retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Now available on iTunes…

To hear Kevin Coupe’s weekly radio commentary, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, or just go to:

Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is MNB Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

I’ll make this short this morning because, as you probably can tell from my voice, I’ve got a pretty bad cold and listening to me talk may be almost as painful as actually doing the talking.

We’ve had a lot of discussion over the past several months here on MNB about outmoded business models, and one of the institutions that occasionally pops up as being possibly outmoded is the public library. The question I’ve asked is whether in a world where every person has access to enormous resources online, are public libraries really necessary? Are they redundant? Do they have to change in certain fundamental ways to adjust to the changing needs of the communities they serve?

All good questions, I think. Of course, in many communities and to a lot of people, public libraries are a sacred cow. But to steal the title of a book we’ve talked about from time to time here on MNB, the first thing you do is kill the sacred cows...

And so it was with great interest that I read a story in the New York Times the other day about how “a private company in Maryland has taken over public libraries in ailing cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, growing into the country’s fifth-largest library system.” Now, the company has been hired to run the library in Santa Clarita, California, described as a “relatively healthy city,” and the move is raising all sorts of questions about the role of outsourcing and whether it should only be used as a last resort. To say the least, some citizens are upset by the city’s decision.

I actually give the city fathers some credit here. Smart organizations anticipate problems and act before they get serious. They’re operating in a state with severe budget problems, and it probably isn’t hard to imagine that while Santa Clarita may be a relatively healthy city, that may not always be the case. So if the city can outsource certain departments and functions, either saving tax dollars and perhaps even creating a cushion for the tough times, that seems like a pretty business-like way to serve the people of the community.

Are there risks? Of course. Some are worried that when a library is outsourced to a private company, it will mean less accessibility, fewer books and, eventually, greater cost. As someone to whom books are a precious commodity, I certainly can sympathize with this concern.

But the Santa Clarita library is remaining as a public library - it is just that the operating of it - including the staffing - is being contracted out. It isn’t hard to imagine that this actually could make the library more efficient and market-responsive...because that’s what private companies do.

Are libraries, as some say in the Times story, the cornerstone of democracy, and therefore should be shielded from such moves? Well, that’s a decision the communities have to make for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-libraries. I’m not suggesting that all governments should be run like businesses. Really, I’m not.

But the world has changed. The way we access information has changed. And I think at every level we have to be willing to look even at the items that we have viewed as cornerstones to see if they are holding up a structure that has outlived its usefulness, or at least needs to be repositioned for a relevant future.

That seems to be what they are doing in Santa Clarita. And it is what we all should be doing, virtually every day, in our own businesses.

For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
KC's View: