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Academia, Libraries, Work, and the Public Good

As our public debate swirls around whether the working poor should go to college, whether academics work hard enough to justify their pay and social standing, and whether libraries are worth their budgets, it stikes me that we’re grappling with what it means to have value in our society. Faculty and librarians answer, “We work for the public good — education, access to the thoughts and works of others, and the critical thinking skills to make something of that access all create a better society.” But I think that may be answering a question that is not being asked, or answering it based on assumptions that are not shared. As a society, we’re questioning the fundamentals: From what capacities do we derive value? From what outputs can that value be measured? What, ultimately, contributes to the value of society as a whole — the public good? And what are the rewards for value in time, money, and social standing?

As I think on this, here are some of the voices I’ve heard giving compelling answers or asking compelling questions about these fundamental questions.

Do Librarians Work Hard Enough? by Barbara Fister

“We have never tried to corner the market on information or drive any other organization out of business. We’re the opposite of empire builders. We’re trying to preserve access to common ground where ideas can be shared openly, not a trading pit for buyers and sellers. We’re not serving customers, we represent the will of the people so they can help themselves and be part of a community that learns.”

The Last Enclosures by Timothy Burke

“I think it’s fairly simple. You know the classic “First they came for the X, then they came for the Y, and I did nothing, and then they came for me?” schtick? This is one of those stories. In fact, it’s the end of one of those stories. They already came for the doctors and the psychiatrists. They already came for the lawyers. They already came for the accountants and auditors. They already came for all the professions. Professors are the last to be broken on the wheel, the last to be put at their station in the new assembly lines of the 21st Century Service Economy.”

Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity by Sara Robinson

“Odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.”

Kathrine Rowe, while talking to Carleton humanities seniors yesterday about how their skills prepare them for work, in this case the work of software development.

“I have spent my life, my career, apprenticing myself to the study of acts of expression.”

“Humanists are trained to enquire if the questions being asked are the right questions and if the assumptions being made are the right assumptions.”