As with any other profession, librarians respond to the incentives built into their jobs. If they are rewarded – professionally, financially, morally – for providing service to the public, more often than not, that’s what they’ll do. If, on the other hand, they are incentivized to limit access to their services, and rewarded for not serving information needs, that’s probably how they’ll perform, too.
On our Beyond Access assessment visits, we’ve heard now in several countries about local auditing laws that hold librarians personally and legally responsible for the library’s property, including books. Today, on the first day of our visit to the Philippines, the director of the National Library described this situation to us. Here, the property department puts on record all of the possessions of the library including equipment and books. Even books that are donated must go onto the library’s register. Then, the property’s presence is regularly verified by local government auditors. If anything is missing or broken, the value of the item is deducted from the librarian’s pension.
The incentive structure is clear – the fewer users, the fewer risks. The fewer risks, the less chance there is something could be lost with a significant personal financial impact. Should books be damaged or lost by a patron, there is a rather complicated system by which a library can be relieved of its ownership responsibility, but the process as described seems like such a hassle, it is difficult to see how it would provide much of a counter-incentive. One can imagine under this system the frightening prospect of a library taking on computers – an item at even greater risk of damage.
There is an understandable logic behind the law – if property is not protected, there is a chance that civil servants would just walk off with it – especially when it might be valuable. But the inflexibility of the law or any adaptation to libraries’ fundamental mission creates a system that contradicts that which presumably libraries should be oriented towards: Getting knowledge out, rather than restricting its dissemination. The hard lesson for us is that when we talk about libraries and development, there’s a lot more than changing perceptions or promoting new models – there’s a whole ecosystem within which the library exists that must be rethought and reoriented towards a 21st century mission if libraries are to become more relevant.