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Libraries as alternative

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How we think about the function of libraries in relation to other organisations that provide the same set of things can be complex. Especially when we consider the list of competitors, some of whom are frankly terrifying in their reach and resources:

  • Coffee shops (a place to spend leisure time)
  • Gyms (ditto)
  • Book stores (books, browsing experience)
  • Amazon (physical and e-title provision)
  • Google (provision of information)
  • The internet!

Libraries offer some unique services – free PC and internet access, for example. But these tend to be the services other organisations don’t want to offer because there’s no profit in them. While it’s really important we do this, we need a role beyond being a part of the social care system. After all, simply providing things for people who can’t afford them is a very narrow interpretation of what a universal service is. More practically: what role do libraries play when everyone has broadband and a device? How do you get the whole population engaged with and supportive of what you do?

This seems a difficult position for libraries. How do we compete with the internet? Perhaps Jason Fried provides a clue when writing about how Basecamp’s Hey! email service isn’t in competition with, say, gmail:

When you think of yourself as an alternative, rather than a competitor, you sidestep the grief, the comparison, the need to constantly measure up. Your costs are yours. Your business operates within its own set of requirements. Your reality is yours alone. An alternative to competition.

This makes perfect sense for an online product, and there are lots of services taking this approach. They often focus on the ethical aspect of what they’re offering – micro.blog is a nicer Twitter that doesn’t own your content, Hey! isn’t gmail and won’t track you etc.

This seems a powerful aspect of the library offer, and a route out of competing with the Amazons of this world. After all, our only motive is to provide the public with a good service, which is self-evidently more ethical than, say, Google. We won’t track you or sell your personal information to anyone else, our staff don’t work 10 hour shifts without comfort breaks, we’re built on a model of recycling things etc. etc. This is the basis of a good alternative offer.

But note the low numbers in Jason Fried’s post. He estimates Hey! will get 200,000 “alternative to gmail” users at most – at $99/year/user that’s an income of around $20m/year, which sounds great for establishing a solid business in a distinct, well-defined market, but that’s not what libraries are. We can’t settle on appealing to a small subset of the local population by offering a niche product.

I’m not sure what the answer to the competition problem is. Libraries as alternative offers a great way to market ourselves to new audiences, but what’s the bigger reason for using the library?

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