Caption: East Lake County Library, Florida: Crime Scene
Like something out of Carl Hiaasen’s Everglades comes a tale of librarians gone rogue.
No, nothing to do with Medicare, the story tells of three staffers who invented a phony patron with a library card (Chuck Finley*, by name) and used the bogus card to check out thousands of books. Why?
To save, they claim, unused books from the trash bin. Supposedly, little used books - "How to Make Your Doll's House Special," "The Duct Tape Book", "Pugs for Dummies" and, Steinbeck’s classic, Cannery Row - were targeted by an automated weeding process – with little or no human interaction – and trashed, indiscriminately.
The perps say they intervened to “save the books” and, resourcefully, to save the library money from having to re-purchase the books fingered by this robotic inventory app.
A man bites dog story, it’s been re-cast and written about dozens of times. Most suggest the library staff are more to be sympathized with than to be condemned.
Some even see this as a Luddite reaction to dataism: “Is datification ruining the American library?” Hyperventilating, an article suggests, “it’s the blind adherence to data over human judgment, the use of data as a shackle rather than a tool.”
I’ve rarely heard such a positive assessment of human judgment. I thought, according to the latest elite thinking, we were mostly irrational creatures and would benefit greatly from robotic nudges now and then.
Back to East Lake. With little evidence, we are asked to believe there is rampant, unchecked decision-making by machines, decisions best left to humans.
Others see the shenanigans as the little guy (Ned Ludd type) getting one back against the brutal anonymity of the bureaucracy.
I’ve seen similar monkey business – much more duplicitous than pumping up borrowing statistics - when Google began to siphon off thousands of questions from libraries, their bread and butter, so to speak.
As I explain in “Google, the World’s Information Desk”,
only a few libraries, at the beginning of the decline, confronted and capitalized on the amplified need – due to un-vetted sources on the Internet (fake news is hardly new) - for robust information seeking and finding skills.
Mysteriously, after a marked drop off, the tallies of questions continued to rise.
Looking back, libraries lost about 40% of market share to Google.
The lost opportunity cost had to be staggering, but this is nothing new. Too many of us resist change until we are exposed, laughed at, and finally asked to justify what we are doing.
Ethically, the skullduggery in the East Lake Library is seen as good guys trying to beat the bad, King Data. What’s the harm, these forgiving types ask, the pettifoggers were not in it for personal gain?
Well, how different is this, apart from scale, from the flimflam of Wells Fargo workers opening up unwanted banking accounts for customers? No harm done.
How different is this monkey business from automaker VW surreptitiously installed software to defeat emission checks? No harm done?
Or, is it all A-OK as long as others are doing it? The lead perp at East Lake claims that many libraries use dummy cards. That is probably true but those cards are not used to falsify library statistics but for work arounds to expedite service.
At least I hope so.
From a leadership aspect, I have to ask, “Why, if it mattered so much, did the culprits not talk with the head of the system and demonstrate that indeed little used valuable books were being sent to Siberia only to soon be back in demand?”
What was in the way of that open discussion?
A bad boss? Bad followers? Hard to say. Like the Hiaasen character trying to stuff a live roach into a partially opened Pepsi in vain hopes of a big legal payday, what a waste of human effort, of human ingenuity, of human communication.
*A baseball player (pitcher) of some renown, but more likely an appropriation (what else?) of a character’s alias in Miami’s "Burn Notice" TV spy show.
© Copyright John Lubans 2017