Learning, the act of gaining knowledge, is a craft unto itself. It starts with questions - the what ifs, how abouts, whys, . . . leading from the unknown to the known, through inquiry, experimentation, travel, and of course pure accident.

This is about how it happens in my life.

Cost, Worth, Value and Markets

Being a Librarian, and one who firmly believes that any answer is only as good as the question that prompted it, I think the value of pretty much anything, including Information and those who serve it, can be found at the intersection of "What does it cost?" and "What is it worth?"  

Cost, of course, is not purely a monetary concept.  As much as economists get so many things wrong, the concept of "opportunity cost" is a useful one.  If I spend a dollar today, what purchase might I be foregoing tomorrow? If I play this video game for the next 4 hours, I will not be cooking dinner or studying.   Pretty much every thing comes down to this, or that.
As to "what is it worth?", well, that's a bit more nebulous.  I find the following instructive: the collapse of the planned economy model a la the USSR, what happened to Cuba post cold-war, and emerging issues in China, with entire shopping centres being built despite the lack of tenants or shoppers.
In other words, worth is variable, but far from arbitrary.

Somewhere in the analysis of cost and worth we find value.

I've mentioned before about my interest, both academic and practical, in how information goods, and thereby the services and people who work with such goods, are valued.   This is an important question, with implications for the continued existence of a (reasonably-) well functioning,  informed and engaged civil society.  Libraries that live in a more public sphere (public, academic, school) have historically been stalwarts in demonstrating how information is powerful only when it is accessible. They have amassed goodwill as a result.  The thing about goodwill, though, is that it is an abstract concept; you can't take it to the bank, it won't last forever, and can be eroded. 

Libraries, going forward, will need proof.  And since we're talking Value ie Cost vs Worth, we're talking about figuring all this out in some kind of marketplace.

I am intrigued by the hypocrisy found in almost every knowledge work environment, including Libraries, in regards to valuing information goods:
wages should reflect the vital and important contributions made by knowledge workers in some theoretical "here", (and they are never high enough!); 
meanwhile . . . .

the knowledge products (books, databases, subscription/fulfillment services) used to serve clients "here" acquired from some theoretical "there" are all over priced and "those people' should know better!*
(*this last bit a sentiment perhaps more common, but no less troublesome, in Libraries receiving some kind of tax dollar funding.)

Really truly: the idea that anyone in any work environment is above question as to contribution, activities, cost/benefit or otherwise is nonsense.  Leaving aside the utter ignorance of the school board lawyers in LA vis a vis teacher librarians, any response akin to "how dare you question the value of my work!?" is already starting from a point of dubious value.  

And really truly #2:  if you do great work and change lives, wouldn't you take advantage of EVERY OPPORTUNITY to tell people about it?

I've now paid over due fines to Toronto Public Library on 2 different but equally insightful books touching on this rather broad topic: 
The Price of Everything solving the mystery of why we pay what we do, by Eduardo Porter (ISBN 978-1-59184-362-7)
Moral Markets: the critical role of values in the economy, edited by Paul Zak (ISBN 978-1-4008-3736-6).

Porter's work is truly fabulous.  Chapter 6, titled The Price of Free, could be cribbed as justification of any kind of mediated information service.  While the proverb "the best things in life are free" is a satisfying appeal to heart and soul, I'd put my wager on "you get what you pay for" or "if it's worth having it's worth working for" when it comes to anything bigger than the warm fuzzies. I think Porter would agree.

The collection of essays in Moral Markets is a bit more work, but worth it.  Zak, along with the many other authors, riff on Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments as the essential companion to The Wealth of Nations. As much as the latter embraces the power of markets, the former insists on paying attention to the role of each individual in creating the wisdom and success of markets.   Homo Economicus would be as foreign to Smith as it is to us.

It is a shame when a profession wholly dedicated to helping people craft better questions, find better answers and generally be empowered by the breadth and depth of information available to them, seems in turn unwilling or unable to use those skills to ensure the profession is sustainable via the identification, documentation and communication of that empowerment.  Goodwill must give way to good evidence.

The fact is, every Library of every kind is operating in a dynamic marketplace dominated more by choice than quality.   Each Library must make quality the best choice by living it every day.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I think you make some great points here both about value and also about the contradictory nature of some positions taken.