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« For my non-U.S. readers only | Main | Prognostications - 2003 »

What's the new economic model for libraries?

It takes a long time for a generation to come around to significant revolutionary change. The newspaper business, the steel business, law firms, the car business, the record business, even computers... one by one, our industries are being turned upside down, and so quickly that it requires us to change faster than we'd like. ...

It's unpleasant, it's not fair, but it's all we've got. The sooner we realize that the world has changed, the sooner we can accept it and make something of what we've got. Whining isn't a scalable solution. Seth Godin

The economic rationale for libraries has always been simple: It's less expensive to buy one book and share it than it is to buy a book for everyone. (See Common Sense Economy)

And that worked just fine when information and entertainment came in atoms and only one person could access one container o'information at a time. It worked best when information and its physical containers were expensive for the average person. It worked well when people seemed OK with paying taxes to support the common good - like public libraries and public schools.

But libraries need to find a new economic rationale for their existence other than sharing - and fast - since sharing doesn't really work anymore - or will stop working soon. 

At a conference last Friday, Jason Griffey, librarian from Chattanooga, TN, suggested that Netflix is the new model for content delivery. And he's right. The media, which costs a set amount (26 cents a day), is leased and can be accessed on about a dozen devices including an Internet-ready TV, a ROKU, a half dozen gaming devices, a computer, a tablet, an iPodTouch or a smartphone. From anywhere. At any time. (It sucks up 20% of all Internet bandwidth during prime movie watching time in the US.) 

Music services (MOG, Rapsody, Napster) work the same way for tunes. Buy an mp3 file, let alone a CD, when you can access through a huge rental library - are you nuts?

And books? Look at Capstone's MyOn Reader and any number of e-books on demand type services. When will Amazon offer a Netflix/MOG model - all the books you can read for one low, low monthly fee?

Right now we spend about $20 per student on books and magazines in our district each year. At what point will that $20 provide more materials through a subscription to a digital e-book service than we can purchase in print? Add the money now being spent on maintaining the space required for physical shelves, cost of clerical help to reshelve, and the expense of the library catalog/circ system to the materials budget and the district has a pretty hefty sum to spend on e-stuff subscriptions.

What are you doing to prepare for the day when finding a good book or researching a paper is no longer a reason to come to the library? When administrators figure out there are less expensive, more effective ways of providing materials?

Will you have the skills and be in the position to manage digital resources? Will you have a curriculum of essential skills that only you teach? Will your physical library space still be seen as a vital part of the school program?

My bet is that e-readers will be adopted more rapidly that mp3 players. When's the last time you saw a kid using a phonograph, a cassette player or even a Walkman? My son's "e-book reader" is his iPod Touch and reading on cell phones has long been a staple in other parts of the world. Neflix is killing the video rental stores. How fast will people and schools sign up for "books on demand" when it becomes available?

Now, not tomorrow, is when to start positioning yourself in the new information ecosystem. And remember Godin's words: Whining isn't a scalable solution.

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Reader Comments (8)

It will be a big shift. I was interested to find out that there is already a "netflix" for physical books. Still a little too pricey to tempt me...but it is only a matter of time till it is all digital. See my post and the comments on this topic at:
Libraries in a BookFlix World

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJacquie Henry

The one thing I've learned about any great new technology is that no one (virtually) is able to predict a priori what the "one new tech that is going to light the world on fire" is. Typically, someone gets really excited, spreads that excitement to people who can make such heady decisions, money is allocated and spent, the thrill runs up and down their legs, and, to cut to the denouement, somebody is left sitting with a pile of useless paper weights and a surprised look on their face when the global zeitgeist takes an unexpected dog-leg turn. And somebody got rich. Yes, you can make a lot of money on the right decision on the right idea. But you can make a pretty good short-term gain on a really bad idea too -- look for who first spreads the excitement in the first place?

What bothers me about the rush to certain new technologies for libraries is this. For me, the Library is the bastion of free speech, and the Librarian is the Sacred Guardian thereof. There are some who believe that free speech is an antiquated commodity in a Global Free Market world. The ability to reduce the library itself to a handheld device seems farseeing and liberating at first, but when you realize then that the decision of what that handheld fount of all information contains no longer needs to be made by boots-on-the-ground librarians in brick and mortar information portals. Those decisions can now be easily made by ... well, fill in the blanks. Our public schools have already had their freedom of information reduced by "well-meaning" ideologues who struggle mightily to create their own realities in available textbooks.

On the other hand, the reality of new technology in my experience is that it rarely ever works as well as hoped. And, even if the electronic book can ultimately be made cheaper, the free marketeers will not likely stand idly by as their hoped for profits slip away. New charges, fees, surcharges, obsolescences, and just cheap crap from whatever "China" is making our cheap crap then, will likely take the sunshine off the rose of delight, and, for some time at least, the teacher, or librarian, will sigh, and reach for a book.

Change will come, it is inevitable. But I defy anyone to tell me what that change will really look like. Sure, the mp3 player is the bomb. Today. Before though? Who predicted it. Who jumped on the idea and was ready to apply it to revolutionize our education system? Now, the phone, the music player, the camera, the video camera, even the calculator, all sit in the same handheld box. Who predicted it? But now, the tech moves on us so fast that we are barely allowed to get used to one before the next one becomes must have. Economically, it is a Free Market dream. But no amount of technology will ever replace the spark. The book, in whatever form it comes, is only the fuel. The Librarian, the Teacher, is the spark that ignites it.

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFred Izenberger

This post comes at a great time. As we finish out our one year pilot using an alternate staffing model, many of your points reinforce and helped frame some conclusions. In terms of support staff "assistant librarian" is no longer adequate job description. To be flexible and to build an effective program that supports student learning we need specialists. The new economic model requires rebuilding collection acquisition and delivery systems, and that means stellar tech skills. Reaching out to students to provide 24/7 online support via social media and avatars requires skills in all the evolving platforms. Managing and troubleshooting tech devices (Kindles, circulating laptops, various cameras, iPods, tablets) require a whole different set of technology skills. These are skills required of support staff!
As librarian recognizing the new paradigm and shifting your curriculum, program and staff to respond and be relevant is a huge challenge. Your post was very helpful as I try to clarify my thoughts for our end of year report, and to start the exciting work of building on what we learned in our pilot to prepare for next year.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Cicchetti

Hi Jacquie,

You and I see this coming, But I worry about 95% of the rest of the profession. Do we only learn something when it means losing our jobs if we don't?


Hi Fred,

What did Yogi Berra say? "Making predictions is hard, especially about the future." I think one has to acknowledge the move from analog to digital information storage and access is far enough advanced that there is no going back. We'll probably be surprised by the devices, but the overall movement is established.


Thanks, Robin. Always wonderful to know that something one's written has been helpful. Good luck with your transition. Let others know about it. (Guest blog post here???)


May 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I am eagerly awaiting the day I can have ALL of my high school library's bookshelves removed. I recently helped open a state-of-the-art campus, and the architects and muckety-mucks in District Administration have envisioned and built a space where the library will be a lean, mean, ebook lending machine with a sparse 3,000 square feet for almost 3,000 students. Ten years from now, that will be the perfect design. I now work in a physical space that is bursting at the seams, filled with both physical books and kids (BTW, we currently only have freshmen and sophomores). The ebook revolution has not yet reached school libraries in a meaningful way, we have no way of ensuring access to existing e-content for all of our kids, and we are crammed to the gills with a barely adequate print collection while we wait for the other shoe to drop. The few thousand e-titles we have now are browser-based, hosted remotely, and frankly, just ain't pretty.

Since I am not a whiner, I have a solution: publishers and school library vendors need to get off of their respective hindquarters and get us inexpensive devices that allow ALL of our kids to access our digital collections. The devices don't need an Internet connection (they have that with their phones anyway), they don't need cameras, or games, or any of the other add ons we find with Kindles, NOOKs, and the rest. We need a simple e-ink or color device that we can pre-load from a docking station (one that preferably holds up to 100 devices). We load up to 5 titles on the device, check it out to the kid with a battery charger, and he or she comes back for more when they are through. The device has the capability to play MP3 audio versions of the print books we pre-load. This is essential for our dyslexic and English learners. We keep circulation stats through RFID ('cause that's what the bosses want to see), we still make recommendations, and we still teach the kids how to conduct meaningful research and put together terrific learning products. The e-titles will have NO restrictive DRMs a-la Amazon, Overdrive, etc., they can be loaned out as many times as a well-bound library volume, and we own the stinking things when we buy them; they are hosted locally on our brand-new shiny servers. I'd gladly pay up to $150 each for the devices, and $20 each for the ebook + audio titles. My yearly book budget would easily pay for 50 devices and 275 titles = a great starting point. I could finally start getting rid of those print volumes that need constant attention - processing, maintenance, and repair. We would no longer waste time reading shelves, re-shelving, dusting, locating lost books at the end of the year, etc.

I just want to see "dead tree" books go away. Is that so wrong?

May 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLen Bryan

Hi Len,

I share your frustration with the lack of inexpensive e-book readers. Personally, I don't envision dedicated readers, but reader apps for the ubiquitous cell phones or tablets. And yes, it's early in the e-book game, but I expect rapid developments.

Hope Round Rock's is a great model for us all. Keep us from having to all make the same mistakes!


May 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Love the topic and the opportunity to read the variety of perspectives on this topic. Doug, thanks for posing the question: "What are you doing to prepare for the day when finding a good book or researching a paper is no longer a reason to come to the library?"

I'd like to learn more about professional development practices and suggestions for school librarians as we navigate through this print -to- eBook evolutionary period. Any suggestions?

May 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ Ziemba

Hi Jeanne,

How to prepare for the transition is a great question. I can think of a few thinks.

Stay current on what's happening with e-books, e-texts and how people are accessing.
Read about the school library pioneers like Buffy Hamilton who are doing e-book trials.
Get and keep responsibility for all the online resources in your school.
Experiment as you can.

Good luck!


May 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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