the customer is always … what?

Benjamin over at InfoBreaker has a good point. As we try to open our communities and have patrons “join the conversation” and bemore interactive with users, how do we learn to set new boundaries? He outlines a case of a patron not wanting to make a phone call to renew books when she was on vacation, thinking that should be something the library could do themselves, knowing she was on vacation. I think about other examples that have been getting a hearing lately.

If the library was totally democratic, would users still fine themselves? Implement noise policies? Shirt/shoes dress codes? We know they would be unlikely to, as a group, create their own ILS or their own classification system (no, folksonomy is not a classification system, yes it is very useful on its own). So my question is and has been, what is the role for the librarian, the supposed “information expert” in our 2.0 vision of ourselves? We facilitate access to information surely. However, there are many people, librarians and patrons, deeply in love with the idea of library as place. Then there are our board members and taxpayers who also like the idea of “money as thing,” that is the money that funds the library, pays the salary, keeps the lights on and leaves the pockets of taxpayers who are convinced that libraries are a Good Thing. Once your library is 100% in Second Life and not a side project of librarians who work in brick and mortar library buildings, who pays for their health care?

I know that in my job at MetaFilter, the money that pays me comes directly from user signups and advertising that others see on the site. Since we’re not claiming to be a public-sphere institution, I don’t have a problem with ads helping pay the bills of keeping the site running. I’m fairly secure in the site owner’s scruples, as well as my own. However once the library has ads for Amazon in its catalog, or preferences iPods as MP3 players over other available products, or stops buying VHS tapes in favor of DVDs, we’ve made a consumer choice, and we’ve made it for the public. I always get a little fidgety when people talk about brand consciousness and “markets” when they’re talking about the library, but I also realize that’s really the way the world of information is going. That’s getting a little off the topic of whether or not a patron on vacation should be able to have the library just say “oh you’re on vacation, we’ll just auto-renew your books until you come back.” but it is along the same spectrum.

How much do we bend to meet our users? How much do we expect them to bend to meet us?