Libraries, Revenue Pressures and Self Defeating Measures

I never had access to public libraries as a child (or at least any that had interesting books). So I was stoked when my seven month old and I got our library cards made here in Cambridge and were told we could each borrow up to 12 books at a time – for free!

I used it a fair bit, picking up anything that seemed mildly interesting when I was hanging out with my son there, or looking  up whatever I needed on their online catalogue and reserving it for pick up at my nearest library. Online reservations were especially convenient for me given I generally can’t find the time to go hunting for things. All that for no cost(!), and I wouldn’t tire gushing over just how much this country offers its residents when you compare it to back home.

A few months ago, notices went up in libraries about the introduction of a £1 charge for reservations from June. I didn’t think much of it. After all, it only seemed like a fair charge for the resources spent in moving books on request from one library to the other all over the county.

But a couple of days ago as I yet again decided against reserving a book I had looked up online, it occurred to me just how this charge is playing out.

I realized that lately every time I want to reserve something, I’m forced to consider whether I want to spend a quid on a book that I won’t own, as opposed to spending a bit more and adding to my personal collection. Most novels can be found on Amazon for as cheap as £2.81. And in every single instance I decide that a book I’ll have to return soon isn’t worth shelling out money for.

I wonder if other library members are also finding themselves less likely to reserve books and choosing to buy them instead. Or perhaps are just not reading books they previously would have.

We’ll have numbers on how reservations have been affected by this charge in a few months time, so let’s see what the data says. But my hunch is that the decline in books borrowed will not be insignificant.

Coincidentally as I was pondering over what this means for library usage and revenues, @Puffles2010 tweeted this about my local library:

I hadn’t known that this premium poster service was a recent measure to raise revenue. Just that every time I saw this noticeboard, it looked so sad. Like the awkward kid at the school prom who no one is talking to, while everyone around him is too busy having a ball (terrible pun, I know). It’s always quite a task to make space for new posters when I’m putting them up in the library, when there’s an empty one right there. But this tweet gave me some perspective.

Which brings me to the point I set out to make.

I get it. Libraries need to raise revenues  and increase footfall to avoid being closed down.  So charges are being imposed on services which were previously free.

But will this really help raise revenues? Or will it just lower library usage and therefore their relevance while barely raising any additional income.

What I see happening over time is this:

library charges

Classic case of highly elastic demand, perfectly inelastic supply.

Here’s just one instance of what imposing a small charge on free things does.  An 85% decline in plastic bag usage in six months after the introduction of a small 5 pence charge.

That is massive.

For me, having to consciously decide whether I want to spend an additional 5 pence for a bag  at the point of every purchase  pushed me to alter my behavior and remember to start carrying reusable bags. Not just because I’m a cheapskate (desi habits die hard after all), but because every time the self service till asks me if I need a bag, I’m reminded that plastic bags are bad for for the environment.

Plastic bags are bad. The charge makes people use them less. So the charge is a good idea.

But charges can be terrible when placed on good things.

Libraries aren’t just good, they are awesome. As are books. As are community spaces which libraries have become.

Slap a charge on reservations and bam, book borrowing will plummet.

Slap a charge on noticeboards and bam, the noticeboard will turn into something no one notices any longer.

Slap a charge on anything and it will reduce usage. Which is perfect if that’s what you set out to achieve. But if we are trying to make libraries self sustaining, charges may just push people out until there isn’t much left to sustain.

If we are trying to save libraries by trying to generate income from them, charges on previously free services could be counterproductive. At best they may have a negligible impact on revenue. But as usage declines, they could be setting the grounds for reducing services even further.


*worry image by Magicon from the Noun Project

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