Sunday, March 6, 2011

Short-sightedness alienates patrons and risks revenue

a cautionary tale for civic leaders 

From the home page of the Williamsburg Regional Library, Williamsburg, VA:
Beginning February 1, 2011 only residents of the City of Williamsburg, James City County and York County will be issued WRL library cards.
As of that date the library will stop honoring all cards previously issued to those not residing in the above locations.

And so they have.

Crying resource-poor and overwhelmed by demand, the WRL announced late last year that they could no longer accommodate patrons from outside their funding area -- 6000 free-loading patrons by some estimates.

Imagine a library that had too much usage.  As the execs like to say, "that's a good problem to have."

Here in the people's republic, nearly every town has a library.  Though some collections are small and hours limited, they are just as likely to be the nicest building in town.  When I lived in Chelsea-by-the-Sea, the city itself was in receivership, but the library had a McArthur Grant.  The Minuteman system covers greater Boston and Metro West (where I work), while C M/MARS is for the central part of the state (where I live).  I belong to both.  No one minds.

I feel very strongly about libraries, and will evangelize about them at the slightest provocation.  One of the best in our state is nearly 40 miles from where I live, yet I would make that trek whenever it was needed -- that is, until I found the Lexington, which is not better but closer and quite good.  I expect to be there this week.

I understand how libraries are funded, and I respect the arrangement we make together: I'm going to borrow this for a few weeks, and pay a penalty if I am late.  I respect the limit rules that these small libraries (especially) have to make; once you've watched someone step up to the counter with 10 DVDs, you will mutter "you are ruining it for everyone, you know."  It is sad to watch a child try to pick out her 6 (and only 6) books to take home with her, but we all have to share.

My beef with the WRL is not that they thought they couldn't serve the 6000 intruders (but we'll examine that in a minute).  It is that they missed the opportunity to explore just how much those intruders were willing to pay for their share of the services.  One 25-year borrower I know personally blurted out "$100 a year."  $100 a year for the full services she enjoys now.  Imagine 6000 x $100.  How you like them now, eh?

WRL claims to have lost $150K of their materials budget -- that's acquisitions -- a reduction that was planned at least a year ago, according to a memo written that year.  That's a 150K loss on about $4 M, by the way.

The strategic plan that brought them up to 2010 does acknowledge that growth in the county and shifts in demographics were key factors in defining their strategic goals, but even then there is a whiff of making sure "the right people" are being served.

* WRL should focus on what it does well rather than trying to be all things to all people.
* The library should reach out to teens with space and services but should proceed cautiously and engage teens in the planning process.
* Although the community regards the library as an important community center, most users are not aware of the programs in its facilities.

 So... there are or there aren't enough materials to go around?  "The library has a collection of nearly 290,000 items, [and] a circulation of 919,000 items," says their press.  My beloved Newton Free requests, "The total number of items you may have checked out is 150."  But I guess it has twice the collection size and proudly " loans out more items than any other library building in Massachusetts."

WRL, I am not the first to suggest this:  Charge a guest fee.  This is nothing but profit for you.  You don't even need to make new cards -- a roll of stickers will do.  $100 annual for full rights of resident membership.  Make the sticker red, white, and blue.  We know you love that.  $50 for lower limits on borrowed materials, $25 for books only.  And that's price per residence, not per card.  Don't get greedy.  We have already found this statement on your website:
The library director may authorize the issuance of special recognition cards to reach key audiences in a city or county that funds the Williamsburg Regional Library.
and it sounds gross.  

You only need 1500 families to agree this is a worthy expense to make up your materials budget shortfall.  With Borders closing, this is your time.  You're blowing it.


  1. Two questions: 1) are those 6,000 "extras" the student body at the College of William and Mary in Virginia an institution that - the last time I checked - had a huge library? and 2) how in the world did you learn of this?

  2. I'm not sure where you found your information, but it's wrong! Your statistics, as well as your assessment of the situation, isn't accurate. Don't comment on something that you know absolutely nothing about.

  3. hello Anonymous, please say more. We are glad to learn from you.

  4. Reread the WY Daily article that you posted:
    The article says it all.

  5. It sounds to me as if a nerve got plucked - hard! And that anonymous poster had a knee-jerk reaction. I do, however, commend you for your response to him/her in such a gentle way - both times. I would hope that the poster has learned that it is not necessary to take such an adversarial role when pointing out a different perpective. Well done, Ms. Bender. M


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