future of libraries, part 2

I said last time that people are going to keep using libraries, but HOW they’re using them will change. I want to focus in particular on one item this time. In some ways it’s the biggest “threat” to libraries as we know them.

John Rogers speaks often of how Netflix is the future of media. He posits (with good reason) that fixed delivery systems like networks are going to have to make major changes or die, because people are going to be able to get their shows – not just their networks – ala cart. People will be able to get what they want when and where they want it (with the constricting limit of a device capable of letting them watch it which is connected to the internet).

Checking things out at the library is 70 to 80% of a library’s business. Even though we librarians KNOW how important reference and special collections and archives are, the fact is that 70 to 80% (or more) of our budgets are spent – directly and indirectly – on the circulating collection. So let’s take a moment to look at the model.

For a flat fee – a regular tax – you have access to a pool of entertainment/education/information materials. You can pull a limited amount at a time for your use, but you can return them and get more just as often as you like. The only restriction is that you are paying the flat fee. That’s Netflix. That’s a public library.

Add ‘server read’ to ebooks – you don’t download, you read while connected, just as you do for much of Netflix ‘rentals’ – and it’s an easy step forward for BOTH places.

As people get more used to getting things this way, and as they discover they can get books that way as well, we can expect to see more and more demand for electronic books. The argument – and the threat – is that people will quit using libraries for their books and will instead turn to distributors and publishers and even authors who release directly.

The threat is exaggerated. Let’s put it this way: do bookstores threaten libraries?

I’ve noted before (in the last post on the subject as a matter of fact) that back when libraries were first putting branches in mall fronts an interesting synergy was discovered. Specifically, those branches located near bookstores had better circulation numbers– and the bookstore sales improved as well. Libraries are, though often unrecognized as such, advertising for publishers that pays the publishers for the ‘privilege’.

I expect, then, to see SOMEONE do online with e-materials what public libraries do already. There’s good money reasons to do it as a business. There are public goods reasons for it to be done by a public library. I actually expect to see both – each willing or able to do things the other won’t.

But the distribution model – not the ebooks themselves – is probably the major threat to public libraries as we know them. They need to change, or wonder what happened.

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5 thoughts on “future of libraries, part 2

  1. the problem libraries face is that individuals expect a building and staff. For many, if not most public libraries, the expense is daunting. I was on the board of a small public library in suburban Chicago from 97-2000. We were really strapped financially, and couldn’t get a tax increase. We balanced our budget but had to reduce hours and staff to keep balanced. Grants certainly helped, but in the current economic environment, those are in jeopardy too. I believe that in the next 10 to 15 years many small-medium public libraries will be forced to close their doors due to budget issues. State, county, and local budgets are a mess right now and won’t get any better soon. In the best of financial times support for public libraries is weak. I think larger ones will survive, as the tax dollars will be spread over a larger base. if something from the menu of public services has to be cut libraries will be among the first. Schools, water/sewer/garbage, fire/police, roads and even parks/recreation will all take precedence.

    re: visitors: If the same numbers of individuals are coming to libraries, but fewer items are checked out, my guess is that it’s not for computers but that programs or facilities are being offered and used. Computers are ubiquitous, as is broadband access, in most urban areas. this is true even for lower income families. However, cultural things like story time or guest speakers are naturals for libraries and aren’t the same online. perhaps they’re renting out meeting rooms or offering community college courses?

  2. re visitors – either I wasn’t clear or, well…

    Visitors are not remaining the same. They’re increasing, and increasing for both small and large libraries.

    Small libraries are having significantly more visitors and seeing moderate increases in overall circulation counts. However, circulation per capita is remaining about the same, which means circ per visit rate is declining.

    As noted in the first post this one follows, the major issue is that neither of our conjectures can be supported. Visitors are climbing, circ per visitor is declining, but we don’t know what the extra visitors are doing.

    And if we don’t know, our budget plans might as well be made on dart boards.

  3. Pingback: If libraries provide access…? « Mental Meanderings

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