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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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Privatizing Libraries

by | Aug 19, 2010 | Business Trends

I was thoroughly intrigued when I found out the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado was offering a degree in asteroid mining.

Yes, the idea of extracting water, oxygen, minerals, and metals from an asteroid sounds like science fiction to most people, but it’s not that far away.  In fact, Colorado School of Mines’ newly launched “Space Resources” program will help people get in on the ground floor.

After thinking about the proactive nature of this approach, it became abundantly clear how backward thinking most colleges have become.

When colleges decide on a new degree program, they must first recruit instructors, create a new curriculum, and attract students. As a result, the talent churned out of these newly minted programs is the product of a 6-7 year pipeline.

For this reason, anticipatory-thinking institutions really need to be setting their sights on what business and industries will need 7-10 years from now.

The Risk-Averse Nature of Education

When Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen released his best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, his core message that disruptive change is the path to success, was only partially embraced by higher education.

While many were experimenting with MOOCs and smart whiteboards, changes in the subject matter of their courses still evolved at the traditional pace of discovery.

This is not to say colleges are not innovative. Rather, the demands of today’s emerging tech environment are forcing business and industries to shift into an entirely new gear. And that most definitely includes our academic institutions.

From a management perspective, it’s far easier to oversee a contained system where all variables are constrained. But during times of change, we tend to give far more power to the “unleashers,” who are determined to test the status quo and release ideas and trial balloons to see what works.

For this reason, managers and creatives often find themselves on opposing sides, and the winners of these warring factions often determine what we as consumers see as the resulting ripples of change.

Offering Pilot Programs

When Facebook bought Oculus Rift in March 2014 for $2 billion, the job boards went crazy, as there was an instant uptick in the demand for VR designers, engineers, and experience creators. But no one was teaching VR, and certainly not the Oculus Rift version of it.

Colleges have a long history of being blindsided by new technologies:

  • When eBay launched, no one was teaching ecommerce strategies
  • When Myspace launched, no one was teaching social networking
  • When Google launched, no one was teaching online search engine strategies
  • When Uber launched, no one was teaching sharing economy business models
  • When Apple first opened their App Store, no one was teaching smart phone app design
  • When Amazon first allowed online storefronts, no one was teaching the Amazon business model
  • When YouTube first offered ways to monetize videos, no one was teaching it

Since most academic institutions are only willing to put their name on programs with long-term viability, the endorsement of half-baked agendas does not come easy. However, that is exactly what needs to be done.

Colleges can no longer afford to remain comfortably behind the curve.

52 Future College Degrees

As a way of priming your thinking on this matter, here are 52 future degrees that forward-thinking colleges could start offering today:

  1. Space Exploration – space tourism planning and management
  2. Space Exploration – planetary colony design and operation
  3.  Space Exploration – next generation space infrastructure
  4. Space Exploration – advanced cosmology and non-earth human habitats
  5. Bioengineering with CRISPR – policy and procedural strategies
  6. Bioengineering with CRISPR – advanced genetic engineering systems
  7. Bioengineering with CRISPR – operational implementations and system engineering
  8. Bioengineering with CRISPR – ethical regulation and oversight
  9. Smart City – autonomous traffic integration
  10. Smart City – mixed reality modeling
  11. Smart City – autonomous construction integration
  12. Smart City – next generation municipal planning and strategy
  13. Autonomous Agriculture – robotic systems
  14. Autonomous Agriculture – drone systems
  15. Autonomous Agriculture – supply chain management
  16. Autonomous Agriculture – systems theory and integration
  17. Swarmbot – design, theory, and management
  18. Swarmbot – system engineering and oversight
  19. Swarmbot – municipal system design
  20. Swarmbot – law enforcement and advanced criminology systems
  21. Cryptocurrency – digital coin economics
  22. Cryptocurrency – crypto-banking system design
  23. Cryptocurrency – regulatory systems and oversight
  24. Cryptocurrency – forensic accounting strategies
  25. Blockchain – design, systems, and applications
  26. Blockchain – blockchain for biological systems
  27. Blockchain – large-scale integration structures
  28. Blockchain – municipal system design strategies
  29. Global Systems – system planning, architecture, and design
  30. Global Systems – large-scale integration strategies
  31. Global Systems – operational systems checks and balance
  32. Global Systems – governmental systems in a borderless digital world
  33. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - drone film making
  34. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – command center operations
  35. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – municipal modeling and planning systems
  36. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – emergency response systems
  37. Mixed Reality - experiential retail
  38. Mixed Reality – three-dimensional storytelling
  39. Mixed Reality – game design
  40. Mixed Reality – therapeutic systems and design
  41. Advanced Reproductive Systems – designer baby strategies, planning, and ethics
  42. Advanced Reproductive Systems – surrogate parenting policy and approaches
  43. Advanced Reproductive Systems – organic nano structures
  44. Advanced Reproductive Systems – clone engineering and advanced processes
  45. Artificial Intelligence – data management in an AI environment
  46. Artificial Intelligence – advanced human-AI integration
  47. Artificial Intelligence – streaming AI data services
  48. Artificial Intelligence – advanced marketing with AI
  49. Quantum Computing – data strategies in a quantum-connected world
  50. Quantum Computing – quantum-level encryption and security
  51. Quantum Computing – quantum computing implementation strategies
  52. Quantum Computing – AI-quantum system integration

Final Thought

More so than any time in history, we have a clear view of next generation technologies. Naturally, we’re still a long way from 100% clarity, but for most of the technologies listed above, the shifting tectonic plates of change can be felt around the world.

Without taking decisive action, colleges run the risk of being circumvented by new types of training systems that can meet market demands in a fraction of the time it takes traditional academia to react.

The ideas I’ve listed are a tiny fraction of what’s possible when it comes to emerging tech degrees. Should colleges stick their neck out like Colorado School of Mines and offer degrees that may not be immediately useful? Adding to that question, how many college degrees are immediately useful today?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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