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In search of the most ethical revenue streams for public libraries February 9, 2010

Posted by michaelpawlus in Uncategorized.
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So, I am officially back to school and well into my first week which has been great.  It feels so good to have some structure in my life again.  Today, we looked at a number of possible revenue streams and discussed which ones would be the most ethical.  In this case, ethical meant charging only for services that are not core to the library’s mission and which would not increase tiering or social exclusion.  We arrived at the following list of ideas:

  • Charge for access to special databases such as those for local history studies.  The justification for this charge is because the service is not part of the core mission.
  • Charge for computer access past a certain time limit.  For example, Internet access is free for two hours but after that there would be a small fee to continue.  This is a revenue stream that works much like late fees it only charges those who use a resource so long that it prevents others from accessing that same resource.  Though, we did discuss how late fees continue to pop up as the number one reason why lapsed users stop coming back to the library.  Someone suggested setting up an automatic email system to let users now a day or two in advance when their materials would be due back but we discussed how those most affected by late fees may not have regular internet access.  However, I think there must be some way to send a message via text as almost everyone has a mobile phone these days.
  • The last one that we all agreed on was charging to use spare rooms on a sliding scale based on the income of the organisation using the room.  Of course, the obvious problem is when groups want to use the room who are not officially organised as a charity.  In which case some thought it should be free but I think there could still be a small fee, I mean much smaller than anywhere else but just enough so other organisations don’t complain about unfair treatment.

Ideas that we didn’t like included:

  • Raising late fees.  At first, I was for this as I figured it is a fee that can be avoided so why not increase a penalty fee rather than start charging for services.  However, after hearing the statistic about lapsed users I changed my mind.  It is terrible to think that public libraries are losing members because some have a few pounds in late fees stacked up in a corner somewhere that they are unable to pay and as a result they now avoid going to the library.
  • A premium rate request service.  This would be a fee that would allow some to get requested materials faster than others.  Here the problem is the idea of setting up tiering where some members received better service just because they had more money which isn’t a system that really gels well with the pubic library’s mission.

I think there are a few other ideas that I first heard about on the Infopeople Podcast but have since expanded on.  These are:

  • Selling advocacy or special issue library cards.  These would just be regular library cards with no special benefits but users could pay for them and they would get a card that just looked a little different identifying the issue they wanted to fund.  Now, I think this would require a lot of pre-planning and transparency.  Ideally, it would look like this:  First, there would be a board with a list of special projects and how much they would cost.  Next, users could pick one of the ’causes’ and give a donation to that cause and receive a library card that was designed to reflect that they supported this idea.  Lastly, as money came in the board would reflect how close the library was to reaching certain goals and when it got to a certain money area a product or service would be purchased and everyone would see the result of the campaign.  The issue is that those with the money to give would see their ideas come to fruition over the ideas of others who weren’t able to give.  I think that is an issue but I think these projects would all be non-core and it would be good for the community to see their gifts having a direct impact.
  • The last idea is to sell bags instead of books at book sales.  I thought this was great because instead of trying to decide whether each item was worth a certain amount, the user paid for the opportunity or the experience of digging through the materials and stuffing as many as they could into their bags.  However, I mentioned this in class today and my classmate said that a library he knew tried this idea and some people were upset because they didn’t want a bag full of books they just wanted one.  Of course, there is no reason that it couldn’t be both ways.  Either buy a bag or buy the books individually.  The one thing about the podcast that I really did like was the idea of not organising the books.  Many people found that this made it more fair.  Otherwise, certain sections would get picked over early but having the material unorganised meant that there may still be hidden treasures buried about all throughout the day.

I’m definitely thinking about Illinois as I write this.  I think aside from these little gimmicks to pull in a small amount of extra funds here and there we really needed to be out there promoting what a valuable service we provide.  I love the recent Snapshot Project that has been taking place which is just short videos put on YouTube showing the variety of services available at the local public library.  I feel sometimes we take ourselves for granted and we forget that not everyone knows everything that we offer so we need to continue to be out there even after the funding crisis ends letting everyone know how amazingly important the public library is in every community.  It really is.  There is no other institution like it but as Rachel Van Riel lets us know “public libraries are one of the few organisations which routinely deliver much more than they claim.”  While I think it is a good idea to regularly try to brainstorm new revenue streams I think moreover we just need to be out telling our story louder and more repetitively in ways that are more sticky just like the “big brand names” do.  There is no doubt that we can sit around in a circle together and agree on the value of the public library but its time to really take that message to the people.  If we do, then maybe we won’t see funds slip away from the source where they can really add up…. the ballot box.