Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE TREES AND THE AXE”*

Posted by jlubans on September 25, 2014

Caption: The woodman pleading his case. Illustration by A. Rackham, 1912.

“A Woodman went into the forest and begged of the Trees the favour of a handle for his Axe. The principal Trees at once agreed to so modest a request, and unhesitatingly gave him a young ash sapling, out of which he fashioned the handle he desired. No sooner had he done so than he set to work to fell the noblest Trees in the wood. When they saw the use to which he was putting their gift, they cried, ‘Alas! alas! We are undone, but we are ourselves to blame. The little we gave has cost us all: had we not sacrificed the rights of the ash, we might ourselves have stood for ages.’"

In my 9-5 working days, some of what I did – like streamlining and reducing complexity - was viewed akin to the trees giving an ax handle to the woodcutter. One of my daily battle cries was to reduce backlogs. “He Never Met a Backlog He Liked” would serve well as my career’s epitaph. Many of my peers would do well under another: “They Never Met A Backlog They Didn’t Like.” If librarians had anything like “pissing contests” one of them was for bragging rights to the largest backlog, some numbering in the millions of unprocessed materials. They believed, among a multitude of lofty reasons, that a backlog was a good thing, a positive like inventoried factory orders; a guarantee there’d be work (and a raison d'être) into the next millennium. My take was that backlogs were a burden to the library and soured our relationships with readers and administrators. Backlogged, unavailable books, and other bottlenecks, congested access lanes, tied up beaucoup bucks in maintenance, created delays for readers, and harmed the image of the library and librarian as information provider.
I was not arming the woodcutter. In my day, every improvement, every backlog eliminated, resulted in freed up budget dollars for other library purposes; you see, we got to keep the money we saved. Not long after I'd left library land, higher powers applied mandatory budget cuts and forced previously unwilling managers to reduce expenses. The forced streamlining – a form of hostage taking: reduce costs, keep you job - did result in improvements, but the savings were surrendered to the central university budget to pay for more “with-it” programs, like an Olympic-size hot tub for the student union. While many of my former peers kept their jobs, the woodcutter was now loose in the library.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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