Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Economics of Helping

Librarians, by job design and by nature, are helpers. We give of our intellect, drive and persistence to our patrons in search of the right materials, or the proper answer. Our involvement enables our patrons to select their next steps: to stay on the current path or to take the fork in the road. This transaction, be it through reference, acquisitions or cataloging, has value. Without us, people wouldn't get as far as fast down their road, or wouldn't even be on the right road. Their research wouldn't be as complete or accurate, their insights wouldn't be as keen. The $64,000 question is: how should this help be valued?

The value of help has always been difficult to quantify. Absent an explicit charge ("The Doctor is In. Questions: 5 cents") or a gratuity (TIP = To Insure Progress), rarely is a value assigned to the help a helper gives. Other helping professions have similar problems: teachers, nurses, public servants. Unfortunately, the lack of value imputed to helping transactions involving these professions makes it harder to attract new people into them, harder to retain skilled practitioners, and harder to motivate the helper to help.

Helpers don't generally enter the helping professions with designs on monetary power. However, failure to value the helping transaction accumulates into failure to value the helping institution. Once the institution is devalued, its long-term viability is threatened. Without the helping institution, individual helping transactions cannot be completed and the patrons are not propelled as quickly or directly down the right road. And everybody loses.

Economists might argue for taxes to cover opportunity costs or externalities, or for shadow pricing schemes. These may be desirable or even necessary. But sometimes a smile and a "thank you" would suffice.