The HBS library around me is busy – three quarters of the nearby seats are occupied and dozens of people are working on laptops, looking at smartphones, or reading printouts. Only one person is reading an actual book; the surrounding books serve more as decoration for the “library atmosphere” than an actual resource.
Over 30% of Americans now own an eReader and more than 60% own a smartphone1. While book sales overall are growing (up 8% from 2008 to 2013), print book sales are declining (down 8% over the same period)2. Historically, libraries were institutions which delivered value by storing printed media and shared them with the community. They received funding (from governments, universities, donors) because access to print resources was valuable to society – libraries educated and entertained people while bringing communities together. Americans today confirm that libraries still have a role, with 76% agreeing that libraries serve a community need.3
However, as digital media grows, the traditional operating model of libraries as printed media repositories and lenders is not enough – libraries have to do more. In fact, visit volume is declining (53% of Americans visited a library in 2012 vs. 44% in 2015)3 and library budgets risk cuts as public and private sources are less likely to fund an underutilized service.
(Boston Public Library, from http://www.boston-discovery-guide.com)
The Boston Public Library (BPL) faces this challenge but has the advantages of scale and resources compared to smaller libraries, giving the BPL more room to innovate. BPL was the first free large municipal library in the US and now has 24 branches with 3.7 million annual visitors.4 Like most libraries, it relies on public sources for most of its revenue (88%)5 and uses that funding to deliver on its mission/value proposition “to preserve and provide access to historical records…. and to serve the cultural, educational, and informational needs of the people of the City and the Commonwealth”4
(BPL Budget, from http://www.bpl.org/finances/)
Notably, the mission mentions nothing about print media – lending books is not the only way the library achieves its mission. In a world shifting away from printed books, the BPL is changing its operating model to more digital resource offerings in several ways:
- Digitizing books, photos, and maps to both preserve records and provide convenient access – in 2016, the library digitized its 100,000th item6.
- Providing online access to eBooks and audio books by partnering with services such as Overdrive. Similar to a physical library, these limit the number of books a patron borrows at a time and some books are “out of stock” if too many patrons borrow them.
- Granting in-library access to online databases and journals (previously print-only)
The BPL also seeks to be more than just a resource repository (online or print), shifting its value proposition (and business model) to becoming a community space for today’s world by:
- Providing technology (desktops, laptops, and tablets) to patrons for use inside the library
- Holding technology classes, ranging from computer basics to advanced coding
- Offering online research support to help patrons navigate online resources and databases
These services are offered together with lending books. If printed books continue to decline and digital media is offered broadly outside of libraries, BPL’s role as a community center for information, culture, and education (not just a resource repository) becomes increasingly important. The BPL can do more to succeed here.
It can follow the model of a “technology library” as done in Omaha, Nebraska7. There, the “Do Space” is a building with free access to computers, 3D printers, and laser cutters catering to the community. There is no associated book inventory co-located with a “technology library” and BPL should similarly consider investing in stand-alone smaller “technology libraries” to expand its reach and impact.
(Do Space, from http://www.hdrinc.com/portfolio/do-space)
When it comes to digitization of existing collections, the BPL has an opportunity to share collections with other municipal libraries and avoid duplication when digitizing the same items. The idea of a “library collection” makes sense for physical libraries, but digital collections should be accessible from home and across different institutions through centralized repositories. BPL can play a role in setting up cross-library collections spanning multiple cities and countries to help patrons worldwide access resources.
Finally, BPL should make a distinction between “books as art” and “books as information”. Books that involve graphics and images are similar to art- an old manuscript or a new $300 book of Apple product photographs7 are best appreciated on paper. As printed books become less important as information sources, some books can continue to be relevant for BPL because patrons can gather at a library and enjoy them as art, similar to art at a public art gallery.
Ultimately, these steps can help drive library use and help BPL make a strong case to public and private sponsors for continued funding.
(“Designed By Apple in California” Book, from http://bgr.com/2016/11/16/apple-book-300-photos-images-pages/)
- Print is alive and well – at least for books. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Technology-Media-Telecommunications/gx-tmt-pred15-print-alive-and-well.pdf
- McKinney, K. (2014). Book revenues are up – but without ebooks, they’d be plummeting. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.vox.com/2014/6/27/5849354/e-books-will-save-the-publishing-industry
- Rainie, L. (2016). Libraries and Learning. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/04/07/libraries-and-learning/
- A Brief History and Description. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.bpl.org/general/history.htm
- BPL – Finances & Budget. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.bpl.org/finances/
- Boston Public Library reaches 100,000 items digitized. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://west-roxbury.wickedlocal.com/article/20160528/NEWS/160526295
- In Omaha, A Library With No Books Brings Technology To All. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/05/31/477819498/in-omaha-a-library-with-no-books-brings-technology-to-all
- Bareham, J. (2016). Apple’s $299 coffee table book is a holy tome for nostalgic fans. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.theverge.com/tldr/2016/11/17/13666750/designed-by-apple-coffee-table-book-iconic-product-photography
Featured cover image from (https://www.buzzfeed.com/lincolnmichel/the-future-is-never?utm_term=.ncxnRkaAg#.vb77pNw54 by Nathan Pyle