Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rediscovering the Public Library

In hard economic times free is good, and the public discovers that there is value in a variety of free resources that tend to be ignored when money flows readily. It is therefore nice to see that one of the most ubiquitous of those free resources is experiencing a revival at a time when it sometimes seems as if it is under siege from the world of the Internet. That institution is the public library, one of those service organizations with a long tradition of both understanding and appreciating the value of service. Because these institutions are financed primarily out of government budgets, they can apply most of their efforts to providing services, rather than figuring out the best fee-for-service price points.

When it comes to video entertainment, it turns out that our cash-strapped public is beginning to appreciate that the public library offers a better deal than the fee-for-service businesses that have been praised by technology evangelists for their innovative thinking. Earlier this week, Kim Velsey filed a report for the Harford Courant, which began as follows:

Red boxes, red envelopes and the blue and yellow Blockbuster stores may dominate the movie rental landscape, but according to a recent survey, when Americans want to watch a DVD, they are most likely to turn to their local library.

The survey, released this year by OCLC, a nonprofit library co-operative and research organization, found that public libraries in the United States lend an average 2.1 million videos every day, slightly more than the 2 million that Netflix ships. The other top two competitors, Redbox and Blockbuster, come in at 1.4 million and 1.2 million respectively, according to daily averages provided by company representatives.

The findings were part of a report called "How Libraries Stack Up," which highlights the many roles that libraries play in communities, according to OCLC market analysis manager Peggy Gallagher. It also includes statistics on career assistance and Wi-Fi use — the extent of which might be surprising to the general public or even to businesses offering similar services.

The story is saturated with ironies, but the best of them is not actually in the text. Like many online versions of a newspaper, derives revenue from advertising content on each of its Web pages. Velsey's report covers two such pages, each of which is practically saturated with Google-placed Netflix ads, three on the first page and two on the second! It is as if the ads are screaming, "Don't read this article when you can click here instead!"

(I noticed that, as soon as this piece was posted, a Netflix ad was assigned by Google to its newly-created page.)

Actually "Netflix" is in the text content of the story in a rather amusing manner:

"I think of libraries as places for books," said Steve Swasey, Netflix's vice president of corporate communications, adding that Netflix doesn't view public libraries as a competitor.

"It's free," said Swasey, "so it's a whole different model."

The first quote is just a matter of bald ignorance. If this came from an interview conducted by Velsey in preparing the story, one should wonder if the reporter had the backbone to ask this guy about the last time he had bothered to enter a public library, when (if ever) it was and what he experienced there. The second quote then takes us back to my initial point, which is that services are provided most effectively when the service providers are not spending all of their time worrying about fee-for-service (as is so painfully the case in our health care system).

Then there is Jose Rosa, who still maintains his streaming Netflix subscription but is spending more time at this public library:

Largely, though, he likes the library because it's a library. He can look at movies while his 12-year-old son finds books to take home.

I am reminded of a public library branch in Singapore that was deliberately set up in a major shopping mall. Beyond an extensive collection of children's books, they had enough of a facility and personnel to qualify as a day care center. When I visited the place, one of the librarians explained (with a thoroughly straight face) that they provided the perfect place for mothers to leave their kids while shopping. However, underneath the humor on the surface is a more important generalization that applies to us as much as it does to Singapore: A public library is far more than a "content repository" (to invoke a bit of Internet-speak). It is a community institution. Its very presence enriches the community and may even play a signifying role in defining the community's sense of identity. That sense of community identity is, itself, under siege through the impact of "social networks," which, by many criteria of social theory, may better be described as antisocial. Perhaps, as people have to be more careful about how they spend their money, they will discover, rather like Hans Christian Andersen's Chinese emperor with his mechanical nightingale, that technology really is not the solution for everything!

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