a consequence of worshipping management skills instead of practising the true profession
writes David McMenemy.
"A recent article in the Washington Post treated the topic of the dumbing down of public libraries. It observed: ‘In an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah’s Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.’1 So this is a debate we are having not only in the UK.
In my own mind there is no question that public libraries are dumbing down. However, I see this is a symptom of a larger, potentially fatal illness that has infested all discourse on how public services are provided and how their value should be measured. Our profession is being strangled by managerialism. If we have the courage to slay this beast we will solve the dumbing down quandary.
Simply put, public librarianship is being killed as a profession by attempts to turn librarians into managers first and foremost. When that fails, as it rightly has as public librarians seek to practise the real profession, then, like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the public librarian is replaced by another type of professional. Or worse, we are told that libraries no longer need librarians, and they are replaced by non-professionals. Just ask Hampshire.
The logical end result is the same. Public libraries have a limited shelf life not because of anything the public or the librarians themselves have done, but because as a profession we have allowed management skills to be the professional competence we deify.
The harsh reality is that the well-educated, principled, vocal professional threatens the managerialist mentality. Professionals have allegiances way beyond the day-to-day running of their service. They see their role as having the best interests of their community and society at heart, even when that community does not know what is good for it.
They know the real value of the service; the profession’s core values are the same as when the profession was created. Professionals will fight for the good of the service society actually needs rather than the service it or a politician says it wants.
Managerialists go on about value for money, efficiency, quality of service. What they really mean is that we must do things as cheaply as we can. Questioning such notions makes you old-fashioned, out of touch with users. Their user manual is entirely corporate in its approach, with the irony being that many of them would last five minutes in the corporate world where they really mean the things public sector managerialists pretend they understand. The managerialist sees no problem in acting like they are running a mini-corporation and getting rid of the old ways of doing things.
Librarians do not have the skills to manage libraries we are told. This must be news to the world-class chief librarians who made our public libraries the envy of the world for 150 years. How would such luminaries as W.C. Berwick Sayers survive in today’s library world? There is no room for the scholar librarian in the modern public library service, which is why there is little real consideration of the scholar.
The managerialist believes the corporate sector is always right. The way public libraries buy books is wrong, because PwC has told us so. We must now accept that public libraries are actually bookshops – or should be – because we have a government with a managerialist mindset that has infected professions at dangerous levels.
Living in a professional world where Jade Goody is used in a major campaign to promote libraries, can anything else surprise us? A Street Corner University with Jade as its Vice Chancellor? And Richard and Judy its librarians?
We’re closer than we think!"
1 Lisa Rein. ‘Hello, Grisham – So Long Hemingway?’ Washington Post, 2 January 2007, p. A01. (www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/01/01/AR2007010100729.html ).
David McMenemy (David.McMenemy@cis.strath.ac.uk ) is Lecturer, Department of Computer & Information Sciences at Strathclyde University. He is the author of the forthcoming Facet Publishing title The Public Library (June 2007; 192pp; hardback; ISBN 978 1 85604 616 9; £31.96 to CILIP members). And he is co-author of Librarianship: the complete introduction (Facet, September 2007).