Privatizing Libraries

by | Aug 19, 2010 | Business Trends

Thomas Frey Futurist Speaker privatizing libraries
Expanding our thinking about the notion of
corporate-run community libraries

Consider the following scenario. Two years from now in November, you find yourself walking into a voting booth to decide on the fate of your local library. The issue you will be deciding affects you directly because it has to do with the management of your local library. You will be voting on one of four choices for the operational management of your library. The choices you have to pick from include Microsoft, Google, Apple, or your current city-run operation.

Rest assured, this is not some takeover bid by one of these three companies to steal libraries away from their local constituency. Rather, it is a very considered offer to both manage and invest in your local library, while at the same time, extending the influence of their companies.

Let’s face it; the recent economic times have not been kind to community libraries. Many have had to cut staff and cut services in order to keep their doors open. Several libraries systems have had to close branches, while other standalone libraries have had little choice but to close their doors.

While many in the library community may see this as cause for alarm, I would like to open a conversation on how a situation like this can be turned into an opportunity.

While it may be possible to find a combination of paid services and corporate sponsorships to transition a community library off the public tax roles, there may be some more appealing options for allowing corporations to operate public libraries.

Before anyone begins assigning labels of “right” or “wrong,” I would like to engage you in ways to thread-the-needle of possibilities and see if there are any balancing acts that may indeed make sense.

It’s important to keep in mind that corporations will have some sort of profit motive in the background, so the best approach will be to formulate some form of win-win strategy so both the corporation and the community benefit from the relationship.

Library Assets

To begin with, there are many valuable assets that libraries have that businesses will find appealing. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Positive Influence – Most libraries serve as a source of community pride and a gathering place for activities. Even though many people may not use their library, it remain a positive entity in the minds of most.
  • Naming Rights – In much the same way corporations spend millions to put their name on stadiums, companies will see great value in putting their name on a community library.
  • New Product Test Bed – Libraries are already using many different kinds of informational products, and they are continually adding new ones. By simply shifting the library a little closer to the front of the early-adoption food chain, this might serve as a win-win situation that can be monetized through product development or marketing dollars.
  • Information/Communications Channel – Most libraries today do a poor job of managing their outbound communications. A corporate communications department could easily turn libraries into an effective communications channel.
  • Fiduciary Role – Libraries are a trusted entity. If it’s done right, the trusted reputation can be exploited in subtle but beneficial ways for both parties.
  • Local Face to the Public – With the web making businesses increasingly virtual, an interesting counter-trend will be to create a local presence for all to see.
  • Primary Destination – People will make a trip specifically to the library. This becomes important when considering the spin-off potential for other activities they may engage in while they are there, and also other related businesses next door.
  • Linking Strategy – Adding other retail and service outlets to a library. As an example, placing a library next to an automobile service center will give people something to do while they are waiting for their car to get fixed.

“Corporate-Branded” Libraries

Keeping these assets in mind, let’s begin to explore what strategies may come into play with “corporate branded” libraries. Each corporation will bring with them their own corporate culture, their own way of doing things, and, of course, their own agenda.

Please note that this is merely conjecture on my part. I do not claim any insider knowledge about their future plans.

  • Google Libraries: Even though Google’s founders have been long-time library advocates, they have continually pushed the envelope on copyright and fair use issues, a sore spot with many librarians. A Google Library strategy will likely be framed around further promotion of the agenda to make all printed material searchable. In addition, libraries may be utilized as the functional proving ground for pre-product launches.
  • Microsoft Libraries: Microsoft has a rich history of supporting libraries both through philanthropy and corporate support. A Microsoft library would naturally be a showcase for Windows and Office software, and would probably include a training center to help people move from beginner to advanced users.
  • Amazon Libraries: With its vast inventory of books to sell, Amazon may devise some very ingenious strategies. While it would appear that they are in direct competition with libraries, there are many areas where their work may be complementary. As an example, one of their strategies would likely focus on expanding the use of e-book readers and downloadable content. They also may wish to define the boundaries between free and sellable content, a boundary which is currently in flux.
  • IBM Libraries: After selling its PC division, IBM has been looking for ways to create a new face for the public. An IBM strategy might involve showcasing their rich history of innovation all the way from early punch card machines, to mainframe computing, to the dawn of the PC era. Their goal would be to establish themselves as a leading player in the emerging cloud computing world.
  • Wal-Mart Libraries: The motivation behind a Wal-Mart Library will be to draw more traffic into their stores. Further exploiting the store-within-a-store concept, libraries could be built as a loss-leader marketing play inside a Wal-Mart store. They may also be used to feature computer, printer, and other information products that can be purchased in the rest of the store. The home page on all computers will be set to walmart.com. (This may seem overtly commercialized, but may be a positive option for small towns with minimal opportunities for their library to grow.)
  • Apple Libraries: An Apple Library may very easily operate like an Apple retail store with a library attached. Geeky librarians will teach people how to build personal profiles, use the equipment, record podcasts, and edit videos. People can use the library to “test drive” or even borrow the equipment before making a purchase.
  • Facebook Libraries: Facebook wants to be much more than a social networking site on the Internet. Its goal is to become common infrastructure upon which Web 3.0 and 4.0 will emerge. With this in mind, libraries could become the training centers and proving grounds for much of this Facebook philosophy.

These, of course, are but a few of the possible players in this space.

If any of this seems inconceivable or too unwieldy for one company to take on, let’s look at the math. There are approximately 16,000 libraries across the U.S. If a company set out to privatize 1,600 or 10% of them, focusing on small to medium sized libraries with a per library budget of $2 million, the total expenditure would be $3.2 billion. While this is a rather significant number, it is indeed within the realm of possibilities, especially if there is a way to derive a profit from some aspect of the operation.

Keep in mind that the community will likely still be contributing money to the operation of the library, so the corporation may only have to add some supplemental funds which it will likely view as marketing dollars.

Setting the Boundaries

As with any type of agreement, the first task needs to involve thinking through both the upside and the downside of the arrangement.

In many respects, this type of agreement is no different than what a city will set up with a cable television franchise, electric and gas providers, or even garbage collection.

It is important to establish a series of guidelines to address key operational issues on the front end.

  • The city or community will need to retain ownership of the facility and all equipment and content going into the arrangement. The agreement should be for a set amount of time, perhaps 5-10 years, renewable at the discretion of the governing board.
  • As a general rule, the public needs be given free access to the library along with free access to information. There may be a charge for certain types of information and services, but this needs be established up front.
  • The library has an obligation to archive the local community. Again, details about minimum archive requirements need to be explained in the agreement.
  • Libraries cannot be closed. In the event a corporation decides it can no longer continue to support and operate the library, there must be a one year advance notice given to the community allowing ample time for either the city or another company to take over the operation.
  • Most importantly, the community needs to retain some sort of veto power over the operation as a check-and-balance system for whatever might go wrong.

The Upside and the Downside

With corporate run libraries, I can see both positive and negative sides to the arguments.

On the positive side, they have the potential to become better managed libraries. Corporations will inject their own unique kind of creativity into the system.

Librarians will likely be better trained and paid a higher salary. The public will benefit from better resources, better programs, and access to cutting edge thinking and technology.

On the negative side, corporations have traditionally been very heavy-handed in their attempts to make a profit, so in this type of situation, some formerly free services may begin to cost money. Over time there may be a growing tension between the corporation and local citizens, and virtually every change becomes closely scrutinized by the public. The biggest downside happens if the corporation ignores the needs of the community and wields a heavy-handed corporate agenda.

Most companies are very wary of anything that could cause damage to their reputation, so most of the extreme scenarios are not too likely.

If the arrangement is structured properly up front, and the community retains ownership of the facility and veto power over any egregious violations, this could indeed become a win-win arrangement for everyone involved.

In fact, the best possible arrangement might be if 2-3 companies get very competitive about running libraries with each trying to outdo the other. In that kind of situation, we all win.

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