Let’s monetize thinking

Yesterday in the Observer there was a wonderful article on libraries and their function in the 21st century (here), and the various purposes they serve.

The most interesting part (well, it was all interesting — do read it), the most worrying part was, I thought, where one librarian told of the council wanting to ‘measure’ ‘outcomes’:

‘The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output,’ says Ian Stringer. ‘Output was how many books we’d stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that’s an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they’d had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they’d never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that.’

This seems to me to encapsulate the problem with so much of life, really since Thatcher — the idea that everything can be quantified, everything ‘monetized’. We don’t have public transport or publically-owned postal services because they make life a little better for everyone, make the world a slightly better place to live in, but only if they actually make money, not simply pay for themselves, or even cost something.

As one of the librarians said in the Observer article (really, do read it, I’m telling you), if anyone said today, let’s tell everyone we’re taking a bit of their tax-money to build a bunch of buildings, buy books and tell people they can come in and borrow them, all they have to do is return them, well, everyone would say they were nuts. What the piece doesn’t say is how our mindset has altered to make this proposition risible: that in the 19th-century, when the idea of public libraries was first formulated generally, the idea of doing something for the betterment of society seemed normal and worthwhile, while today it seems a joke, an alien concept.

I saw a bit of this myself when I was a baby copy-editor (oh yes, I get around). My nameless corporation (Penguin) invited a bunch of management consultants to ‘stream’, I think was the unattractive word, us to create a range of salary bands. They got each type of employee together and asked questions about what we did. But the questions were not, what did we do, but how did we ‘enrich’ our ‘product’, and what tools did we need to do said ‘enriching’.

Faced with the response that our tools (in those pre-computer days) were pencils and erasers, and that if we were really really really good at our jobs, our ‘enrichment’ was entirely invisible, they were flummoxed. Worse, looking back, I can see from the results that they went back to our Lords and Masters and said we were unnecessary: that our work could be done by anyone, and that paying salaries instead of freelance rates was simply untenable.

Sure enough, long after I left, the copy-editorial department was run down, and manuscripts, as in most publishing houses, are now sent out to freelance editors. There are many, and many are admirable, freelance editors, but what was lost was the pooled communal knowledge, the discussions of ‘What do you think if X’, or the ability for experienced editors to share that experience with younger ones.

To return to libraries: what we have is something that has no price — it is not a ‘profit centre’, it cannot be ‘monetized’. But yes, it ‘enriches’ all of us. To lose it because we cannot put our finger on ‘outcomes’ is a sign of how shallow our societies have become.