Libraries as the Conduit for Renewal

By: Clark Swanson

Over the past four weeks, I have visited nearly 100 libraries throughout the United States to conduct observational studies for clients. I describe the last set as being similar to the 737’s in the Southwest Airlines fleet—they take a pounding every day.

The 6:00 AM flight this morning gave me a few minutes to think about this a bit further. My thoughts were placed in context by something Thomas Friedman wrote in his most recent column in The New York Times:

America today is poised for a great renewal. Our newfound natural gas bounty can give us long-term access to cheap, cleaner energy and, combined with advances in robotics and software, is already bringing blue-collar manufacturing back to America. Web-enabled cellphones and tablets are creating vast new possibilities to bring high-quality, low-cost education to every community college and public school so people can afford to acquire the skills to learn 21st-century jobs. Cloud computing is giving anyone with a creative spark cheap, powerful tools to start a company with very little money. And dramatically low interest rates mean we can borrow to build new infrastructure — and make money.

It occurred to me that all of these people I observed over the past four weeks were using their libraries as the conduit for their renewal. Whether it was learning English, studying for a test, or using broadband to access cloud services, the library was a tool they employed to leverage their American Dream, regardless of its form.

We sometimes get caught up in all of the data, trying to figure out what is circulating, who is circulating it, if circulation is up or down, and so on to make decisions, that we forget the premise of why people use libraries. It is important then, I think, to focus intently on this context. It seems to me that the use of a library is a technology in its classic sense – a tool that enables one to generate value more efficiently.

The more I see, the better I begin to understand Andrew Carnegie’s dream of free libraries for the American public. They are more than a community resource—they serve to bring people closer to living their American Dream much like Carnegie himself.

©OrangeBoy, Inc. 2012

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2 thoughts on “Libraries as the Conduit for Renewal

  1. All the time I hear the alarmists telling me that there will soon be no paper book market, no libraries as we know it. Yet, like you, I have realized that there is more to the library than just printed matter. At Port Jervis Free Library we off a whole range of programs and helps, from suggesting books to helping with computers and eBooks. We are a fairly large library, but I feel we could easily double the size of our library and still not have enough room…and that’s basically just for the books. Add to that computers, learning centers, etc. and you are more than making a point, you are driving in the last nail to bury those alarmists. David (part time clerk)

    • Dear David:

      Thank you for your thoughts and taking the time to contribute to the conversation. A couple of themes run through your response. The first involves how one defines a library’s greatness. From my perspective, the measure of a great library comes from one simple question: does it meet the needs of its community? In some communities, borrowing materials represents a critical need. In others, not so much. This whole question, then, hinges on defining the needs of your customers. David, some of my favorite libraries circulate very little material. I offer as evidence the Rudisill Branch of the Tulsa City-County Public Library. Viewed from this context, I believe it one of the best libraries in the country.

      You also touched on the subject of e-books. This topic often reminds me of the Abbot and Costello routine universally known as “Who’s on First?” The more people talk about it, the more confused I become. It comes back to one simple point: individuals who read more than 10 books per year— regardless of format, i.e., print, audio, digital—tend to use the library more than those who read less than 10 per year. It is all about Elasticity of Demand. If you want to increase circulation, encourage your customers to read more. The more they read, the greater your competitive advantage. (However, you must first understand your customers to do so.)

      Finally, David, you mentioned the alarmists. As an Eagle Scout, I live by the Scout motto: Be Prepared. If you are prepared, no need for alarm exists. For libraries, this means having an established product and service development process. In the end, product and service design carries the day. Many wonderful examples of this exist. Intel, the company whose chips power your library’s computers, works on a 10-year development cycle. This involves an assessment of how people will use a computer not next year, or the year after, but in 10 years so they position themselves in the short-, near-, and long-term to address those needs. This goes back to my first point— it is all about the customer and their needs.

      I greatly appreciate your comments. OrangeBoy recently added the Albany Public Library as a client and I look forward to spending time in the Empire State over the next few months.

      Thank you,
      Clark Swanson

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