June 28, 2006

Netflix Takes Libraries To School: Part II - What about the Free Public Library

What about the Free Public Library? Four Points.

Renee commented: "No, charging for *expanded levels* of service is not something public libraries as tax-supported institutions should do."

Renee sure isn't alone in thinking this. It really is a vitally important point that comes up continually in discussions like this. Perhaps Renee's school of thought is best. Ideally, I completely agree and at the outset want to be very careful to not come across as a know it all, ‘cause I sure ain’t one, sister! However, shifting attitudes, markets and methods of service provision make me think twice about this conceptually. Here are four points in this regard:

1. Most importantly, core services offered previously would not cost any more than before. In other words, we would simply be adding more options for our patrons. The same free services would still be the same free services. Plus, we could tie free services and these new services together to expose the library and its collection even more. Imagine how many new people we would drive into our libraries with this service and then expose them to the other wonderful things our libraries have to offer them for free! This is a HUGE service, outreach and marketing opportunity for a profession/industry that needs exactly that.

2. Some libraries now charge their patrons the ILL cost for those items that they can only get with the “condition” of the borrower paying a “lending fee” to the lending institution. It’s not a common practice, but it does exist.

3. When it comes to the money issue, here’s another point: If our local "Friends of the Library" group can take money in for the library at book sales or they can sell patrons book bags or library t-shirts, etc, then what is the difference? The methods for legally bringing in unique (not-for-profit) monetary streams already exist in most library institutions. Thinking of new ways to use this infrastructure is different and challenging, but not necessarily wrong.

4. Finally, those libraries that are a part of Open WorldCat (a significant and rapidly growing number) and are participating in the "Buy It Now" feature are already (and/or will be) getting a percentage of the sale price of each item sold through their relationship with Open WorldCat. That system is very legal and is welcomed with open arms by participating libraries.
OWC - Diamond Age

So, depending on how the systems we are discussing were set up, it sure seems like it could work. The mental (not to mention technical) model is a shift for sure, but it certainly seems that both libraries and patrons could benefit greatly from it. While these posts are centered on Netflix and libraries, the big picture isn’t really about DVD’s (pun not intended). What we’re really talking about is material and CONTENT. Content of all types. That’s huge, huge, huge and nobody can come close to touching the depth and quality of material content libraries have. Yet. At this point "they" may simply sometimes have better access and provision models. We’ll figure this business out one way or another...or perhaps business already has us figured out?

Coming Soon:
Netflix Numbers vs. Library Numbers

Posted by libraryman at June 28, 2006 04:04 PM
Comments

I don't want to sound like a "know it all" either, and I appreciate the ideas that you are working through here (though I'm not too receptive to them right now, as you'll see). Also, I work in an academic library, not a public library. So I'll comment more as a public library user.

The problem I have with charging for "expanded levels" of service has to with fairness, not legality (as you mention in #3 and #4 above). With a Netflix model, I would be afraid that there would be a temptation to put those paying customers to the top of the hold queue.

The public library is one of the few egalitarian institutions in American culture, and I believe that many people love it for that. I'd be very careful about messing with that.

Lastly, I'm not sure why you believe that this kind of service would drive new people into public libraries. Isn't the great thing about Netflix that you never have to go *anywhere*, but you can just stay at home and watch DVDs?

Posted by: Steve Lawson at June 28, 2006 08:36 PM