Learning from the Power Plant

Today (September 21, 2023) I got a tour of the University’s power plant, and I believe we could learn from them.

Today, I had the opportunity to get a tour of the University’s power plant. The facility was large, loud, clean, efficient, and seemingly operated by dedicated professionals with wide and deep experience. Much of the power is generated through the burning of natural gas, but once water is turned into steam it is used over and over, again and again. The power plant supplements its services with geo-thermal energy, solar power, and water-spun turbines. The plant works in cooperation the other power utilities in the area, but it also has the ability be operate completely independently. In a great many ways, the power plant is self-sufficient, more over, it continues to evolve and improve both its services and operations.

I then asked myself, “What is the ‘business’ of the University?”, and the answer alludes to teaching, learning, research, and Catholicism. Yet, the power plant really has nothing to do with those things. Yet, now-a-days, it seems fashionable to outsource non-core aspects of a workplace. Companies will lease a building, and hire other people to do the maintenance and cleaning. Restaurants will not launder their own napkins nor table cloths. Services are contracted to mow our grass or plow our snow. In our own workplace, we increasingly outsource digital collection, preservation, and metadata creation operations. For example, to what degree are we really & truly curating the totality of theses and dissertations created here at Notre Dame? Similarly, to what degree are we curating the scholarly record?

I asked the leader of the tour, “Running a power plant is not the core business of the University, so why is it not outsourced?” And the answer was, “Once, such was considered, and there was a study; it was deemed more cost effective to run our own plant.” I then asked myself, “To what degree have we — the Libraries and the wider library profession — done similar studies?” Personally, I have not seen nor heard of any such things, and if they do exists, then to what degree have they been rooted in antitotal evidence?

Our University has a reputation for being self-sufficient and independent. Think football. Think the power plant. Think the police, fire, religious, postal, food, grounds, housing, and banking services. Why not the Libraries? How are we any different?

I assert that if we — the Libraries — were to divert some of our contracted services and licensing fees to the development of our people, then we too would become more independent, more knowledgable, and more able to evolve with the ever-changing environment, just like the power plant. After all, we too are large, clean, efficient, and operated by dedicated professionals with wide and deep experience. (We’e not loud.)

Given a short-term and limited period of time, I suggest we more systematically digitize a greater part of our collections, pro-actively collect born-digital materials freely available on the ‘Net, catalog things at scale and support the Semantic Web, etc. Along the way our skills will increase, new ways of thinking will emerge, and we will feel empowered as opposed to powerless. Only after we actually give this a try — do a study — will we be able to measure the cost-effectiveness of outsourcing. Is outsourcing really worth the cost?

Again, the University has a reputation for being independent. Let’s try to put some of that philosophy into practice here in the Libraries.

Comments are closed.