If libraries provide access…?

Last post was pointing out the core mission of libraries, and hinting that focusing on this was the way to libraries being meaningful in the future. The library post prior to that was pointing out how Netflix, with pretty much the same underlying model, was the biggest competitor. This post is a bit of thinking out loud (so comments are more than welcome – grin) about how libraries can compete with Netflix.

At a higher (I’ll misuse the term ‘meta’, even) level, the difference between Netflix and libraries is that Netflix provides on demand on site service while libraries are storefronts. That’s not perfectly accurate, of course, but it certainly gives the core. For Netflix I get online (or the phone) at home and make my request, and depending on whether it’s streaming or physical I get it NOW or I get it in a couple of days, but either way never have to make a trip to the Netflix store. For libraries, however, I have to go there. I can put things on hold at a lot of libraries, which means I don’t have to dig through all the stacks myself but just pick it up at the checkout counter, but I still have to go TO the counter -and that counter is only available when the storefront is open. Add to this that there’s a chance what I want isn’t available – very new books being the primary example – and you can see the problem.

The solution, unfortunately, requires money. And yet I think it’s sellable to the community that pays the taxes. I’m speaking of a dedicated delivery service – whether owned by the library, by the community, or via a contracted delivery service (in which I’m including USPS, FedEx, etc.) The cost is not just for the delivery service itself. There is also the need for the people who process the materials in and out of the library; from shelf to outbox and inbox back to shelf. FWIW this can be low-wage labor done when the library’s storefront isn’t open – in fact if I had a free hand it WOULD be just that. “Next Business Day” delivery if in stock, every day. Since it (in my example) would have staff for longer, it wouldn’t be that much more to have online/on-call reference after hours, either.

Are there difficulties besides money? Oh, yes. Let me give you a big one, a classic. The Book is On Hold for Mr. Jones, but after the hold is placed Mrs. Smith finds it on the shelf and wants to check it out. That’s a PR disaster in the making and you can (and will) lose regardless of choice. At this time Mrs. Smith gets the book (after all, if it’s on hold Mr. Jones expects to wait), but if he made the action after seeing that according to processing it’s IN, well, you just made the hold a wee bit less trustworthy. Yes, if the delivery model is started it means I’m going to have to say, “Sorry, Mrs. Smith, but there’s a hold.” On the other hand it’ll encourage Mrs. Smith to use the deliverable system as well – not necessarily a bad thing, especially as the collection’s electronic media expands.

If libraries are about access, they’d better start focusing on that. It’s not what they’ve got, it’s the people GETTING what they’ve got that matters.

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