Libraries are wonderful places. There is nothing like a vast repository of knowledge, filled with undiscovered treasures for anyone who cares to look. They provide free access to information, both in book form and over the internet, to people would otherwise not be able to afford it. All in all, it’s a lovely service. But as much as I enjoy them, libraries also provide a useful example of the inefficiencies of the public sector and the numerous problems with government funded programs.
You may not realize it, but most librarian jobs these days require a specialized education – a master’s degree in the field of Library Science. The curriculum of such a degree varies from school to school, but the main focus is on using a variety of complex databases, as well as interacting with the public. Why is such a specialized form of education required to work in a library? It’s not like a degree in aeronautics or medicine where actual lives could depend on your competence. A quick search for the job duties of a reference librarian turns up the following: “A reference librarian provides assistance to users of a library who need help locating resources and information.” The average salary for a reference librarian? $39,659 – $55,008. Other library science related jobs can make as much as $100,000 a year.
Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. Locating information in a library database is not like searching Google. It requires specialized skills. You can’t simply type in what you want and expect to get it. The obvious question here is: why not?
The simple answer is that the public funding structure of libraries provides no incentive to improve things. In fact, it encourages just the opposite. Since the library’s budget does not depend on how many customers it pleases, there is no compelling reason to make things easier. Since a library’s revenues come from the public coffers and not from the pockets of voluntary patrons, there is no competitive pressure to keep costs low.
Librarians should prefer the archaic and difficult to use databases and card catalogues over newer, more efficient technologies, because the fact that no one else can use them makes them valuable and hard to replace. The large amounts of time and money required to obtain these jobs has driven wages up artificially and reduced opportunities for would-be librarians. Like all occupational requirements, Library Science degrees reduce competition for librarian jobs and allow them to charge more for their services. Never mind that large portions of their jobs are done more cheaply and efficiently by the private sector every day.
Clerks and customer service workers in bookstores, record stores and the few video stores that still exist help customers with “locating resources and information” without the aid of special degrees or large salaries. They make barely over minimum wage and learn on the job, rather than a two-year master’s program. On a personal note, I briefly held a job in a record store working for a wage of eight dollars an hour. A large part of my job was dealing with the public and helping them satisfy obscure and vague requests, as well as making recommendations to the ones who weren’t quite sure what they wanted.
Because I love music, I was already familiar with the internet’s major databases, specialty shops and auction sites. That these sites were easy to use is a testament to their private funding and financial incentive to generate traffic by crafting a superior product. Anything I didn’t know I quickly learned, and soon I was able to locate information about the most obscure release without difficulty. I was a librarian of music, only without the credentials or paycheck to match.
With a modernized database system, there is no reason that libraries could not function in the same way as bookstores: by hiring people who love books and know how to help people find them. If the Dewey Decimal system is harder to use than Amazon.com’s search engine, maybe it is the system that needs improving, not the standards for librarians.
I do not mean to be overly hard on libraries. As I said, I think they perform an important function and they possess a charm not found elsewhere in modern society. The library merely serves as an example, for which any publicly funded institution could substitute. The point is that without an incentive to keep costs down and modernize technology, we see aggressive rent seeking by those who wish to limit competition and inflate wages. Where the private sector is kept lean by competitive pressure, public institutions gradually grow bloated and inefficient over time.The more we can limit these backwards incentives, the better off we as a society will be.