December 19, 2014

Libraries Could Double As Post Offices

The United States Postal Service (USPS) may invite some public libraries to double as post offices, Susan Hildreth, Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, said on August 1.

In areas where post offices are being closed or reducing hours, the USPS is reaching out to service stations and convenience stores as well as libraries to ask if they would like to add limited postal service through the Village Post Office (VPO) program. This lets the town keep its zip code and offers the most popular services, including collection, stamp and flat rate packaging sales. In May, the cash-strapped USPS announced its plans for handling rural mail service more affordably through closures, reduced hours, consolidation with nearby facilities, and VPOs.

On August 1, the Leighton Township Library in Moline, MI, became the first library in the country to be designated as a “village post office,” according to USPS representative Sabrina Todd.

moline vpo Libraries Could Double As Post Offices

Andrea Estelle and the Leighton Library VPO

Leighton Twp. Library Director Andrea Estelle attended a forum with USPS officials earlier this year, when they were considering whether to close down the Moline branch, according to the Advance Newspapers. There, Estelle said she hoped the branch would stay open, but as a backup plan, she suggested that the library might offer some postal services. “We didn’t want our community to lose the name of their town; they’d become part of the bigger town next door [if there was no post office],” Estelle told LJ. Though ultimately the post office stayed open with reduced hours, the USPS still decided to sign up the library as a VPO.

After discussing it with the library board, Estelle decided to ask for $5000 annually from the USPS, a number she arrived at by estimating 10 minutes of staff time per day at the library’s average salary. The USPS counter offered with $3800, which Estelle and the board accepted. “The VPO contract says that it can be cancelled at any time with 30 days written notice with no penalty. This was a major factor in our decision, because if the VPO did not work out we would not be ‘stuck’ with it,” Estelle told LJ.

So far, Estelle says, the library has mostly just sold stamps to about five people a day – mostly existing library patrons who are excited to learn they can do their postal business there as well. One new visitor was brought in by the postal services sign, but she left without using the rest of the library, to Estelle’s disappointment, since she was hoping the services would expose new patrons to the library’s other offerings. Still, she points out, it’s only been two weeks.

Staff training consisted of 45 minutes from the next town’s postmaster at a regular staff meeting; “it wasn’t too complicated,” said Estelle. She’s printed out the litany of questions for package drop-offs (is it fragile, is it hazardous) for staff and spent a few minutes ordering flat rate packaging and purchasing stamps (the library buys them outright, then resells them). Mail is kept securely in a staff area to prevent tampering; any parcel left anonymously is kept separate for post office officials to deal with.

Inside the library, a kiosk for flat rate boxes takes up about 3’x2’x5’, according to Estelle, plus there’s a bulletin board and mail box. The USPS is going to install an outdoor drop box in the parking lot, and pays for the sign, though the library must pay for its installation. “We chose a small 2.5×2.5 foot sign that can be mounted to the side of our existing brick sign,” from among several options, Estelle told LJ.

“I’ve gotten a couple of calls from other directors already,” Estelle said, considering whether to open VPOs of their own. “The question most of them have is, what did you guys offer? Because you name your price.”

Libraries interested in opening a VPO in their own communities can contact vpo.inquiry@usps.gov or (888) 711-7577.

Estelle received “a positive phone call from Nancy Robertson (State Librarian of Michigan),” when Robertson heard of Leighton’s decision to become a VPO, she told LJ, but not all state librarians are so enthused. Arkansas State Librarian Carolyn Ashcraft was somewhat skeptical of the plan. “They are recognizing that the library in those small rural areas are community centers, but how much can we put on the staff?” Ashcraft was quoted by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette as saying at the State Library Board meeting on August 10. “It’s kind of like when libraries were roped into providing tax forms for the IRS. Some of them were happy to do it, some of them said they don’t have the space, they don’t have the staff, they can’t provide tax assistance.”

Of the approximately 400 sites in Arkansas with POs that might see hours reduced or offices closed, 49 have public libraries which could choose to host a VPO, Ashcraft told LJ.

Nationally, USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan told LJ “Nearly 13,000 of our more than 31,000 post offices are likely to see reduced hours, not closure.” Mamie Bittner, IMLS director of communications and government affairs, estimated that as many as 2450 libraries in the affected areas could potentially offer VPO services. “Where this works, it is a great opportunity, but the post office is not expecting libraries to do this and IMLS is not expecting libraries to do this,” Bittner emphasized.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Senior Editor, News and Features of Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Suzanne Stauffer says:

    As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun. Post offices doubled as public libraries in countless western communities in the 19th century, so turn about seems fair play.

    • Tanya Campbell says:

      I would love to offer patrons stamps; however, following the nightmarish bureacratic procedures the Post Office would require would take hours upon hours of work time, not to mention risk of developing high blood pressure and other health problems as a result of the frustration and stress of working “for” the USPS. Buying some stamps to have on hand to sell to patrons would be a nice service without all the headache. –Former USPS employee who would never work for them again.

  2. Midwest Librarian says:

    I agree with Arkansas State Librarian Carolyn Ashcraft’s skepticism. The Michigan library receiving $3800 must be a fluke. I have been told by USPS officials that the norm is more like $1000 or less for communities that size. When they close a small town PO, they are no longer paying for a building, a janitor, staff, supplies, snow removal, utilities and etc. But they only want to pay libraries pennies on the dollar. Yes, it would be a great convenience for consumers, but at what cost to the library. Libraries, especially small rural ones, are working with very thin staffing already. At a time when we are already helping patrons upload applications (businesses save $), file for unemployment (government saves $), get a police report copy (municipality saves $), print boarding passes, (businesses save $), file taxes on line (Feds/state save $), plus doing our core library work, the PO should be entering into these contracts with fair and equitable payments. After receiving our “counter offer” from the PO, it is clear to me they are not. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.