Libraries are a funny thing in my small-government world. I support libraries. I utilize the services of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library all the time. I even have a book checked out from the library right now. I think the world would be a better place if libraries actually had more patrons, as we’d all be a little more educated at the end of the day.
But, there’s a problem with libraries. They’re expensive. Budgets are failing and libraries are being forced to close or dwindle the number of services they offer.
To be fair, some services just seem silly, like movie rentals. Have you ever taken a hard look at movie rentals from a library? The wait list is huge, and even though it’s free, most people prefer to get Netflix to get them sooner, despite it costing $10 a month. Why? Even before Netflix, people still supported Blockbuster more than libraries for movie rentals. Why?
It may have something to do with that evil profit motive. Blockbuster, and now Netflix, negotiate deals with movie studios that call for the studios to supply a bunch of DVDs to the rental companies for nothing, and then Netflix and Blockbuster pay a small portion of the rental fee back to the studio on each rental. You pay $10 a month to Netflix and $4 of it goes to the studios, $2 goes to postage and the rest goes to Netflix (or some formula like that). It encourages the studios to produce more disks so they can get to more customers, faster. Thus, no huge backlogs and it’s all for a cheap price that virtually everybody can afford.
Libraries, on the other hand, buy a movie at a price of $80 or more for “public licenses”. They buy it once and rent it out forever and ever for free. This means that it’s cost-prohibitive for libraries to buy a whole bunch of the latest movie and they can only “break even” on their purchase after it’s rented by a hundred or more people. Plus, they never get any incentive to make sure it is rented or any revenue streams.
The same goes for books. In Indianapolis, the library charges $75 in some cases for a lost or stolen book. Why $75 for a $9.99 book? Because the library paid $75 to get the rights to distribute it for free and that’s why they have at most, only a handful of any given book. I’ve been on waiting lists for books at the library as long as 5 or 6 weeks.
That’s horribly inefficient and so inconvenient that most people don’t bother with the library. The business model could be so vastly superior, even if they charged a small usage fee for book rentals. They’re some websites that mail books like Netflix mails movies, like bookswim.com and booksfree.com, but their selection is still small. I hope they can get to a point where the price drops and the selection improves. I’m sure it will. If it does, it’s another problem for libraries’ relevancy.
They’re other services the library provides, like access to copy machines and computers. However, copy machines can be found all over the place. My local grocery stores have them and fax machines for 25 cents a copy – the same price as the library. Internet access is a plus, but only because the library has the computers, too. To be honest, I don’t have an answer to where people can go for the use of a computer free or not. Although, I’m sure something could be developed.
I like libraries, but frankly, only because so few people use them. Libraries have nothing to gain from increased usage and in fact are harmed by increased usage. “More money” isn’t necessarily the solution there, as you’d still be buying books and media for insanely high prices. A sliding scale for library patron fees may be a solution. And, ideally, a more central or regional approach may be in order, too. A sort of “national library”, if you will, whereby one or two competing organizations strike deals with publishers on behalf of libraries across the country or a state, similar to how Netflix strikes deals for the entire US.
Libraries need not fight for more money so much as they need to be fighting to innovate by securing deals and agreements and making better use of increasingly popular eBook readers. Innovation in a business model that hasn’t changed much since the founding of our nation is a solution that everyone can agree to get behind for the sake of our wallets and our minds.