Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why Closing Libraries is Good for Libraries.

One simple law of economics is that scarcity increases value. So the short answer would be that closing a few libraries makes the others more valuable.

Here is an example:
We have computers in our library and we continue to survey the wait times for those computers to decide whether we should add more computers.

You might say, "Hey, idiot, add more computers if you can afford to buy them." But you would be wrong.

We learned that people complain when we have more computers than we need to satisfy the demand. Either unlimited computer access invites "squatting" or the unused equipment makes it look like we are wasting money.

So we survey how long someone actually waits for a computer. And we find that year in, year out, we manage to keep the wait down to an average (depending on the day of the week) of between 5 and 15 minutes. Yes, there are days when the wait is over an hour, but that's why we continue to run these surveys. Of course, there are also times when the wait is 0.

So we think that a 15 minute wait is not too long and patrons seem to agree because they return day after day to use the computers. People are willing to trade their 15 minutes to wait to use a free computer.

Now there are many blog posts about how FREE is the way of the future on the Internet. But public libraries are already free. Yes, the taxpayer funds them, but the average library patron does not see these fees since there are no recurring charges for library use.

The FREE business model does not work for libraries because they're already free. Free only works when there is the alternative to pay.

Now libraries can charge for services, but since they are funded by tax revenue, those charges are often viewed as unfair. Taxpayers have already paid for the Internet and the computers, so how can a library charge to use them? Those tiny pencils on the desk are free for me to take as many as I choose. And that out of print Criterion DVD is also mine.

Now that some libraries are suffering financially and the threats of closure are genuine, the public have shown willingness to accept certain fees in order to maintain services. Or better still, to allow libraries to begin charging for things libraries should have been charging for all along.

The threat of the loss of service has shifted some power back to libraries. If money is the issue, then libraries can use the current financial climate to renegotiate these contracts for these services, supplies, etc., formerly handed out gratis.

What does your library give away that you could reasonably charge for? Computer classes? Pencils (with erasers)? Envelopes? Do you give away free computer printouts? Do you waive overdue fines? Do you proctor tests for students? Meeting room use? Swim laps in your heated Olympic-size pool?

Of course, it's terrible when a library closes. Everyone loses. Libraries provide for more than we can ever truly understand. After a long career in banking, my mother has become a regular library user and has borrow many books and movies, and with that information has recently taken up welding.

Wait, did I say "welding"? I meant watercolors.

Libraries lend books for SAT/ GED/ GRE prep, nursing school entrance exams, postal exams, ESL instruction, ASVAB, citizenship, computer certification, real estate, HVAC, CDL, and the list goes on. And we don't know where any of that new knowledge took those individuals. They continue on as part of society, often not realizing how the library has affected their lives.

But when libraries perform too well; when we provide for everything, from ebooks to ebook readers to blu-ray discs to netbooks to MP3 downloads to streaming theatrical movies, it becomes inevitable that libraries will appear to be an excessive expense and become an early target for budget cuts.

Don't take this to mean that I am in charge of the money at my library. I could never balance a budget. When I worked for Taco Bell and my register was over by 37 cents, I just quit and walked out rather than try to find the error. Okay, that's a joke. It was at Burger King.

My point is for us to remember that there are essential services and other crap we buy because we had the money. And when the threat comes and you need to make those tough choices, you're better off cleaning house and eliminating the electronic crap and finding ways to charge for some services than you are crying and waiting for the library doors to shut for good and hit you on the ass on your way out.

Or maybe I don't have a point.