What is Beginner's Mind

Having 'Beginners mind' is to approach a subject enthusiastically, with openness and without preconceptions, even if you are an expert. It represents a willingness to ask questions and challenge assumptions; both essential to the scientific process.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Libraries and the value of free

One of the distinctive aspects of American public libraries is that they are free. In other countries, and during the times of the Founding Fathers, subscription libraries were the rule. However, both philanthropists and local governments soon realized the importance of access to information. The foundations of democracy depend upon an informed citizenry, so free libraries became one of the civilizing aspects of a community.

But now, there are many sources of information and entertainment that are approaching the "free" price point. Chris Anderson suggests that every industry that becomes digital becomes free. Google and the internet provide free news, information and entertainment. And, very low cost subscriptions such as Netflix or Hulu are within the reach of all but the very poorest as long as they have an internet device. In addition, e-books have significantly reduced the price of the novel. At the same time, public libraries, looking for new sources of revenue, may be charging for some items or jacking up their fines and fees. This does not appear to be a good strategy, in what Anderson calls an economy of abundance.

At my library, it is usually the poorest who end up with fines--often in the tens or even hundreds of dollars. So, at what point does a library cease to be free? How does this affect the library's value proposition? At what point is it cheaper for a patron to get a Netflix subscription rather than to check out movies from a library?

Total fines per day may be an excellent quality indicator--not how much we generate, but how little. I suggest that fines are a proxy for customer dissatisfaction. Their expectation when they come to the library is that they can check out items for free. Fines, although probably necessary, indicates a failure to make it easy for the customer to return their items on time. And, fines make it easier for our competitors to compete with us.

Chris Anderson's talk on "free" is available here: http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1815813330?bctid=1813637601