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Reinventing the Media Rental Center

Browsing the library-related news from the past week or so, a couple of articles caught my eye, this one from Ottawa: City must make a business case before spending millions on new library, and this one from Pittsbugh: With funds slashed, libraries are having to charge to stay afloat.

The Pittsburgh article is on libraries charging new fees they’ve never charged before because of drastic funding cuts. The Cranberry Public library will start charging $1 to check out a DVD.  According to the article, “Last year, 56,000 DVDs were checked out, and library director Leslie Pallotta thinks the new charges will raise about $25,000.” Unless, of course, people decide they don’t want to pay for library materials.

The cuts were huge, too. “State financial aid for the Cranberry library, which was $153,292 in 2007, is projected to be $77,535 next year. County aid, $47,544 in 2008, is forecast to be $22,490 in 2011.”

In response, the library has also cut hours and spending on books, let database subscriptions expire, and started charging for meeting rooms and computer use. The director isn’t happy about, understandably. “Charging for anything runs contrary to the idea of a library.” She’s a bit old fashioned, it seems. I like her.

The combination of increased library use and reduced funding prompted a quote from the President of the PLA as well.  “Our goal has always been to provide free services to the public. We have to reinvent ourselves.”

I’m trying to make out if the reinvention means libraries will start charging for books, DVDs, and CDs. If that’s the case, libraries will be “reinventing themselves” into your local Barnes and Noble.

The opinion piece from Ottawa argues that supporters of building a new library in downtown Ottawa present the “business case” for doing so. The writer probably wouldn’t be impressed with all the good reasons to found a public library the ALA published in 1910. In this case, Ottawa already has a public library, but some want to construct a new library building.

Perhaps the request for a business case was in response to some of the arguments for a new library. For example, in one of the articles on the subject in this roundup, entitled “Libraries as Sacred Space,” it is claimed that Ottawa needs a new library that isn’t dumpy. “There must be grandeur and light. It should inspire.” Libraries as sacred space, indeed.

Or, after mentioning how attractive the Trinity College Library in Dublin is, she writes, “This is the time to think big. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it well. Great cities have great libraries.” Great cities have great libraries, and there’s no city greater than Ottawa!

Though I think if one is going to ask for something as hard-nosed as a business case, one should bother to know what one is talking about. As an example of near gobbledygook, consider this line of “reasoning”:

The future of libraries is also a question supporters of a new building should address. It’s worth noting that, not long after the fundraising event, Google put some three million books online. For $250 million, the city could buy every resident a Kindle. Why is a new building better?

Notice the easy amalgamation of Google and Amazon in the ebook business, when anyone who knows anything about ebooks knows that Google and Amazon are at each other’s throats, and that the Google ebooks from their new store can’t even be read on Kindles.

We’ll ignore as irrelevant that even if you have a Kindle, the only books you can get for free are public domain classics converted from Project Gutenberg. But that’s okay, because for $250 million, they can buy everyone a Kindle, plus throw in a few bestsellers. No one ever reads articles in the library databases or uses encyclopedias on homework projects, anyway. Get them all a Kindle! And throw in an iPod while you’re at it!

Part of the business case should involve privatization, it seems, because “by privatizing airports across Canada, the federal government has gone from spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to earning an equivalent amount in rent,” and this “shows how with a fresh approach, a community facility can be transformed from expense into asset.”

That would certainly be a fresh approach. Even libraries in the US that have been “privatized” by outsourcing them to LSSI haven’t really be privatized. They don’t provide a revenue stream or subsist on private funding; they just use what money cities dole out more efficiently.

He notes that “there aren’t a lot of examples of new libraries that have been built through partnerships with private developers,” but that “other not-for-profit and community facilities have been built with support from the private sector, like the Shenkman Arts Centre and the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre.”

Actually, there are lots of examples of new libraries built by private developers, but they tend to be in corporations, law firms, and hospitals, and thus inaccessible to the public. Go figure.

Museums and theaters have long had private funding, but they also typically charge for admission, and even when they don’t charge they don’t share the mission to make information freely available as needed. Go into your average museum and ask to see that art they don’t have out on the walls, or into a theater and ask for a performance of Hamlet because you’re studying for your literature exam and it would really help you out.

These stories are related in their sense that libraries need to change into something like businesses if they want to survive. A business case for a new library that showed it could make money by charging people for goods and services might just succeed with the Canadian.

And libraries really can reinvent themselves by charging for everything. There are a few questions that suggest themselves. First, if that was the case, why would anyone use them? Why would I pay money for DVDs that I could probably get cheaper from Netflix? Especially if I’m already paying taxes for the library?

Why would libraries want to reinvent themselves into something that already exists? A few weeks ago I suggested that carnies who want libraries to become amusement parks stop using the name library. If you want to rent media, call yourself a media rental store. It’s the same thing here. Then the librarians can become rental clerks. It’s not as catchy as carny, but it’s accurate.

If libraries reinvent themselves into businesses that charge fees for goods and services, they’ll be just like Amazon and Netflix. Amazon sells people millions of ebooks they don’t really own, and Netflix rents them DVDs. Why should libraries mimic them?

The most important question is, if institutions called libraries do start charging for everything and become the media rental stores,  then where will people who need real libraries go?



  1. For once, AL, I agree with you. I can’t believe someone in our capitol city, the home of Library and Archives Canada (Canada’s equivalent to the Library of Congress), would make such inane suggestions.

  2. It’s Ottawa. And it’s the capital of Canada, so it’s a bit embarrassing that you couldn’t spell it right. At least I can spell Woshington. :)

  3. My former library had a rental collection that was self-sustaining. The initial funding came from the Friends of the Library but after that, the rental fees paid for the collection. High demand books were bought for this collection and when they were no longer in such demand, these books would be integrated into the collection or sold at book sales. I see no reason that the same could not be used for “hot” DVDs, while the older and less in demand books and DVDs would still circulate for free. Sure, it makes the library sound a little like Netflix or Blockbuster but it satisfies those who “want it now” and still allows those who can wait and are not as choosy to get their materials free.
    BTW, it is pretty bad that you mispelled the capital city of Canada twice in your article. Who does your editing?

  4. “I’m trying to make out if the reinvention means libraries will start charging for books, DVDs, and CDs. If that’s the case, libraries will be “reinventing themselves” into your local Barnes and Noble.”

    DNF, as my professor used to write in the margins…

    For one thing, I get to keep/give away/annotate heavily whatever I _buy_ from Barnes & Noble: rental is different business model? For another, I believe the subscription libraries were driven into the wilderness by the Public Library Movement? Maybe they survived…

  5. I think it’s worth noting that Cranberry Township is a rather wealthy and fast-growing suburb of Pittsburgh. (That stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of the area, which is in steady decline. See especially Braddock, PA, whose recent claim to fame is being used as a setting for advertisements for Levi’s jeans. But no, they don’t make pants there. Those are still made overseas.)

    Anyway, I am fairly certain they could afford, say, a small tax increase to support their library instead of charging for DVDs. But it’s a politically conservative area where taxes are the devil and people scream about them an awful lot – even though their taxes are still a good bit lower than Pittsburgh suburbs in Allegheny County. And you wouldn’t hear the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review suggesting a tax increase – it’s the area’s conservative paper, owned by Richard Mellon Scaife.

    Cranberry is represented in the U.S House by Jason Altmire, a “conservadem.” In the PA House, Cranberry is represented by a nut named Daryl Metcalfe who has in tvhe past refused to support legislation about Domestic Violence Awareness Month because he thought it promoted a “homosexual agenda.” He also put forward a law echoing Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 (“papers please”) law. And that’s just two things.

  6. I live in Alberta, the one Canadian province most city library systems charge an annual fee for their cards. People who move here from out-of-province are often indignant at this, including my husband. I’m also indignant, but I point out to him that Albertans hate taxes and love user fees. Why? Because the people here are mostly right-wing, and there’s a deeply entrenched belief that only those who use a public service should have to pay for it, and taxes should be kept as low as possible. Americans appear to have a similar hatred of taxes. So obviously public services need to be funded through user fees. I think this is happening across all sorts of services as governments are too cowardly or gridlocked to raise taxes, as they need to do. So instead of raising taxes, they run deficits and charge user fees. The money has to come from somewhere – if not from taxes, then from your after-tax dollars and your grandchildren, who will be paying off your monstrous debt 100 years from now.

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