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if everything on the internet has to be free, why isn’t my healthcare, too?

October 11, 2010

hi. I’m alison. I’m a first-year LIS student, and this post was written for my “Introduction to Librarianship” class.  It’s not specifically about a particular job, but rather about the future of library jobs, and really of jobs in the US in general. I welcome your comments, dystopian theories, flames, or company with me on this path to create an economy based on something legitimate. thanks.


just lemme get this one thing off my chest. i’ve been trying not to write about it, but it keeps coming up in the context of wikipedia, or open source software, or blogging. it’s a huge issue in many aspects of our economy these days, but i feel like people aren’t addressing the question head-on:

how can i get paid for my profession if there are people out there who are willing to do the work for free?

obviously this is being hotly debated by journalists, these days. and publishers. and record companies, and..librarian-dudes, we are next.

for our reference class, we’ve been asked to make a pathfinder, a list of resources about one topic, to aid basic or advanced researchers. people do this all day long on blogs and facebook. i feel like my life is one big pathfinder project; finding resources, keeping track of them, distributing them to people i meet who might find them useful.

obviously, i like the idea of getting paid to do this work to which i am so deeply inclined. but presumably there will be a point where the bean-counters say “don’t the kids just use google for this?”.

when i worked at the archives, i essentially earned the cost of my wages by selling book publishers and authors the rights to use photographs in our collections. but a couple years ago the british museum decided they didn’t want to pay the british-alison, and put all their images up, full-resolution, for FREE, on their website (for non-profit users – whereas we charged 15 dollars).

so, i know people love great photographs of amazing art and artifacts but how is british-alison paying for groceries, these days? I know that everyone wants everything free from the internets, but i don’t know how they expect these resources (archival storage, enormous server space, site maintenance) to exist without paying. I don’t think we can rely on the content of the internet being perpetually created by someone who’s just fucking off at their corporate office job. that’s not an economic or a cultural model that is sustainable.

at some point, i think we (in the USA in particular) need to face up to the fact that we’ve been paying artificially low prices for entertainment (and food, too!) in this country. and we need to make a decision: free stuff or employed neighbors. unemployment (and under-employment) hurts our whole economy, right? that’s why things suck right now, right? cuz people aren’t buying the consumer crap that seems to be the “foundation” of the US economy? seems to me that either we have lots of free apps and free music and free tv, and most people are employed as the guy who sells you the iphone at best buy.


we create an economic system that values what the rest of the world values about the USA – our creative, hilarious, trashy, tasteless, brilliant, iconoclastic culture.

maybe we have to pay for some cool stuff. but maybe we also have health insurance.

and i ask: what future occupation do you wanna have?


ps: there’s a TON more to discuss about this, in terms of open source software, community supported agriculture, preservation, and authority. please add to the discussion!

(**pss: obvs. you guys know there’s another option, right? it’s that everyone has access to food and shelter and health care and child care and the necessities of life, and so therefore EVERYONE is free to follow their passion of any sort – whether it’s accumulation of wealth or of POGs or of ubuntu applications. and you probly know how i feel about this solution. feel free to join me in the vanguard.)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010 8:53 pm

    I’m highly sympathetic to this, but I’ve been struggling to see “free stuff or employment” as a dichotomy. I’m not sure that it is. Arguably, people pay a fair amount of money for apps & entertainment; people buy stuff from the iTunes Store constantly.

    Raw data and information should be free. I think all museums, libraries, and archives should make high-resolution images available with low levels of restrictions. But is an image truly “valuable” on its own? The value of cultural heritage institutions is their ability to set things in context, through exhibits, descriptive tools, and so forth. Why aren’t more cultural heritage institutions creating iPad or iPhone apps?

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      October 12, 2010 12:48 am

      Sing it. Although, when we were at Penn, Alison and I spent a lot of time arguing to staff (and demonstrating with fun slide shows!) that the images taken by professional photographers of our objects were better than the snap the public relations officer would take of an object behind plexi with her digital Elph. So yes, there’s value in these images and work associated with them.

      More important, though, is the cataloging of museum objects, and Penn didn’t seem to have any problem having dumbass (or, to be fair, untrained) volunteers and work-study students do original cataloging or data clean-up.

      So Alison, do you really want your job to be talking to crackpot self-publishers and getting them images of clovis points, or do you want to be paid a living wage for doing research and writing REALLY GOOD catalog information for museum objects and images? Because that’s the job that I’m more concerned about protecting, and I don’t think that there’s any real way of doing that for free on the internet.

    • Caitlin permalink
      October 12, 2010 1:43 pm

      Here here. I don’t consider the value I provide to either of my employers to consist in “selling images,” but rather in providing access and context to the materials – whether published online or not. I think it’s very much *not* a given that putting up a digital jpg is sufficient (or necessary, although there are certainly items for which this is a great point of access and outreach). While both employers do pay some lovely scanning technicians to pop high-quality images on the internets, it’s the work of the archivists (and rare book librarians, and other similarly-minded folks) to catalog and create metadata and write finding aids and do outreach and otherwise make the collections come alive in a coherent and easy-to-find manner. I’m unconvinced that providing the image for free complicates our job or our ability to get paid for it.

      • October 14, 2010 5:48 am

        good! this is what I want to hear! it is easy to get discouraged when your model for employment is the utterly disfunctional Penn Museum.
        I am mostly worried about the future economy becoming the one which you can already see clearly in poor places in america – you don’t have access to health care or good schools, but you can have all the fun materialistic diversions you want, cuz those are super cheap.

  2. Jennifer permalink
    October 11, 2010 9:27 pm

    Or maybe the solution is for governments and such to subsidize and back institutions more and get the money in other ways instead of pricing people out of the services and things we provide.

    In other words, still get people to value the work we do, but instead of making everyone pay for it (because not every single person can afford it), get people to value what we do and then that will encourage underwriting and more support from governments and larger organizations. I don’t think libraries and archives should be run like corporations.

    So maybe we have to pay for some stuff: like taxes and supporting other people and institutions that we believe in. Americans have a really hard time doing those things, even more so than buying stuff.

  3. October 12, 2010 12:22 am

    If capitalization is free, why can’t I get some in your post?

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      October 12, 2010 12:50 am

      Oh, snap! Never change, Alison. Never change. Scott thinks he’s funny, and what he won’t tell you is that his previous iteration of this comment had a glaring punctuation error.

      • October 12, 2010 5:23 pm

        no worries. I have no shame about the typing style. I capitalize plenty of things. just not all the time. [shrug] it doesn’t cause semantic problems. so I’m not worrying .

    • Annoyed Reader permalink
      October 21, 2010 4:28 pm

      Tell me about it? You expect me to read your writing, when you can’t even be bothered to capitalize it correctly? Maybe this has something to do with your difficulty finding paying work.

      Remember, capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse, and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

      • Maureen Callahan permalink*
        October 21, 2010 4:31 pm

        Alison does quite well finding paying work, and I think that her writing is clear and thoughtful.

      • October 21, 2010 4:46 pm

        BWAHAHAHA! that’s an amazing, incredibly filthy, example. I stand corrected. Semantics can be affected. In the case of Polish and – now I know – Jack. So I will certainly make sure to capitalize next time I’m writing about horse sperm harvesting.

        Let’s make a deal: I’ll capitalize Everything – in fact, I’ll capitalize Nouns, like the Germans – as long as You actually respond to my ARGUMENT instead of using the only superficial Thing you can come up with to try to insult Me personally.

        You’re obviously not much of a Librarian, because I’m all over the Web, and You could’ve called me Gay, or an Anarchist, or a Person who writes sloppy, over-earnest, pedantic blog Posts. But We all know that the point of the Web is to attack Strangers about superficial Things because You don’t like the way They think. [sigh.]

  4. Michelle Belden permalink
    October 12, 2010 1:48 pm

    The only way to get paid for something that someone else can and will do for free is to be better at it (as Maureen says above, it comes down to quality.) However, that’s not just a matter of good cataloging. It’s also a matter of being willing and able to tackle the question of “how does cataloging have to change for the world we live in, in 2010?”

    And that’s a matter of not being afraid (or disallowed) to jump into the wave of changing technologies and changing cultures that are out there, outside our double doors and lockers and be-camera’d reading rooms, and apply our organizational skills (not just in making “piles of papers” but also in managing “techie” projects). Librarians/archivists have a place, but it’s in the year 2010 and in the context of all that’s out there for our users, in the year 2010.

    Given the oceanic morass of data out there, I don’t feel threatened by what I see as a small percentage of folks who are DIY librarians/archivists. What worries me is (what I see as) the large percentage of “information professionals” in positions of authority who refuse to acknowledge that their (our) profession must change, and for whom there are no repurcussions, because they are, tada, tenured.

    (There’s lots of good free software out there, but lots of well-paid software engineers as well. However, can you imagine a software engineering firm in which the engineers are told that change is bad, slow down, don’t try to serve so many audiences, we’ve got too much work as it is?)

    Take EAD: just comparing the Google search of our HTML finding aids to the EAD-enabled search other institutions have convinces me there is a place for L/A professionals in making the web more usefully searchable. When I read about “barriers” to EAD, I read about staffing/time shortages, and lack of technical expertise. However, over the past four years I and many other archivistas I know have been CHOMPING AT THE BIT to get our institutions encoded finding aids, and we are continually told to wait on even starting to plan a project of that kind. We’ve even offered our encoding services on a consulting basis, for free, to the sound of crickets. We are branded as impatient, but what we are is LIVING IN THE PRESENT.

    (Please excuse my all caps. I am yelling, but not at ya’ll.)

    My point: The pace of change considered bearable by many libraries/archives and the pace of change considered necessary by the internet-using public: very different. And that difference is not just frustrating, it is dangerous for the profession.

    • Maureen Callahan permalink*
      October 12, 2010 2:03 pm

      I agree. And not to be a snit, but I think that too many of the older generation (and honestly, I saw a teeny bit of this in library school among my peers) took a job in a library/archives is because they’re risk-averse, change-averse, and happily situated in a rut.

      Yes, it can be scary to take on new technological initiatives when you have terrible organizational culture, have broken systems for making decisions and can’t implement your way out of a paper bag. Why is it that I find that the most exciting innovations in organization and change management come from techies? Well, because they HAVE to have these skills, or they will fail in their environment. Michelle, I think you’re coming up against a larger professional culture that doesn’t really want to be accountable or innovative. But I think that we’ll all find that libraries and archives and museums that don’t adapt to these kinds of organizational demands will have a hard time justifying their existence to their parent institution, and in some cases, they will deserve to fail.

      Harsh? Yeah. And on one hand, I hope that it doesn’t come to abject failure, but on the other hand, I see no reason to support institutions that are fundamentally broken and don’t want to change.

      So, Michelle — I see the germs of another post in your comment. Care to join the Justice League?

    • October 12, 2010 2:34 pm


      I have changed directions several times in my relatively short career because it made sense. I was a cataloger in a corporate library, I worked as a rare book and manuscript cataloger working with microfilm for a vendor, I cataloged Native American art work, became a jack of all trades archivist and programmer, turned into a web developer and project manager, and now I’m an electronic records archivist and technical architect.

    • October 14, 2010 6:05 am

      yes, absolutely. technology is important, innovation is important. and being stuck in the old ways is not getting anyone anywhere.

      I’m worried not so much on a personal level, but on a macro-economic/societal level about what this culture values and what is commonly understood to be “worth paying for”. people buy these ridiculously expensive phones with ridiculously expensive monthly plans, then aren’t willing to pay a buck for something that they MIGHT be able to download for free.

      and institutions will pay for a 2 year digitization project, and fancy equipment for that, but don’t want to employ another archivist so that there is actual CONTEXT to the things they digitize. I just think people are not being valued, and not just because some of them are stuck in a rut. I think it’s a larger problem than can be solved by individual hard work. if the system doesn’t value its workers, no amount of good work is going to change that.

      I appreciate the need for change and innovation on the internet-user’s timeframe. but I don’t want to be caught on the backside of that swinging door – the internet-user’s incredibly short attention span. we can’t rely on the hot flash of meme-popularity to justify our existence, because our jobs require a long period of time to be done well. and fundamentally, the archives and other collections deserve better than a momentary blitz of attention.

  5. October 20, 2010 7:50 pm

    Hi, not sure how your museum’s are funded in the US but our (UK) museums are funded by tax payers and donations. Museum entry appears free and resources appear free and we have already decided their value as a society and fund them. I’m sure it is not enough and can see why museums would want to charge commercial organisations and can also see why ethically they don’t charge not for profit organisations such as teaching, charities etc as these are also largely funded by the tax payer. We have a really different system to the US – such as mostly ‘free’ healthcare – and long may it continue. (May’be the trick is to make it free just in the UK and charge outsiders like US websites do).

    • October 21, 2010 4:52 pm

      yeah, it’s strange. though our museums are ostensibly non-profit, and get a lot of tax breaks and money from government-sponsored organizations, in the US we want our funding to be less direct. I guess so we can maintain ‘independence’ from the government while having to beg oil corporations and big christian lobbyists to fund our exhibits. it’s sorta the essence of my problem with american capitalism. we’re so unwilling to let anything be “Government Controlled”, but we’re happy for it to be “Profit-seeking-corporation-with-no-sense-of-public-responsibility Controlled.”

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