What Librarians Can Learn from (and, yes, I’m serious) Accountants

One of my favorite Monty Python works, is the famous “Accountancy Shanty” coming from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. With the lyrics “It’s fun to charter an accountant and sail the wide accountant-sea,” it’s obviously a satirical look at the idiosyncracies of your friendly neighbourhood bean counter.

Five Accountant-ish Things for Librarians to Know

Well, put your accountant jokes aside. Accountants know things that librarians also should know about. Here are five examples:

  • Relevant Costing

The Principle: Poor decisions in the past should not effect future cost decisions.

Example:

A key priority for your library is the quick circulation of books, DVDs and whatnot. You spent $50,000 on a design for a circulation desk that has made your library’s ability to circulate books even worse. Another product comes along that will improve circulation, but involves losing the old design and spending another $10,000. Whether or not you decide to spend the $10,000 would depend on a lot of things, but the most important thing you should *not* say is “but we invested $50,000 in the old machine, we can’t lose it now.”

Explanation:

You can’t take back a bad decision. Mistakes can be embarrassing and hard to admit, but you can make the problem worse by letting past mistakes impact future correct decisions. While you can learn from mistakes, you should do your best to make sure they do not have a continued lifecycle in your organization. Some times its just better to let go.

  • Gross Margins

The Principle: In business, it’s a measure of your revenue over your cost of good sold; in a public organization, you could think of your margins as the value to the user divided by the budget you put into the service.

Example:

There are two ways to see margins in a library context. 1) You provide a service that patrons love, but for reasons outside your control costs keep creeping up. 2) Costs remain the same to provide a service, but the value to the customer drops over time.

Explanation:

Margins are something to be watched over time. In a business, your margins show the “markup” of your sales per-unit. When these decrease over time, it suggests that managers ought to find ways to reduce product cost — usually through innovation of some sort.

In libraries margins are harder to quantify but that does not mean they are not relevant. Seeing an overall service that uses up the same amount of budget, but appears to lack its old lustre is also a sign that creative heads should bang together for ways to improve the service.

  • Current Ratio

The Principle: Your current assets (mostly cash) over your current liabilities (payable accounts etc.) that measures a firm’s ability to cover short-term debt obligations.

Example:

A general rule of thumb for your average business is that your current assets ought to be twice that of the current liabilities. This basically means that if you want to close up shop, you can do so fairly quickly.

Explanation:

Flexibility is a key component of a good library service. The best projects are the ones you can close up quickly when things do not work out, or priorities change. It’s very important to have a few added resources on hand to adapt to user expectations when you are launching something out into the world.

  • Net Present Value

The Principle: You should always take a lump sum of cash now versus the same amount of cash provided over a period of time (present value);  you need to consider the time value of money when you make costing decisions.

Example:

Two vendors are offering an equal product.   One asks you to pay $10,000 up front, with no payments later on; the other wants to charge you $15,000 over 5 years ($3000 per year).   Which one should you go for?

That would depend on one essential variable:  the interest that you could make on the money you spent over time.   With an assumed 5% interest rate, the value of $10,000 in five years would be $15,591 over 5 years.     A $3000 investment over 5 years on the other hand would be slightly less at $15,576.    The bottom line, however, is that you could always take your money and put it into a bank to collect interest.   If your projects do not provide more value over time than what you put into them, then you should not do them.

Explanation:

Understanding the importance of time on the value of a dollar can be very helpful.   Pumping large amounts of money into an investment that will produce the benefit over a long period of time may not be as effective as a sustained small investment with immediate and logical benefits.   While large, expensive projects can certainly boost a resume, you can provide better bang for buck to your patrons by offering simple, adaptable and logical services over time.    That’s why open source hell (offering open source projects that require later investment of resources) may not be as bad as expensive proprietary hell (expensive projects that may stay fresh longer).

  • Opportunity Costs:

The Principle: The true cost of an activity is equal to the value of doing the next best alternative.

Example:

By choosing to go to graduate school for two years to become a librarian, you gave up two years worth of a potential non-librarian job (plus the advances in pay/experience/seniority that go along with that job).    That’s fine if your librarian earnings now make up for that lost revenue;  it’s not if you could have been making more.    Also, you do not have to think about it always in terms of money.   You could think about it in terms of the happiness lost because you couldn’t join the yacht club/drink more beer/start a family sooner.

Explanation:

Anything you choose to do (or not) has a cost in that you could be doing something else with the same time and resources.     Lots of time spent on pet projects with marginal value has a cost equal to that of the project you could be doing if you were not doing the current project.

Innovation can be another factor.   Put your employees to work on mundane projects with no learning value and you could be risking the benefit of skills and knowledge that come with doing exciting and innovative work.   All in all, thinking about what else you could be working on is an essential skill that librarians can learn from accountants.

Summary

Just because people come from a different environment does not mean that libraries cannot learn from them.   Learning from other groups can make librarians better.   Accountants are one of these groups.    Can you think of other professions we can learn from?

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National Film Board of Canada Has a Twitter Account

From the Myths On My Shoulders blog, the National Film Board of Canada has opened a Twitter account.

I’m a big advocate at watching what other industries do with services to see what might work for libraries.   While in its infancy, I am pretty interested to see what the Film Board will use the account for.   There may be plenty we can learn from these innovative folks.

The ALA Code is Not Enough: Thoughts and Case Studies on Librarian Ethics

Sarah Houghton-Jan, the illustrious Librarian in Black brought up the issue of ethics in libraries reminding us to post the ALA Code of Ethics on our office walls. She also points to a post by BlogJunction highlighting two other studies

Ethics are extremely important, but I am here to say that a statement of a code is not enough. Statements of Codes were a fad in the 90s when accountability in governments became a serious issue. People wanted quantitative measures and performance standards, where they may have been seeing patronage appointments and bureaucratic privilege. Many such codes exist in wide areas. For example, the Values and Ethics Code for the Canadian Federal Government came out in 2003, as an explanation for various government policies around accountability and public responsibility.

In my view, these codes are much too general to be useful, and really are more a promotion piece for the general public than they are any assurance of actual ethical behavior in the industry. I find practical things to be more useful. That’s why I am going to chat about four different “things ethical.”

1. Do Not Put Library Values Before Core Human Values

The most important values in library service have nothing to do with libraries. If you want to be ethical, you ought to be the sorts of things that make a good doctor, lawyer, accountant or whatever. In this order, these are the values you should aspire to:

  • Integrity — Your word is your bond. You do what you say you are going to do and it matters to you lots when projects do not come through they way they should.
  • Honesty — You do not lie, even when it hurts.
  • Accountability — You take responsibility for what happens under your watch, and refrain from the blame game when the results do not come through (yes, even if some jerk didn’t do what they said they would do). Then, you take the appropriate actions to fix those problems if you can.
  • Compassion — You never behave as an automaton. Rules and policies often do cause harm to some at the benefit to others — you see your job as making the harm as little as possible when this happens (eg. when the library fines happen to cause serious financial grief, you do everything within the bounds of library policy to lessen the impact this has on your patrons).

Librarians and Library Associations are so often focussed on their status as professions that they miss the core points related to any public service. Be good first; be a good librarian second.

2. Ethics is Hard: The Case of the Justified Whistle-blower

Sometimes, the most obvious right thing to do is, in retrospect the absolute worst thing to do. The most serious example I can think of is the issue of whistle blowing in the public service. [NB: this case is entirely fictional and any reference to real persons is coincidental].

Say you discover that a high-ranking manager is purposely giving out jobs to family members and no one appears to be doing anything about it. This sounds like a case where someone ought to provide a quick tip off to that favorite investigative reporter, so they can get to the bottom of this heinous practice. It’s the ethical thing to do after all, isn’t it?

Well, actually, no it isn’t. While sometimes necessary, and cases like Watergate and the Sponsorship Scandal make it appear heroic, whistle-blowing often puts the interests of the whistle-blower waaaaay ahead of the public interest, which is a core no-no in ethical terms.

The main reason is this: for institutions to provide good, a trust among elected officials who make policies and the hired bureaucrats who have to implement them needs to be strong. A media feeding-frenzy on nepotism in libraries would have a serious impact on that trust, causing distortions in policy that cost the public much more than the simple act of nepotism ever would. In short, your selfish act (see below for why it is selfish) ends up costing patrons access to information, which if you really think about costs lots in terms of health, education and general well-being.

Whistle-blowing can be the only way out of a situation, but it should never be the first option. You should only whistle-blow under the following conditions:

  • You have the facts very straight, with objective, concrete evidence to prove it.
  • The top official (the CEO or director) knows about the problem and has done nothing.
  • The problem is of a very serious, life-threatening nature and the impacts are imminent (ie. there isn’t any time to resolve the problem).
  • A more broad understanding of the problem would not result in a logical understanding of why the problem is the way it is.

In short, whistle-blowing should only be done when there is no other way out. Finally, if you do have to whistle-blow, you ought to do it under these conditions:

  • the information ought to go to the person or group who could most effectively deal with the problem (almost never the media). In this case, the manila envelop might go to the a library board member, the city HR administrator or the police, depending on the circumstances (again, assuming that the CEO/Director knows the problem exists and has done nothing).
  • think about your motives for blowing the whistle. Do you really want to stop the nepotism, or do you just want to see that high-horse manager with egg on his/her face?
  • whistle-blowing is almost never a career-making move, even when it’s justified. Even Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, remained in hiding until well into his old age.

This is all to say that the first action that comes to mind may not be the most ethical action after all.   Forget Blink, you have to think before acting.

Ethics Hurts

(Again, this case study is entirely fictional. If I seem to be describing anyone, it’s a coincidence. Besides, the people I work with are all perfect anyway.)

The media is full of former employees and/or customers who accuse institutions of heinous acts and yet ethics tends to suggest that institutions are not allowed to defend themselves. You may be accused of all kinds of things that are untrue, so much that it would be very tempting to demonstrate in clear terms why that employee or customer came to dislike you so much.

Appearance and reality are definitely two different things, and librarians being the committed-to-truth sorts of people they are may want to breach confidentiality to reduce the amount of gump out there. But the important thing to remember is the “put your own interests behind the public interest” piece.

Ethics are Contradictory

If you haven’t already figured it out, I have already said “honesty” and “integrity” are the most important values on one side of my mouth, and on the other side said “don’t rat on your boss” or “don’t tell the truth about that disgruntled patron.”

That’s the reason why I think ethical codes are so problematic. Honesty and Integrity ought to be the default settings for your behavior, but sometimes you have to change those settings to suit the circumstances.  Perhaps the 5th and most important value is this:

  • Alertness — the mind is constantly open and aware of both the small details and the big picture.

The ethical person may even be aspiring toward divinity in this regard. That might be very theocratic of me, but from where do we get “goodness” if our imaginations cannot perceive an “ultimate goodness.”

And if that’s the case, then I ought to add one more value: humility.   Ethics might be the very humbling process of trying to be as good as a god.  Like I said, ethics is difficult.

Swimming the Web

I am a great fan of Judy Blume.   So much so that I have started reading her books (somewhat prematurely) to my four-year-old son.   The most recent entry is Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.  It was timely, since my four-year-old is now learning to swim.

If you don’t know the book, then suffice it to say that a major part of storyline involves a young girl who is dragged kicking, screaming and punching to swimming lessons.   More importantly, it highlights how water can instill extreme and irrational fear in a person; and extreme pride when this fear is overcome.

I get asked about Internet Safety alot too.   One of the things I cover, fairly flippantly is that in order to protect their children from the risks on the Internet, parents have to learn about technology.   Now, I realize that swimming may be the most important analogy.    If you want to protect your children from drowning, you ought to 1) know how to swim yourself  2) teach your children to swim well and/or 3) force them to take swimming lessons.  Why wouldn’t we see the same being done for Internet Safety?

Of course, there are fairly specific differences here.   Beaches have life guards to protect young people from drowning, and drowning is a much, much more likely cause of harm or death in young people than anything having to do with Internet safety.   Libraries cannot expect governments to put the kinds of resources into Internet safety as they do for swimming lessons.

On the other hand, school libraries, public libraries and I daresay, even academic libraries have a role here.   The trick is that we may or may not be seen as the source for training in online safety.   And a series of moral lessons on the hazards of online surfing is not likely to attract a lot of attention.

Perhaps we ought to say, “if you have kids, and surfing the web isn’t your thing, you ought to at least know how to swim the web.”   After that, we should offer technology training focussed on the ability of parents to understand what the web does, how people connect on the web, and what, if anything, they can do to prevent anything from cyber-bullying, to media-stereotyping, to having the RIAA go after them.

Here are some potential modules for the training:

  • What’s free and what’s not on the web (copyright and creative commons)
  • Surfing with your clothes on (privacy and attention-getting on the web)
  • Going from digital to real life (how to meet safely meet an online friend in the real world)
  • Walking the Troll Bridge (discussing controversial issues online)
  • Internet Ninjistu (maintaining anonymity on the web)

But, most importantly, libraries need strategies to encourage parents to swim on the web.   They need to take a little water in their lungs to keep their kids safe.   Yes, on the web you may encounter ads that will promise to enhance various body parts.  You may even find porn or violence (although it’s a bit harder to find that stuff if you are not looking for it).   The point is, as adults, parents ought to be able to cope with these issues — particularly if their kids are using it.

The Life-Path of a Librarian

Steve, Iris, Rikhei & others are going through some kind of meme on why they are librarians. I think self-reflection is great. In fact, when I started this blog, that’s what I intended to do — take opportunities to look at the library world in ways that might reflect “others” in the world. This blog is my way of pretending I am not myself for a bit so I can look at what I do in a new light.

But to say I am pretending not to be myself is a little untrue as well, because I am a contrary person. I do not like to do things the way everyone else does them. That’s why I’m taking this meme and running with it in my own way. So instead of offering why I became a librarian, I am going to imagine a life-path that could very well produce a librarian. Kind of like a 30 second biography.

Librarians :

  • as babies. . . had parents who were less-than-skilled at “peek-a-boo.” That’s why they had to turn to books to get that “it’s gone — no it’s back!” sensation. Every turn of a book, of course, is a game of peek-a-boo!
  • as early schoolers . . . had someone in their life with the guts to give them a book that might offend their parents. Beowulf at six was my big entry into that world. All that blood and gore really showed me that there was a world my parents (and any other authority figures) could not take away from me.
  • at about 10 years of age . . . found a corner of the library where they could laugh and giggle to their friends about all the books with a 613.907 Dewey number (PDF warning). (They would share that “super secret” corner and the Dewey number with their peers of course).
  • as a pre-teen. . . never received “secret admirer” letters because all potential anonymous love interests knew they could figure them out [no, it’s not because librarians are too geeky to be admired].
  • as a teen. . . pretended to read Dostoevski, Trollope, Derrida etc. simply to expose their friends to the fact that these folks exist.
  • before they graduated high school . . . changed from sciences, to arts, to business, back to sciences, and was confused by the idea that anything resembling a specialization in these fields existed.
  • in college. . . confounded profs in discussions by injecting sources of information that the prof never heard of before.
  • before graduating . . . realized that specializing in a particular field was a) going to drive them insane and b) not going to get them a good paying job.
  • in library school . . . reminded themselves “this is temporary hell before getting to a rewarding job.”
  • before graduating . . . forgot most of what they learned in library school (not realizing that this was probably a good thing), but found someone who convinced them that they belong in the profession .
  • in their first job . . . practiced remaining calm, courteous and friendly in front of a mirror while pretending to be abused Hamburger Hill style.
  • by six months . . . after having one of the following happen to them, felt emphatically that they were meant for this job:
    • teen patrons saying hello out of a library context
    • helped someone through a serious health information inquiry
    • got a procrastinating student through a project due next weekend
    • found a weird object to classify and got it fixed nice and easy-like
    • saw a navigation issue with the website and found a logical way to fix it
  • by 2 years . . . learned something they ought to have learned in library school.
  • by 5 years . . . laughed at a library student who was worried about their library school grades.
  • on their first management job . . . started to see the reasons for all those crazy policies that got made in the previous 5 years.
  • yesterday . . . thought about why they became a librarian and pretty much decided “yeah, what Steve, Iris and Rikhei said.”