Nuts and bolts – another library post

Continuing the future of libraries series, and in particular how we get from today’s storefronts to tomorrow’s service.

The number two barrier to providing the service of the last post (access delivered on demand) is money. There’s the cost of delivery and recovery, plus the cost of the staff and materials, not to mention running the lights and heat overnight. Current circulation per capita for an area is 7.4 items. Let’s move that up in anticipation of success to 8 items per capita. Assuming an average of 5 pounds per item, that’s (for books) roughly $4 per item each way, or $8 per item round trip. That’s a notional $64 per person just for delivery and recovery of the items. For a county of ~100,000 people, then, the ballpark shipping budget just for this service is $6.4 million to use USPS. That’s easily more than the current total budget of libraries in that size of community. It’s actually unlikely that all items (at least initially) will be delivered, and further unlikely that the total cost will be that high given the number of videos, audiobooks, and electronic media delivered online that will be available. On the other hand you need to add the half-dozen FTE staff necessary to process the material plus supplies and such. It can probably be adjusted either way and so can’t be considered The Cost. Nonetheless, it gives a starting point.

It also leads to the true hard part: selling it. Libraries face institutional inertia, a not uncommon problem for well-established businesses. “Everybody knows” libraries are book warehouses to which you go for a quiet place to study. Attempts to stretch face the constant complaint that this, whatever the stretch may be, is not the business of libraries. As libraries live on public goodwill it only takes a small but vocal opposition by members of the public to end these attempts. It’s worth pointing out that some of the library staff will be equally resistant to change, and in fact may be a keystone to the opposition.

There are two pilot program options to introduce and prove the concept. Unfortunately both have potential problems of which the library director and board must be cautious. The two programs are to use this as a shut-in and low-mobility service, and to set it up as a fee-based ‘extra’ service. The former suffers the risk of having the program’s costs tolerated for charitable purposes, and too much for everyone else. The latter program risks the cost tradeoff being seen as immutable, with no willingness to extend it further. Nonetheless, both programs are an easier sell to communities pinching pennies and resistant to change.

My preference would be for the fee-based service. First, it potentially exposes the opportunities of the service to many more people. Second, it creates opportunities for expansion in subtle fashion at low to zero overhead. Between the two it creates a demand for the service’s expansion – and the pull of demand is always better than push of supply.

Assume for a moment that instead of postage the library provides (or contracts for) an in-community courier delivery and pickup service. The library can offer a per-piece rate, AND it can offer a periodical service (delivery of x items per delivery, per month/quarter). The capstone of the last might be that deliveries can be consolidated – that a SITE may pay for a (relatively) unlimited drop point which it in turn then provides for a number of people. These sites can be places of work, households, and apartment complexes, just to start the list. Suddenly the delivery cost dropped a LOT.

Cut the cost and you’ve removed a hurdle. You still have to cajole and persuade, but it’s a lot easier when the second highest hurdle is tradition, not money. But never forget that selling it – convincing enough of the people who make decisions to run with it – is always the most important thing on which to focus.

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