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The death of quality public libraries?

You hear the story from university executives and VCs all the time. Science, mathematics and economics are out – sports management, media studies and marketing are in. The reason, they say, is demand. Students, as consumers, prefer the latter to the former.

I have never accepted this view for an instant since the two parties transacting (teachers and students) have asymmetric information. Suppliers of student services have much better information than students have as consumers of these services. This potentially creates a ‘lemons problem’ with universities offering inexpensive less intellectually challenging courses to clients who are in a poor position to judge their worth. Moreover, in the Australian university scene, any queries about academic direction get the same response – everyone else is doing it, why not us? A bad eventual equilibrium from such shallow thinking is that the ‘bad’ courses drive out the ‘good’ and universities end up teaching only poor courses. It hasn’t happened yet everywhere but it can.

Indeed, I have never liked to think of students as ‘consumers’. University teachers are in much the same position as physicians receiving patients who seek medical advice. The responsibility of a physician is not to meet any perceived demand for services but to offer accurate medical advice. Ditto for universities – it’s a moral responsibility not to offer a second rate educational product.

In this week’s Wall Street Journal (I can’t find an electronic link but a briefer blogged version of the main idea is here) an analogous point is raised in relation to public libraries. John Miller notes that, while ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is perhaps Ernest Hemingway’s best novel, nobody has borrowed it from the Fairfax Public Library in Washington for 2 years. And now the ‘bell may toll for Hemingway’ – the library director will get rid of the book on the basis of such evidently low demand. Books by Charlotte Bronte, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have already been pulled.

Libraries will accordingly come to accommodate mainly cheapskates with mass tastes. They will not be cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been written but simply operate to subsidize the reading habits of a mass audience too cheap to buy their own low-level reading – mass circulation books are, after all, cheap these days. You can even download audio books into MP3 players. And, from this perspective, why have public libraries at all? Are libraries outmoded? Do they now provide mainly welfare for middle-class readers who are too stingy to shell out a few dollars for the latest Stephen King trash that you can buy discounted at Target?

John Miller argues that:

‘Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers have, using a good dictionary as the model. …New words come and old ones come out, but a reliable lexicon becomes the foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends’

Miller sees librarians as experts who are teachers, advisors and guardians of an intellectual inheritance – not as clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their ‘customers’ want.

I agree. Libertarians and ideologically-disposed free market economists take tastes as something immutable and god-given that production emerges to satisfy. Tastes are not exogenous in this sense – they are determined, in part, by commercial interests and capricious fashion as well as by ‘lemons problem’ market failures. Libraries (and universities) should exist to help preserve what are valuable beliefs and preferences. Neither libraries nor universities should be run purely on the basis of demand signals from poorly-informed customers.

There are links between the two ‘lemons’ issues here – books and universities. The next time you visit a large university bookshop compare the number of books for sale on tourism, marketing (or, even worse, feminism or Marxism) with the number of books on mathematics or science. Its an important index of university quality though one that I am certain the market-driven ideologues running mmodern universities would be embarrassed to embrace.

10 comments to The death of quality public libraries?

  • N. Pepperell

    Very good post. To pick up on your points about university course offerings: I’ve made very similar arguments (not claiming to have made them in as sophisticated a way). The problem doesn’t simply emerge from the libertarian side of the equation: I’ve been having discussions recently with well-intentioned folks who are definitely not libertarian in their leanings, but who are worried that “traditional” academic courses might be “elistist” in privileging certain forms of knowledge. To which my response has been (1) that it may be much more elitist to assume that certain categories of students might not be able to master “traditional” academic courses and (2) if the knowledge transmitted in such courses improves students’ abilities to operate effectively in our social world, we are disadvantaging students if we fail to expose them to these skills in a systematic way…

    I also tend to think that some folks may be overly afraid of how students will react to higher academic standards: students learn what university is, what it requires, what it means, what it can equip them to do, mainly from us. If we are sending the message that we expect them to be bored by difficult material, that we’re unsure whether they can handle it or whether it’s “relevant” – then this is the message they’ll take away. If we present students with high expectations, combined with the confidence they can meet these expectations and will have more control over their lives once they have done so – then they’ll take away something very different…

    So yes: demand is not a static given that lies beyond analysis, and we are professionals with an expertise that carries with it a level of moral responsibility to our students that, in some cases, sits in tension with treating education as a standard consumer good…

  • russ

    I stopped going to public libraries quite a few years ago now. They have too few interesting (meaning novel or unexpected) books; the ones they have are generally outside the subject areas that I want to read; and the ambience of a modern civic library is of a child-care centre. I’d much rather browse the shelves of a bookstore.

    That article reminded me of an essay about a place I must visit sometime though: The London Library (also here). Both articles give a good sense of why keeping books on shelves is part of the libraries’ task. Not that you can compare a library that acquires 8000 books a year for a century and half to your average town library.

  • conrad

    np: You obviously work in a different university system to me.

    At least for undergraduate eduacation, as far as I can tell, the best correlate of high marks on those end of course surveys is how easy the course was. Given that some universities (and the government) tell people to make sure they get high marks on these, I don’t see any moral responsibility at the level of the individual for giving easy courses to maximize this.

    Apart from this concern, it is also much easier to teach an easy courses, since you don’t get constant complaints and don’t need to help people that evidentally haven’t worked out how to help themselves by going to the library etc. (or in fact were probably passed through by the people before them). You also don’t have to sit in committess and do extra stuff for students that have failed — including put up with all the threats etc. that happen in these situations.

  • Andrew Norton

    Harry – The curious thing is that the university trends you identify are hard to find in aggregate level statistics. I’ve been working on a paper on graduate employment this week, and suprised even myself to find that completions in the sciences actually increased the share of the total over the last decade (despite soft demand), and the health disciplines declined in relative terms, despite demand vastly exceeding supply. This is not a market at work.

  • N. Pepperell

    Conrad – Not sure how to read your comment? My post was meant to indicate that a number of my colleagues share – perhaps for different reasons – a sense that we should be offering easier courses, and that students prefer such courses: so I think we’re probably working in a quite similar system… I seem to be given responsibility for courses that are perceived (whether correctly or not is another thing) as being at the “harder” end of the spectrum – probably because I’m quite low on the academic food chain, and others have the ability to pass to me those courses they expect to evaluate poorly… ;-P

    I’ve never, though, had a personal problem with student evaluation results – although I generally have to deal with a bit of student grumbling en route… My off-the-cuff guess would be that it’s because I put a great deal of work (yes, you’re right: it is more work…) in providing students with the support required to carry out more complex work. But I regard this as part of the function of the higher education sector…

    But I take your point that there are structural incentives to take an easier route. My initial post was a reaction to staff who, instead of complaining about these sorts of structural problems, were putting a kind of “moral” spin on the concept of offering easier, more “practical” courses. I find the “anti-elitist” moral spin on watering down traditional courses problematic at best…

  • Sinclair Davidson

    I wish “market-driven ideologues” were running universities.

  • hc

    Sinclair, I don’t like ideologues running anything. People need to look at the world as it is not through some ideological prism. Free markets work fine if there are no information failures but here there are. Most students don’t know what they want to study when they first enrol and most are in a poor position to judge quality. Academics have better information. Thus selling courses in this situation involves ‘lemons’ problems – competition need nolt advance the social advantage.

    If the point of your comment is to say that university administrators don’t have much business sense I agree. They mouthe the arguments for competition and so on but really don’t have a clue. That’s because they are not businessmen/women.

  • Sinclair Davidson

    While I do think information problems are a bit over-sold, I was making the latter point. A lot of university administrators use managerialism as a rhetorical tool, but have no understanding of markets or good business practices.

  • derrida derider

    A really intriguing argument, Harry. You’re drawing conservative – even elitist – conclusions from an approach generally identifed with economists of a moderate-leftist bent. I’ll have to think about it.

    To see what I mean, take your citing of the patient-doctor relation. This problem – “supplier-driven demand” – is usually cited as one of the justifications for socialised medicine.