Private-Library-713Expanding our thinking about the notion of
corporate-run community libraries

Consider the following scenario. Two years from now in November, you find yourself walking into a voting booth to decide on the fate of your local library. The issue you will be deciding affects you directly because it has to do with the management of your local library. You will be voting on one of four choices for the operational management of your library. The choices you have to pick from include Microsoft, Google, Apple, or your current city-run operation.

Rest assured, this is not some takeover bid by one of these three companies to steal libraries away from their local constituency. Rather, it is a very considered offer to both manage and invest in your local library, while at the same time, extending the influence of their companies.

Let’s face it; the recent economic times have not been kind to community libraries. Many have had to cut staff and cut services in order to keep their doors open. Several libraries systems have had to close branches, while other standalone libraries have had little choice but to close their doors.

While many in the library community may see this as cause for alarm, I would like to open a conversation on how a situation like this can be turned into an opportunity.

While it may be possible to find a combination of paid services and corporate sponsorships to transition a community library off the public tax roles, there may be some more appealing options for allowing corporations to operate public libraries.

Before anyone begins assigning labels of “right” or “wrong,” I would like to engage you in ways to thread-the-needle of possibilities and see if there are any balancing acts that may indeed make sense.

It’s important to keep in mind that corporations will have some sort of profit motive in the background, so the best approach will be to formulate some form of win-win strategy so both the corporation and the community benefit from the relationship.

Library Assets

To begin with, there are many valuable assets that libraries have that businesses will find appealing. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Positive Influence – Most libraries serve as a source of community pride and a gathering place for activities. Even though many people may not use their library, it remain a positive entity in the minds of most.
  • Naming Rights – In much the same way corporations spend millions to put their name on stadiums, companies will see great value in putting their name on a community library.
  • New Product Test Bed – Libraries are already using many different kinds of informational products, and they are continually adding new ones. By simply shifting the library a little closer to the front of the early-adoption food chain, this might serve as a win-win situation that can be monetized through product development or marketing dollars.
  • Information/Communications Channel – Most libraries today do a poor job of managing their outbound communications. A corporate communications department could easily turn libraries into an effective communications channel.
  • Fiduciary Role – Libraries are a trusted entity. If it’s done right, the trusted reputation can be exploited in subtle but beneficial ways for both parties.
  • Local Face to the Public – With the web making businesses increasingly virtual, an interesting counter-trend will be to create a local presence for all to see.
  • Primary Destination – People will make a trip specifically to the library. This becomes important when considering the spin-off potential for other activities they may engage in while they are there, and also other related businesses next door.
  • Linking Strategy – Adding other retail and service outlets to a library. As an example, placing a library next to an automobile service center will give people something to do while they are waiting for their car to get fixed.

“Corporate-Branded” Libraries

Keeping these assets in mind, let’s begin to explore what strategies may come into play with “corporate branded” libraries. Each corporation will bring with them their own corporate culture, their own way of doing things, and, of course, their own agenda.

Please note that this is merely conjecture on my part. I do not claim any insider knowledge about their future plans.

  • Google Libraries: Even though Google’s founders have been long-time library advocates, they have continually pushed the envelope on copyright and fair use issues, a sore spot with many librarians. A Google Library strategy will likely be framed around further promotion of the agenda to make all printed material searchable. In addition, libraries may be utilized as the functional proving ground for pre-product launches.
  • Microsoft Libraries: Microsoft has a rich history of supporting libraries both through philanthropy and corporate support. A Microsoft library would naturally be a showcase for Windows and Office software, and would probably include a training center to help people move from beginner to advanced users.
  • Amazon Libraries: With its vast inventory of books to sell, Amazon may devise some very ingenious strategies. While it would appear that they are in direct competition with libraries, there are many areas where their work may be complementary. As an example, one of their strategies would likely focus on expanding the use of e-book readers and downloadable content. They also may wish to define the boundaries between free and sellable content, a boundary which is currently in flux.
  • IBM Libraries: After selling its PC division, IBM has been looking for ways to create a new face for the public. An IBM strategy might involve showcasing their rich history of innovation all the way from early punch card machines, to mainframe computing, to the dawn of the PC era. Their goal would be to establish themselves as a leading player in the emerging cloud computing world.
  • Wal-Mart Libraries: The motivation behind a Wal-Mart Library will be to draw more traffic into their stores. Further exploiting the store-within-a-store concept, libraries could be built as a loss-leader marketing play inside a Wal-Mart store. They may also be used to feature computer, printer, and other information products that can be purchased in the rest of the store. The home page on all computers will be set to walmart.com. (This may seem overtly commercialized, but may be a positive option for small towns with minimal opportunities for their library to grow.)
  • Apple Libraries: An Apple Library may very easily operate like an Apple retail store with a library attached. Geeky librarians will teach people how to build personal profiles, use the equipment, record podcasts, and edit videos. People can use the library to “test drive” or even borrow the equipment before making a purchase.
  • Facebook Libraries: Facebook wants to be much more than a social networking site on the Internet. Its goal is to become common infrastructure upon which Web 3.0 and 4.0 will emerge. With this in mind, libraries could become the training centers and proving grounds for much of this Facebook philosophy.

These, of course, are but a few of the possible players in this space.

If any of this seems inconceivable or too unwieldy for one company to take on, let’s look at the math. There are approximately 16,000 libraries across the U.S. If a company set out to privatize 1,600 or 10% of them, focusing on small to medium sized libraries with a per library budget of $2 million, the total expenditure would be $3.2 billion. While this is a rather significant number, it is indeed within the realm of possibilities, especially if there is a way to derive a profit from some aspect of the operation.

Keep in mind that the community will likely still be contributing money to the operation of the library, so the corporation may only have to add some supplemental funds which it will likely view as marketing dollars.

Setting the Boundaries

As with any type of agreement, the first task needs to involve thinking through both the upside and the downside of the arrangement.

In many respects, this type of agreement is no different than what a city will set up with a cable television franchise, electric and gas providers, or even garbage collection.

It is important to establish a series of guidelines to address key operational issues on the front end.

  • The city or community will need to retain ownership of the facility and all equipment and content going into the arrangement. The agreement should be for a set amount of time, perhaps 5-10 years, renewable at the discretion of the governing board.
  • As a general rule, the public needs be given free access to the library along with free access to information. There may be a charge for certain types of information and services, but this needs be established up front.
  • The library has an obligation to archive the local community. Again, details about minimum archive requirements need to be explained in the agreement.
  • Libraries cannot be closed. In the event a corporation decides it can no longer continue to support and operate the library, there must be a one year advance notice given to the community allowing ample time for either the city or another company to take over the operation.
  • Most importantly, the community needs to retain some sort of veto power over the operation as a check-and-balance system for whatever might go wrong.

The Upside and the Downside

With corporate run libraries, I can see both positive and negative sides to the arguments.

On the positive side, they have the potential to become better managed libraries. Corporations will inject their own unique kind of creativity into the system.

Librarians will likely be better trained and paid a higher salary. The public will benefit from better resources, better programs, and access to cutting edge thinking and technology.

On the negative side, corporations have traditionally been very heavy-handed in their attempts to make a profit, so in this type of situation, some formerly free services may begin to cost money. Over time there may be a growing tension between the corporation and local citizens, and virtually every change becomes closely scrutinized by the public. The biggest downside happens if the corporation ignores the needs of the community and wields a heavy-handed corporate agenda.

Most companies are very wary of anything that could cause damage to their reputation, so most of the extreme scenarios are not too likely.

If the arrangement is structured properly up front, and the community retains ownership of the facility and veto power over any egregious violations, this could indeed become a win-win arrangement for everyone involved.

In fact, the best possible arrangement might be if 2-3 companies get very competitive about running libraries with each trying to outdo the other. In that kind of situation, we all win.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

24 Responses to “Privatizing Libraries”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://www.market-engineering.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Tom, You've forgotten the most likely category. Book stores are in trouble. Taking over a county library system would establish a new form of credibility. Instead of buying, some books would be available by lending. As books become electronic and have shorter shelf time, bookstores will have extra space. They can have a library section for every category. Offering access to rare or unusual books gives people reasons to go the the bookstore. As with the Starbucks corner, the library sections contribute to the sense of community. And as with any county system, lending from other counties (stores) would enable even wider access.
    • admin

      I happen to be a big fan of books stores, and I would love to have them take a serious look at this idea. But I tend to be rather cynical about the prospects. Everything I see happening tells me that bookstores are in for some very tough times ahead. I seriously doubt many will survive. I wish I could be more upbeat, but they are likely to suffer a similar fate to video rental stores, computer software stores, and music stores.
  2. <a href='http://ChuckEgg.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Chuck Eglinton</a>

    As tax revenue continues to decline, voters will have to make hard decisions. I suspect most will choose to keep police, fire, and public safety and jettison their public libraries. Some communities are embracing an idea that I think makes a lot of sense: The community centers and libraries are shared with a high school. Students use them during the weekdays, but they're available on weekends and extended hours for the public. I agree that cheap electronic readers are going to force massive change for libraries and bookstores. My local library recently had a section in their (paper printed) newsletter titled, "You can't Google this." It's clear that they're worried (and they should be).
  3. <a href='http://udhsvip.wikispaces.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Susan Mowery</a>

    As the line becomes more blurred between book and information it will promise that libraries will become more of a community space for a variety of purposes; the most important as a place to find reliable information and responsible information specialists or librarians to act as authoritative guides. Fiction reading will go to ereaders with the library as a nice comfortable place to read and meet people of similar interests. Corporate funding, if used wisely, could be beneficial to provide lots more information centers in lots more places which would help those areas that can not sustain their libraries with only community support. We are experiencing very rapid change in the library world! Anything is possible.
  4. <a href='http://www.lrs.org/public/stats.php?year=2009' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Eugene Hainer</a>

    While appearing reasonable, this treatise combines a number of false assumptions to reach the incorrect conclusion that corporate-run libraries are the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. The narrative ignores that library traffic is UP—in many cases by double digits. People ARE using libraries in greater numbers than ever before; for education, business, employment help, reading, learning, fun, and more. As for reducing staff, it’s difficult these days to find anyone not familiar with (or victims of) cost-saving measures in any profession. Libraries are no different in tightening the belt to balance services, not ‘keep the doors open’. The cost per person of a good library is less than the cost of a few books per year, yet the false libraries-are-dead mantra coupled with the positing of some political factions that taxes are evil makes a YES vote on the ballot increasingly difficult...but not impossible. Saying that a corporate solution “is no different than what a city will set up with a cable television franchise, electric and gas providers” is another false assumption. Look at what you pay for and what you get for cable TV and other services should indicate why corporate-run libraries are NOT the future. And remember, not everyone can afford even these basics. Assuming (falsely) that the named entities were interested in such a venture, this approach would result in fewer libraries of lesser quality, at a greater cost, and further removed from the fabric of the community in which they reside despite any self-imagined rationalization that it would be a better future. The best scenario for libraries is one where everyone supports the libraries, staff, and contents they have (or will need) not one dreamed up in a what-if hypothesis built on half-truths, supposition, and assumptions passed as fact. The future library should be for everyone, not just those who can afford them.
    • admin

      So, if your only choice was a corporate run library or nothing at all, which would you choose? I don't claim to have all the answers, but if you slam the door on a new idea before anyone even turns the knob, you'll never know what good things may lie on the other side.
  5. candice

    This article makes the idea sound great & really my only worry is what services corporate-run libraries would want to start charging patrons for. the main standard of public libraries is to provide residents with free/very low cost access to different materials, so to start charging for these things would remove the purpose & usefulness of the library somewhat. another thing i wonder about is that maybe these corporations would hire & keep employees on based on education & job performance & we would finally be able to get rid of the archaic concept of promoting people based on only seniority as most public library unions tend to do now. but would these corporations continue paying library employees' proper salaries, or would they cut that down as well in order to turn a profit?
    • admin

      Candice, We live in a rather transparent society. Anything a company would do when operating a library would be open for scrutiny. It would be counterproductive to be caught pulling some ill-mannered shenanigans that gave the business a black eye. The hiring and firing of employees, however, is a different matter. The good ones will stay, but the not-so good may be sent packing. Tom
  6. John

    I have concerns that a privatized library would not have an open collections policy and that corporate money would be used to influence collection development policies. Would a library sponsored by Wal-Mart be permitted to carry any of the numerous books that are critical of it. Would a library brought to you by BP be inclined to carry materials that are critical of its handling of the recent oil spill. I do believe that if our currently public libraries begin taking corporate money that we will quite possibly lose something in the way of intellectual freedom and unrestricted access to ideas and information.
    • admin

      John, You're asking all the right questions. These are things that have to be worked out up front before any agreements are signed with the city. My guess is that some companies might try the heavy-handed approach, but others would know the value of winning the hearts of a community. Tom
  7. Robert Hulshof-Schmidt

    A fascinating and thoughtful article, but I respectfully disagree. Eugene Hainer makes a number of good points that do not merely "slam the door" but warn of the tiger that rests on the other side. I would like to make three quick, important points: 1) The author relies heavily on the desire of companies to maintain public goodwill. I find this a highly questionable line of reasoning. Target's recent willingness to alienate the national LGBT community for political gain in one state (Minnesota) is but one example. 2) The author and many commenters mention the library as a place of community. How we can expect a massive, profit-based entity in a distant urban area to understand, much less respect, the needs of a Kansas farming community (for example)? Corporations use the power of the purse to get what they want; why would ownership (I use the word intentionally) of libraries be any different? 3) Why libraries? Why not AmazonPolice.com? Operating police forces in multiple jurisdictions would be at least as easy as libraries. This would never fly (nor, do I think, should it), but I find it fascinating that centers of community, learning, equal access, and intellectual freedom are considered expendable when times get tight and they are needed most.
  8. <a href='http://www.lrs.org/public/stats.php?year=2009' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Eugene Hainer</a>

    The question "if your only choice was a corporate run library or nothing at all, which would you choose?" assumes those are the only two choices, sort of like, would you rather be alive or dead. Duh; if it was only black/white the answer becomes obvious, not unlike a push poll. Libraries and library funding isn't b/w. There are other options. Shorter hours. Fewer materials. Fees on non-resident borrowers. Less staff. Physical plant efficiencies. Each choice of course leads to a myriad of positive and negative consequences for the library and community. But they are reality and variations of the "would you rather be alive" question, as opposed to the supposition that corporate libraries are the only solution besides closing entirely. That's not the case.
  9. Tim

    Let's cut the crap and call a spade a spade. The suggestion of privatization is right-wing anti-tax libertarian propaganda, the sort we've been inundated with for thirty years. Privatize schools, the military, the government, etc. They want to control everything in the name of "freedom" from "gubmint" (of, by, and for the people). Libraries are *public* institutions funded by the *entire* community in order to serve *everyone* and for a reason. A corporate takeover of public libraries would mean the end of reader privacy and intellectual freedom. And that is a philosophy I do not subscribe to!
  10. Nate Hill

    Nice that 'Google Libraries' is the first idea on the list... geez, if the Google/Verizon policy recommendation that mobile networks shouldn't subject to the same net neutrality regulations as wired ones, that'd put mobile library services in quite a place, wouldn't it? That seems pretty antithetical to what public libraries are all about... Indeed, this isn't a black & white issue.
    • admin

      Since I'm just a bystander as this concept unfolds, its less about what I think, and far more about what corporations think. My sources tell me that at least one on the list is interested. Not sure how interested, but at least curious. I'll let everyone know when I can say more. Tom
  11. John Twigg

    I'm really not all that familiar with the role of a futurist. It is not clear to me if you are ;advocating for the privatization of libraries; speculating that this is a possible or even likely development; or just saying that this is an idea worth discussing
    • admin

      For the most part, the role of a futurist is to expand people's thinking about the future. We spend the vast majority of our time looking at the past. So by using scenarios like this, we can look at the possibilities, and be far more prepared if and when they arise. For some, this may be an option they will want to consider because nothing else is working.
  12. <a href='http://mudoc.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Wayne R. Porter</a>

    Most of tomorrow's libraries, especially those in the less-developed countries, will be paperless facilities called "information dispensaries." These "libraries" are described in Chapter 3 of The Mu Primer at http://www.mudoc.com/mpms3.htm. Their publications will be set in interactive movable type, a software invention that will enable everyone to read, and eventually, will enable most readers to become superreaders. This new movable type is described and demonstrated in MuvieTime, an 18-minute video presentation at mudoc.com -- and is discussed at the newly posted Web page at http://www.mudoc.com/invenofmill.htm .
  13. Oak Smith

    Interesting proposition but flawed on so many fronts. During hard economic times Libraries actually grow. The public uses of library resources has led to double digit growth across the country. Public as well as academic libraries. Greater use leads to greater awareness and consequently to greater appreciation. Public libraries, unlike some other public functions, are a shining light of how well a public resource can be used. As to trusting to corporation being benign to our interest, I just do not see that happening. Further with corporate ownership comes corporate access to library patron information, which they must use for profit gain, for there is no other reason for a corporation to involve itself otherwise. I do not wish my friendly Blue Cross Insurance Library to know I am researching the genetic implications of alzheimers. Could lead to a major policy cost increase.
    • admin

      You bring up some good points, but since there are already companies like ISSI and Library Management Service Inc that act as outside corporations to manage community libraries, and since there are already a number of libraries that have closed due to budget constraints (http://snurl.com/1102zp), I fail to see how this is a "flawed" concept. Many businesses already have access to consumer data similar to what libraries possess, and for companies like Google, they already know what kind of health-related information you're searching for. On many levels this isn't any different than the government giving information about our personal credit, tax delinquencies, and traffic violations to insurance companies. (Personally I think all this kind of information should be closely controlled by us, the consumers.) Admittedly, the trickiest part will be to insure the alignment of interests between the corporation and the community. But I don't see that to be impossible.
  14. <a href='http://www.touchpadreviews.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jae Peveler</a>

    On the plus side, now I won't have to worry about Google tracking everything I do on my phone. Don't be evil...yeah, right.|smoothtequila|

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