Thursday, February 11, 2010
Libraries and the social contract
In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely talks about the market vs. the social contract. He demonstrated that once a service or relationship is assigned a dollar value, it is perceived as being a commodity subject to the rules of the market. In one example, he talked about how a daycare provider in Israel required parents to pick up their children by a certain time. At first, they just used the "social contract" method to enforce this rule. Then they decided to impose fines for late pick-ups. The moment they switched to fining parents, the number of parents picking up children skyrocketed! The assignment of a monetary value to the late pickup suddenly made it possible for parents to analyze the comparative costs for being on time vs. picking the child up late. More importantly, since the parents were now paying for late pickups, they no longer felt guilt about their lateness. The time had become something that they could simply purchase. When the daycare tried to revert - no longer fining the parents for late pickups - and instead relying on the guilt factor of the social contract, it didn't work out. Once the social contract had been broken, it couldn't be repaired (or at least not right away). In another example, attorneys were asked to do work for (if I recall correctly) a nonprofit group (that served the elderly???) at discount rates. No attorneys volunteered. Then the group asked for pro bono attorneys and a large number volunteered. They had shifted from a market mindset (the attorneys, when in market mode, wouldn't accept the low rate that was offered) to the mindset of being good citizens (the social contract).
I've been thinking (like so many of you) a lot about what kind of future we can expect for libraries - where libraries fit into people's lives today and whether or not they'll fit into people's lives at all in decades to come. What's our role, I keep asking myself. Where do we add value? I've tried to think about why so many well-read, educated, public radio-listening people I know don't use their public libraries. Is there a social contract between libraries and their community members? Can it be built upon / reinforced? Why do some members of the community feel so alienated from their libraries? What if we did simple appeals, like NPR, that made people feel good about just using their libraries (and if they wanted to up their engagement, contributing to it)? What if we reminded them that "being green" means consuming less and consuming less means borrowing (not buying) materials? I think the social contract is a really good way for libraries to explain their value. After all, where else can members of the public deal with an organization that has no ulterior motive, no strings attached, that is solely about providing them with information, education, entertainment, and community? What other organizations work on the thorny issues of protecting (not making money off of) their private information? What other organizations are actively grappling with digital preservation issues? Google has "scooped us" on so many other fronts, but they are a commercial interest and - although they claim "do no evil" as their corporate mantra - they don't have a social contract with the people like we do.