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Services Before Content

Here’s a reprint of my June 11, 2010 LJ column.

I like pBooks and eBooks. I like movies. I like music. What’s more, I think these things have a place in our libraries and have played a crucial role in their evolution. I’m afraid, though, that the pervasive concept of library as commercial content provider is preventing us from adapting and evolving. Libraries will have to build a new foundation if they are to recover from these economic hard times—a foundation of valuable services, of user experience, not just free content.

Free Content For All
The traditional warehouse model is seductive in economic hard times: libraries circulate more items, providing a convenient metric to demonstrate importance via usage. But this is the most shallow way libraries can demonstrate value—and looking at all of the budget cuts across the country, legislators apparently agree.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “If libraries didn’t exist today they wouldn’t be allowed to be created.” I always suspected this was true, but it wasn’t until the explosion in popularity of containerless content that I realized the rug was being pulled out from under us.

Sure there are ebook, e-audiobook, and downloadable movie services into which libraries can buy. These solutions, however, are largely unsatisfying: there’s a variety of platforms, the selection of content is limited, and the software is difficult to use. Library users are well aware of this. In fact, the frustrations of a tech-savvy and highly motivated library user recently made the rounds in the form of a comic strip titled “Why DRM Doesn’t Work” (bit.ly/c3LlxA). Librarians could collectivize and demand content and interface improvements. But their inaction with regard to the most important part of their websites—their OPACs—suggests they aren’t likely to do that for digital content.

As librarians, we see the problems with commercial solutions—they skew access to information to digital haves and they lock people into proprietary platforms—but we can’t fault people for using things like iTunes Music Store and the Kindle bookstore instead of the library. We can’t compete with the convenience, ease of use, and selection.

As we all know, relying on print materials to sustain libraries is likely not a winning strategy, nor is simply hoping our patrons will forgo commercial services in favor of free digital materials offered by libraries. So what’s left?

Taking A Pass On Passivity
We need to stop focusing on giving away free content and do something different—something no other institution, civic or commercial, is doing.

This is where user experience and design thinking come into play. We spend a fair amount of time idly discussing what the future will hold. But this is a fool’s errand. It is this passivity that got us squeezed out of the containerless content game in the first place. Our time would be better spent observing the core needs of our communities and thinking of exciting ways to meet them. And here’s the kicker: while access to information seems likely to be a core need for some time to come, checking materials in and out of a library may not.

There’s not necessarily a single way forward as libraries transition to being less reliant on circulating content. But we can learn from how successful libraries are transitioning and, to the extent that our communities are similar, experiment with mimicking their efforts. (In September, this column will take a look at some of the finest user experience innovations libraries are offering to serve their patrons—see the next page for more).

Creating And Connecting
One new model that’s already paying off is the focus some Scandinavian libraries are placing on creating and connecting. And what’s the potential result of providing more meaningful services? Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly (Vol. 42, No. 3, 2009, p. 27) reports that “over 90% of Swedes consider the public libraries to be important for a well-functioning society” and that one library system received a 30 percent budget increase despite recent economic hard times. It’s impossible to attribute that windfall to this service alone, but it sure looks pretty good compared with the drastic cuts stateside public libraries are facing.

It might not be easy to wean budget decision-makers off of circ stats. Not only will libraries have to introduce new ways to demonstrate their impact on the community, they’ll actually have to impact their communities positively in new ways. It takes money and staff time to do this, and it can seem daunting when budgets are already slashed. But it isn’t an all or nothing affair. One way to approach this is to start small and start telling success stories in addition to reporting circ stats.

It’s not do-or-die quite yet, and there’s still time to shift our efforts toward an unparalleled user experience. Right now, we’re in competition with commercial content providers that we don’t have any need to be in. Why not spend that effort to do more interesting and meaningful things? Does it really matter that people can’t stream the latest blockbuster from a library? No. I’d much rather see them making their own movies at the library and exhibiting them there, too.