Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Do The Math

For the last several years, people in the Fairfax County Public Library System have been coping with the realities of the harsh budget climate. Even though the library's budget was miniscule compared to most other agencies, it still took a disproportionate hit in the budget battles.

But FCPL has always had an ace up its sleeve in the Friends groups.  Each library branch has one, some more active than others, but all dedicated to making their branch a better place for patrons and staff alike. Some, like George Mason, have raised tons of money over the years and used it to underwrite the Summer Reading Program. Others, like Reston Regional, have been raising money steadily, just waiting for the perfect signature project in which to invest.

Enter the electronic book craze. Suddenly, everyone has some kind of e-reader. And everyone wants books for their e-readers. And FCPL has way more demand than supply. Why?

  • E-books are expensive. If you are the publisher, and you know that the library will not be back for replacement copies (e-books do not wear out), aren't you going to charge as much as you can up front?
  • Everybody and their mother got an e-reader for Holiday gifts. The Overdrive server that provides e-books from FCPL to patrons went down as all of those new users tried to get in on the new craze.

Realistically, we must accept that e-books are the wave of the future. That means fewer physical books will be published, purchased, and donated. That means book sale revenues will drop. Most of the branches have already seen a drop in donation quantity and quality.

What does that mean for us as a community? It means that we at FCPL must focus on this question:

What is it that libraries do for a community that no other agency does?

And the follow on is that having answered that question,
we must dedicate ourselves to doing it excellently.

What are some of the functions libraries currently provide?
1.  Meeting places for ESOL, Tutoring, Hanging Out, Community Activities
2.  Programming for all ages
3.  Reference services
4.  Educating People
5.  Computer Access
6.  Circulating materials that may be borrowed by community members

Only one of those is unique to libraries. Community Centers, Recreation Centers, Google, Schools and the ease of access to electronic media have created overlap in the others.

So, if your library branch disappeared tomorrow, what would you miss? 

Me, I'm a Luddite when it comes to books. I like physical books in my hand. Yes, I have an e-reader, but I would only use it in desperation.  When I travel, I take 4-5 paperback books that I've purchased from the used book sale for .50 each, and then leave them wherever I finish them.

However, my children's generation and their children will not have the pleasure of that in terms of quantity and quality and choice. And eventually they won't care, because their experience will have been with e-books. Can you imagine a Children's Program using e-books at the library? As the librarian pages through Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle, each of the toddlers will have their own e-reader and will page through with her -- and some will touch the icon that takes them to a page that tells them more about the author, or the media used, or brown bears...

Where do you think the Friends groups should be putting the money raised from book sales?

Talk to us. 
 E-mail or call at 703-829-5467

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