Saturday, August 11, 2012

The success paradox

An article entitled "Study: Public Awareness Gap on Ebooks in Libraries" in the July/August 2012 issue of American Libraries reports that 62% of Americans polled did not know if their library (presumably their local public library) lends ebooks. This statement was followed by a quote from Molly Raphael about how libraries should increase public awareness of their services. I would naturally be inclined to agree with her except for the other statistics that were cited: 56% of those who do borrow ebooks were unable to borrow a particular book they were seeking, and 52% had encountered wait lists for books.

Given that data, you have to wonder what the results would be if libraries did make the public more aware of the availability of ebooks.

An institution with a fixed budget cannot afford to be too successful, or at least not successful in the sense of encouraging more use of its services. The more successful the institution is, the more it will fail its users because demand will overwhelm its ability to serve them. As we see in the ebook example, libraries are failing to serve well even the minority of people who are aware that they have ebooks to lend. What if everyone was made aware of the availability of "free" ebooks from the library? The ebook lending service would be worse from the user's perspective.

Where each purchase of the book makes money for the bookseller, each demand of the library results in a cost rather than a revenue gain. This is because the library is on a fixed income and the basis of the library's budget is only tangentially related to the number of 'customers' it serves. A library with an annual budget of, say, $500,000 has that amount to spend even if use of the library increases greatly during that year. Such an increase of use does not guarantee that the library's budget will be increased when the next fiscal year's budget is decided on by the governing authority (such as city, state, or college). In fact, as we have seen in these hard economic times, increased use and decreased budgets can go hand-in-hand.

Because the library's model is to get more use out of a limited number of books (and DVDs and other items) by lending them sequentially to patrons, the direct result of high demand is an increase in the failure of the library to meet the demand, evidenced by long waiting lists for the book and patrons who are unhappy with the library's service. My local library in the city of Berkeley today has nine copies of "50 Shades of Grey" with 70 holds. This is in a small city with a population of about 120,000. The library of the city of Santa Clara in Silicon Valley, which is similar in size to Berkeley, also has nine copies, but 119 holds. New York Public Library has "Holds: 1657 on 131 copies."

In this sense, success -- that is, many people turning to the library with their desire to read a highly popular book -- is in fact the cause of failure; the failure of the library to meet that demand.

I come around to these thoughts when I find myself frustrated at the reluctance or inability of libraries to promote their services despite obvious opportunities to do so. Then I think about what it looks like inside a branch of my local library, with fewer and fewer staff available and the obvious strain, as evidenced by cart after cart of books that have been checked in but not yet returned to the shelves, by long lines to use the public computers despite the fact that those now take up a significant amount of floor space, and shelf after shelf of sadly worn trade paperbacks on topics that were fleeting fads a decade or so ago.

Really, why would an institution so stretched in its resources want to stimulate more demand?

Libraries, of course, are not the only such institutions; few if any inner-city emergency rooms would consider it a good idea to stimulate the arrival of more patients. I've been in a higher end hospital emergency room in my town (fortunately very seldom) and even that had patients on gurneys in the hallways because every more appropriate space was filled. Again here, high demand promotes failure.

Libraries from their beginnings developed in response to scarcity. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the library model based on scarcity is not well suited to the current climate of media abundance. Yet, any public institution that would base its services on scarce but rarely sought goods is on a suicide mission, especially in today's economic and social climate.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? In a perfect world (obviously not the one we live in) government and institutions of higher learning would recognize the value of a well-stocked, vibrant community information space. Instead, library budgets are being sharply cut, and library services are not perceived has having high value. If libraries have lost support among their traditional communities, it may have something to do with the current measures of success: number of items checked-out being the primary one for public libraries; number of volumes owned for research libraries.

Whatever success looks like in the future, it simply cannot be based on increasing the number of holds on materials or on providing services that you hope only a few people will discover and make use of. Circulation figures should not be the main measure of the library's value; we need not only new services but new measures of the library's worth to the community. There is a pressing need for actual information services, not just the storage and circulation of items.There is also a desire for participation, as evidenced by social information networking like Wikipedia, LibraryThing, GoodReads, and others. Perhaps the answer lies in asking what the users can contribute to the library so that use adds value as well as incurs costs. Perhaps the library of today should serve its users by giving them a means to crowd-source solutions to their information problems, with the library contributing knowledge organization skills, its awareness of community needs, and a commitment to quality information services. Maybe the library of the future should be less about circulating books and DVDs and more about helping people make sense of the information glut that we live in; less about keeping up with global bestsellers and more about learning with and within the community.

Then maybe success can be success, not failure.