A question of money

As a proud holder of a British Library Reader’s Pass, I am also a recent visitor to their website and to the hallowed precincts of the Rare Books and Music Reading Room. I note that this fine institution has decided to survey its users to find out what value they place on the Library and the services and resources it offers.

Now, as one who has often been paid to evaluate and research other people’s work, I am in sympathy with the need to pursue this aim. Funders, policymakers and the general public all want to know whether they’re getting value for money and where they should spend their hard-gained cash. However, there’s a major flaw with the way they’re going about it.

While they are at pains to point out that there are no plans to introduce charges for using the Library, the researchers are asking respondents to give a cash value to a number of aspects. It’s not too hard to say how much it costs you to get there (even if, like me, you could be travelling from either of two different starting-points), and it’s only a bit harder to try and put a figure on what it would cost you if you couldn’t use the Library – a massive book-buying bill in my case.

Question 15 is the humdinger. It asks whether, if you were able to sell your Reader’s Pass, you would do so,  and how much you would take for it. It stipulates that you would get a monthly fee but never be able to get it back. Now, the problem with this question – and I can see what they’re getting at – is that it runs roughshod over all the finer feelings which makes the Reader’s Pass not merely an advantageous item of which to have temporary custody, but a gift from society. My first answer (NO WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) was from the gut. My second answer was, firstly, while I am using it, there is no sum on earth that would wrest it from my fevered grasp, and secondly, even if it were saleable, it should not be me who profits, but the Library.

How can the people who crafted this question not have factored in the issue of civic pride, national responsibility and the sheer glorious privilege that Reader’s Pass holders should – and I am sure mostly do – feel? Is it because civic pride, national responsbility and privilege extended to all and any citizens is no longer felt?

I will leave you to decide.

Published in: on June 18, 2012 at 19:07  Comments (2)  

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  1. Three posts in three days. Welcome back Catherine!

    Your latest post is depressing and suggests that, unless handled with care and discretion, the notion of cultural value could end up being a zero sum game. The problem was flagged up by Philip Bobbitt in his rather depressing book, “The Shield of Achilles” which Rowan Williams neatly paraphrased in his Dimbleby Lecture 10 years ago.

    “Bobbitt,” said Williams, “sees our present context as one where the nation state’s inability to deliver in the terms we have become used to, its inability to meet the expectations we now bring, has led to a shift into a new political mode, the market state, in which the function of government – and the thing that makes government worth obeying – is to clear a space for individuals or groups to do their own negotiating, to secure the best deal or the best value for money in pursuing what they want. It involves deregulation; the ‘franchising’ of various sorts of provision – from private prisons to private pensions – and the withdrawal of the state from many of those areas where it used to bring some kind of moral pressure to bear. It means that government is free to encourage enterprise but not to protect against risk; to try and increase the literal and metaphorical purchasing power of citizens, but not to take for granted anything much in the way of agreement about common goals or social good.

    Successive governments have, for example, dealt with education in a way that shows worrying signs of this underlying philosophy – stressing parental choice and publication of results. Not that these are social evils in themselves; they represent a proper concern about accountability. But they also fit all too neatly into the consumer model and allow the actual philosophy of education itself to be obscured behind a cloud of sometimes mechanical criteria of attainment.”

    It has taken 10 years to reach the August corridors of the British Library. Perhaps the cultural sector should be grateful for its snail like pace.

  2. The results of this survey may be more heartening than your response to it anticipates. I suspect that ALL holders of the library card would have the same “NO WAY!!!!” response, because of the kind of people they are and because they have worked hard to get it. They are probably as similar to you, Lady E, as any other constituency could be (given your multifarious and unusual life and personality!). If this is indeed their collective response, it could give the library a useful weapon against future threats.

    Those pesky little survey-setters may be asking a venal-sounding question for a holy purpose!

    Having said that, what you and Mr Kelly above say about the ubiquitous reliance on the consumer model is depressingly true. The rot started when British Rail started calling us “customers” instead of “passengers”…

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