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The library business - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
The library business
Public libraries are moving to a business model.

I have nothing against business (I am after all a big bad bourgeous Republican), but I don't fetishize it, and it is not an appropriate model for public libraries or schools (though I'm not above using vouchers to put a gun to the head of poor academics--shape up or else), or other public services. If you don't believe it, talk to librarians; there won't be many who don't have tales about losing several older books to make room for tons of bestsellers (customer demand, you know). There's been a switch from referring to library users as "patrons" to referring to them as "customers," which may seem like a minor matter, but really shows a major shift in attitude--the public library is no longer a public institution supported by the people, who also have the right to use it free of charge, but a business (more or less) that responds to the whims of the economy.

We all had to take a library management course, which I was looking forward to because there'd been a couple of nasty dust-ups in Albuquerque before I left and I thought it would be good to get some lessons in how to be a boss. Silly me--the point of the class was to teach us "how to make public libraries competitive in the global market." Identify your competition was a major part of that lesson. The culprit? Barnes and Noble! amazon.com! Borders! We have to be more like them to be competitive against them, because that's where people go instead of going to the library. The fashion is to count circulation numbers--the number times a book is checked out of the library--the way a business would count profits, and what isn't checked out frequently shouldn't be bought, because it's not the equivalent of a net profit.

I've thought about this quite a lot, because unlike the author of a recent American Libraries article ("Keeping Public Libraries Public," August 2004--a good article, anti-business comments aside), I don't have any problem with capitalism, and any problems I have with business tend to be with specifics of how it's handled, not with the concept of private ownership. And yet, I'm adamant about keep public libraries public. (And keeping NASA public, for that matter, for many of the same reasons I'll mention below, though I'm focusing on libraries.) And when I think of vouchers, I think of them more in terms of making private schools essentially public rather than subverting public schools.

Here's the thing: Libraries are a part of a competitive structure, but not the one the business model advocates think they are. Libraries are not competitors in the book distribution business. Libraries are products in the city business.

What is a city's business? To make a good space for the people who are already there, and to be attractive to new people--and new businesses--for that reason. Why should a person live in one city rather than another? What would make a city a good choice for a business location?

If you're starting a business and you have a choice between Albuquerque and Buffalo, you might look at the cost of living and hiring employees (comparable), the weather (Buffalo loses), and the various cultural institutions. If having a lot of PhDs around is something you want, go for Albuquerque. Same if you think that a spectacular zoo will be a draw for desirable employees. But if you think you might hire people who have kids, you'll want to look at the school system--New York State is in the top ten; New Mexico is in the bottom five. And in the same way, you'll want to look at institutions like the library. Buffalo has a spectacular library collection, almost (but not quite) good enough to make me consider going back just for its sake (if I weren't in a city with an even better one, it would be a lot more attractive). Albuquerque... Er, the first day my mother and I lived there, we went downtown to find the library. We found something with a sign that identified it as a library and said, "Oh, how nice... they have a decent-sized downtown branch." It turned out to be the MAIN LIBRARY. This didn't ever turn out to be better than it seemed. I left the state.

Now, the major cities already have a certain cachet about them. A friend of mine, when I marveled that people in her town actually wanted an Interstate to go through it, pointed out to me that I only found this odd because, "You live in a city that people go to on purpose." The downside to this is that the cost of living is very high... and if the city is going to be competitive in attracting new business (rather than just having the endlessly self-renewing student population), it had better damned well provide services that make it worthwhile to pay the price. It needs to have things that are unique, things that you can't get just anywhere. There isn't a library in the country that doesn't have multiple copies of The Da Vinci Code, but only the BPL, to the best of my knowledge, has letters written by Henry David Thoreau, asking his publisher for money. Or John Adams's personal collection. And so on.

And that's not just true of the high ticket items. If you live in a city like Albuquerque, you sort of expect that it might be a hassle to get certain books from time to time. That's the trade-off for the deliriously low cost of living. In a city like Boston, though, I would expect the public library to be able to get me what I'm looking for without a lot of hassle. I would expect the schools to be decent (and while I complain, after spending four years in New Mexico, I should kiss the school steps here). I would expect public transit to be relatively workable, the parks to be cared for, and the streets adequately policed. If they aren't, we lose major competitive strength in attracting new businesses and citizens.

The city's other business, of course, is creating a good life for the people who are already there. Taxes are a pooling of resources to get things we can all have ownership of. Whether you're a brain surgeon with a six- or seven-figure income or a waitress scraping by on minimum wage and tips, you have equal ownership in the resources of the city--not for nothing was the Boston Public Library called "The Palace for the People." Like schools, libraries are great equalizers, and that makes people happy--the whole "any kid can grow up and be the president" notion--and, going back to the previous notion, makes people want to come to the city. Said new people may open bookshops or private libraries, but those shops and libraries won't be in competition with the public library, because they aren't part of the same business.

Does this argument make any sense as explaining why a free market girl is also a fan of quality public services, rather than a services that run on a business model of supply and demand?
22 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
lync From: lync Date: August 20th, 2004 01:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
I really like your writing. It is well thought out and very well presented.

I don't tend to use the libraries here that much but I have been wanting to because they have interesting lecture series' and other things like that. I like owning books so I will tend to buy them if they seem interesting - whether I've read them or not - so I don't tend to use the library except for research... :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
I recommend libraries for those tidbits of info that you just don't want to buy a whole book for. Also, the lectures are good draw. It's an educational center, and sometimes, libraries get pretty good lecturers.
sreya From: sreya Date: August 20th, 2004 01:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
The fashion is to count circulation numbers--the number times a book is checked out of the library--the way a business would count profits, and what isn't checked out frequently shouldn't be bought, because it's not the equivalent of a net profit.

Oh, THAT drives me crazy! I absolutely depend on libraries to provide books that I can't get in the bookstores, precisely because they aren't in high demand anymore. For instance, I just checked out several books about NATO that are all at least 10 years old, because I need that older perspective. I doubt they're checked out very often, and you can bet I wouldn't be able to find them in a bookstore. If the library were to move to a "popularity" model, then how in the world are we supposed to do research on obscure areas? Isn't that just limiting the usefulness of having a library in the first place?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 01:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree. Unfortunately, a lot of people make the assumption that of course libraries are going to save and preserve older books, and therefore don't, um, positively reinforce the behavior. (By sending letters saying "I was so glad to find _____!" or whatnot... in contrast, library admin may field a lot of complaints that a bestseller wasn't available at the exact moment someone wanted it. So give positive strokes to your library specifically for having those ten-year-old books. They do need to hear it.)
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: August 20th, 2004 01:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it's a good argument. I'm neither a fan nor a detractor of business in general (although I think that "pure" capitalism, like "pure" communism/socialism tends to put too much power into too few hands.) But I have to agree that some things are just not businesses, and libraries are one of them. (Of course, I don't think hospitals should be either -- but that's a different argument.)

A public library doesn't serve the same social function as a bookstore or a video rental business. Properly, it isn't how many books we check out that measures our success, but how many answers we help people find, even if the question is "can you help me get the newest romance by Fern Michaels?" And, as you say, libraries are one of the amenities of American towns and cities. We get graded on them -- and major libraries, like Boston, have an obligation to provide greater depth.

I want to get my hands on that American Libraries article, I really do.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 01:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Of course, I don't think hospitals should be either -- but that's a different argument.)

There's a very good argument against a total free market approach to hospitals--the demand side is never going to be elastic. People need health care no matter what. It's not a business that can actually survive on the supply and demand rhetoric.
vytresna From: vytresna Date: August 20th, 2004 04:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Then again, the doctors have to get enough money to make the job worth their effort. There are some instances where balance isn't overrated.
riah_chan From: riah_chan Date: August 20th, 2004 05:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
They also have to make enough money to pay for Malpractive insurance. I live in Nevada where the doctor's insurance rates are incredibly high and many doctors, particularly in specialist fields, left the state because of it. It has gotten better but it is still difficult to find, for example, a good OB/GYN who is taking new patients.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 06:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, my grandmother was an eye doctor. She opted for retirement rather than dealing with the skyrocketing insurance costs. Sheesh.

Yes, of course doctors need to be paid decently. What I mean is that it's not a field that responds to supply and demand the way a commodity would--you don't try to increase the number of cancer treatment customers, to take the market away from diabetes customers, you know?
ashtur From: ashtur Date: August 20th, 2004 02:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
The "niche" or "market" for libraries isn't so much for the book of the hour. Sure, it's good to have copies of the latest Clancy "epic", just for the simple reason that it teaches people to go to the library, and exposes them to reading.

However, the thing I want out of a library isn't the book that I can find at any BN, or on Amazon. It's the book that you can't get retail at all, can only get on a used book site, and expect to pay serious cash. My other major hobby is military history, and in the last two years I've used ILL to look up information on things like Blenheim, Wagram, Jena, Aspern-Essling and the like. Those books are nearly impossible to find any other way.
ajaxbreaker From: ajaxbreaker Date: August 20th, 2004 02:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
This isn't really related to your post, but I just wanted to say that being a big library and booklover, I really like all your posts about how libraries work. It's fascinating!
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 05:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
If you want an example of how libraries are changing, look at the degree name. MLS--master of library science--was the traditional form. For about three years, it became the MLIS--master of library and information science. My degree? MIS, master of information science.

Stupid.

They hate libraries.
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: August 20th, 2004 03:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love the Carnegie library system and I miss it every time I'm out of Pittsburgh. I remember trying to get my hands on Michael Moore's latest and it took five months for me to go from 250 to 1 on the waiting list. But at any time, I could have gone into BN and flipped through it.

What I love the library for is that, when I want books on a certain subject, I can find them. There's this great series by an author named Elizabeth Bergstrom and all her books (except for one that came out this year) have been out of print for eons. The library found them all for me, even though I had to get one through ILL. But they had all four of the books and they didn't toss them, so I could keep getting them out year after year until I tracked down my own copies through eBay and used books stores. But that's what I love about libraries. They have books you can't find at BN.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 05:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love the Carnegie library system

Whatever else Carnegie did in his life, his contribution to libraries is enough to cover him morally for all eternity, imho. The small town library that chienar mentions below--the one she and I both grew up with--is a Carnegie library. (This is the part of that article is a little silly; without Carnegie's style of corporate support, we wouldn't have the library system we have today.)
lothi From: lothi Date: August 20th, 2004 04:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
Does this argument make any sense as explaining why a free market girl is also a fan of quality public services, rather than a services that run on a business model of supply and demand?

Sure, it makes sense. As you said, part of the city's job is to enhance the quality of life of its citizens. And everyone pays for the service, regardless of how much or little they actually use it.

Besides, no matter what BN claims, they don't actually like it much if you sit around all day in their store reading books, then leave without buying one. I've never gotten a dirty look from a librarian for doing that. :P
chienar From: chienar Date: August 20th, 2004 04:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

libraries

Having grown up with the same wonderful, small library that you did... It amazes me that libraries are so under utilized. Even the little bitty town where I live now (smaller than Perry!) has a public library. Yet I almost never see anyone there. It is sad, really. I have so many good memories from books I found in the library, or things gotten that could not be found in stores... or afforded in hard cover.

I think, overall, that libraries are an underappreciated resource.

And I think that it is good that there are people like Fern championing them.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 05:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: libraries

I did some work on the Perry library while I was in library school--an astounding amount of money, percentage-wise, is devoted to keeping it up. (Especially astounding when you realize that it's, erm, Perry.) I loved that library violently. If anyone ever thinks of starting a business in Wyoming Co, NY--which could use it--Perry's the best place, simply on the strength of its library. For an itty bitty town... wow.
kat_denton From: kat_denton Date: August 20th, 2004 06:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
My late father was a librarian. He saw the purpose of a library to be all about access. Those best sellers are the 'loss leader' to get people into the building, but the depth of the permanent collection is what makes a library. Best sellers, Internet access, art galleries, lectures and classes are icing, but the permanent collection is the cake underneath.

I want to be able to get a best seller - one that I might not care enough about to buy in hardcover, but don't want to wait for the paperback release. But more important is ILL access, all the oop parts of a story series, unknown early works by now favorite authors.

I adore our public library. We've chosen to go with bookmobiles instead of branches and the main library is just a few blocks from my house - utter joy.

I think you are absolutely right that the 'business model' for libraries is ultimately short sighted. It's far better to have a longer waiting list for 'Da Vinci' and more books that aren't best sellers. (imho). In a few months, a couple of copies for the stacks will be all the 'Da Vinci Code' we'll need for the duration .

Very thought-provoking essay, Fern.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 08:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that art galleries have a very good place in libraries--one more resource to make available--and internet is pretty necessary these days. And I think that best sellers are important to have--they after all are something that is important to the culture at x, y, or z point in time. The problem comes when these things are treated as having precedence over a deep and broad collection, which is the proper business a library should be in.

I mean, we have good extra stuff. We have a homework help program with high school kids hired to help littler kids. We keep an art table, and we put the kids' artwork on the walls. It's good to have. But not at the cost of the collection.
lizbee From: lizbee Date: August 20th, 2004 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I find your library posts incredibly fascinating, because I'm not only a library-info-science student, but I live in a city where the library system apparently works. *grin*

The Brisbane libraries are being re-organised along business lines, but management is emphasising the role of a library as a community centre alongside its place as a source of books. I did Management for Information Professionals last semester, and did most of my assignments on marketing public libraries, so this is an area close to my heart. (Having written about 10,000 words of policy reports, it'd want to be.)

One conclusion I came to is that it's a mistake to identify major bookstores as a library's main competition. Yes, they offer much of the same resources, but a regular bookstore patron is quite likely to also be a regular library patron.

The real threat to the long-term viability of libraries, I decided, was excessive pressure to conform to business models, and the adoption of every management fad that comes along.

But you probably know all this. *rolls eyes* I think I do get too excited about library marketing.

We all had to take a library management course, which I was looking forward to because there'd been a couple of nasty dust-ups in Albuquerque before I left and I thought it would be good to get some lessons in how to be a boss.

Maybe you should come to Australia and do my course? For all its faults, I'm glad I'm not studying in America.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 20th, 2004 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Keep an eye on the community center thing--that's one of those ideas that sneakily ends up with non-book things (internet terminals) in the way of the books. Physically. Not making it up, cross my heart.

Maybe you should come to Australia and do my course? For all its faults, I'm glad I'm not studying in America.

I'd totally love to come work in Australia for a couple of years, but I can't afford any more student loan sorts of things. :( If they'd take my American MLS... er, MIS... I'd totally do it. I have no husband or kids to schedule around--this would be a great time to travel. I was thinking England, but it's hard to get work there. How's the work situation down there? Of course, being parochial, I don't have the faintest idea about living abroad. How does it even work?

(Hmmm. I think this may be a new definition of "job burnout." Forget trying to make it happy. Just start thinking about literally heading and going halfway around the globe. Well, maybe not new. I kind of wonder if both Australia and the US aren't descended from a whole lot of people who said, "I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!")
lizbee From: lizbee Date: August 20th, 2004 09:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Keep an eye on the community center thing--that's one of those ideas that sneakily ends up with non-book things (internet terminals) in the way of the books. Physically. Not making it up, cross my heart.

I've noticed. *grin* So far we seem to be maintaining a balance, but the library at my university has a lousy computers:books ratio. Of course, my campus is for IT and technical students...


If they'd take my American MLS... er, MIS... I'd totally do it.

According to one of my lecturers, the MLS is considered equivalent to the Graduate Diploma in LIS that I'm currently doing. (In fact, this is the last year it's being offered as a grad-dip -- next year it will be a Masters.) ALIA has more information.

As for the job market, check out . Not sure how salaries compare, though. (If it seems shockingly low, remember that the cost of living is lower in Australia than the US.)

(Hmmm. I think this may be a new definition of "job burnout." Forget trying to make it happy. Just start thinking about literally heading and going halfway around the globe. Well, maybe not new. I kind of wonder if both Australia and the US aren't descended from a whole lot of people who said, "I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!")

That's certainly how my ancestors got here. *grin*
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