self- “un”fulfilling prophecy (aka self-serving)

During my weekly department meeting yesterday, my manager shared with each of us part of an article printed in the most recent issue of “Time” (March 24, 2008)  called “10 Ideas that are Changing the World”. We learned that #2 is “The End of Customer Service: With self-service technology, you’ll never have to see a clerk again”. So there it was, yet another expert in some area, some unknown CEO of some unheard of company, prophesying the future (for his benefit, I might add, since his company creates self-service systems). We got a similar library-related piece a couple of weeks ago (Taiga Forum Provocative Statements) that offered us a nice, concise list of eight statements, all to be prefaced by “Within the next five years…”. I figure if I take these to heart, essentially I can believe that in the next five years, I’ll be extinct. Or at least my job will. And in more depressing moments, I think if I keep receiving and reading these enlightening tidbits, I might start believing that I’m already there. Extinct, that is.

There’s no denying that the self-service model is prevalent in our society; self check-in at the airport, self check-out at the grocery store, self-serve banking at the ATM, self-serve fueling at the pump. And arguably, FAQ pages, end-user database searching, and self-service check-out are slowly taking the place of reference librarians and circulation folks in libraries. Bottom line, according to Mr. Nuti (that previously referenced expert), is that companies love self-service because it saves them money. Budget-crunched libraries are no exception.

So I guess it’s no wonder these ideas keep being floated around my professional field. Wave the white flag and surrender, I reckon. There’s no stopping progress and certainly no competition for the almighty dollar. You’re considered a curmudgeon (to put it nicely) if you don’t play along. You’re in denial, a luddite, a techno-phobe, a roadblock to progress, even an insubordinate if you dare choose to believe (or heaven forbid, state out loud) that there might be something else more important and something greater lost in this rush “forward”.

But every now and then, I feel a faint pulse in my fading career. Last night as I worked the reference desk, a young student came by and the first words out of her mouth were, “I’m so glad you’re still here”. She told me, almost in tears, that she had spent hours unsuccesfully working on a project, that she was lost and confused in what she was doing, and that her professor wouldn’t answer her phone messages or emails. So we sat down together and for the next twenty minutes or so worked through what she was trying to do. I shared with her a bit of my knowledge and expertise, helped get her going down the right path, and without much effort at all, made her feel a whole lot better. Now tell me, when was the last time any automated answering service made you feel the same?

So we can continue on in my profession claiming that the end is near, and in doing so will no doubt create a self-fulfilling prophecy. But as for me, I’m still holding on to the belief that the world is a better place when we help one another instead of always helping ourselves.

[For a great song/video to go along with these thoughts, visit Billy Bragg’s website.]

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