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What if…public libraries could anchor a platform cooperative?

We recently published our submission to the Libraries Taskforce consultation about its draft strategy – Libraries Deliver: An Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016-21. Today, we want to say a bit more about our having called upon the Taskforce to explore the opportunities for public libraries that could flow from the growth of the ‘sharing economy’ and, in particular, moves to establish Platform Cooperatives.

The Challenge

The services that public libraries offer are constantly evolving to meet changing user needs as well as to take advantage of emergent trends and technological advancements. Most library leaders in developed countries are, for example, busy exploring the scope to introduce code clubs, maker spaces and hot-desking for entrepreneurs or, else, establishing ‘libraries of things’ as per Sacramento and Edinburgh’s Tool Library at present. But, many in the UK are also having to take difficult decisions as a result of diminishing budgets and, to date, this has resulted in the following courses of action:

Premises

  • Reduce/cut mobile library services
  • Co-locate libraries with other services
  • Transfer library assets to communities
  • Close libraries

Staffing

  • Reduce/cut
  • Contract out
  • Pursue Trust status / spin-out
  • Explore shared service points and multi-function ‘front of house’ staff
  • Increase volunteers supporting / delivering library services

Capital Investment

  • Pursue additional capital budget in-house and/or grants and/or social investment

Income Generation

  • Seek philanthropic donations / explore crowd-funding
  • Secure non-library public service contracts
  • Pursue private sector service contracts / partnerships
  • Engage in direct trading and retail
  • Establish paid-for services

The bulk of changes implemented have concerned Premises and Staff which has, understandably, underpinned growing concern amongst library users and professionals. This, in turn, has tended to pitch both ‘against’ council leaders and/or result in communities having no option but to step up / step in to manage library assets and services themselves.

What if there were other ways in which Councils and communities could work together to sustain and evolve library services?

We’ve spoken and written extensively about the need to prioritise income generation to help safeguard the public library network – both to bolster library budgets and to facilitate investment in diversification of the library service offer over time; and, we know, that’s not something that everyone supports. However, more recently, we’ve been asked by local authorities to consider how to nurture ‘community resilience’ in relation to broad-ranging services.

Now, we are by no means apologists for austerity politics or the Big Society effort. But, the facts are: councils have either to reduce overall demand for services they cannot afford to fund in their current form OR identify alternative (lower cost / cost neutral) ways in which to deliver those services for so long as the current situation persists.

Clearly, we DON’T want to reduce demand for library services – so, that’s out. And, we’ve already said that lower cost/cost neutral approaches to library service delivery have a tendency to pitch library users and staff ‘against’ council leaders. So, how else might communities work to co-design and co-produce library services? And, could doing things differently improve outcomes for all concerned over time?

The Opportunity

The term ‘sharing economy’ is widely understood to mean “an economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet”; so, think Uber, AirBnB and TaskRabbit.

In March 2015, Matthew Hancock MP (then, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Energy) introduced the UK Government’s response to an Independent Review of the Sharing Economy, saying: “Sharing is nothing new. We’ve been sharing our food and homes with others for centuries, but digital platforms have given this a new lease of life. The sharing economy is transforming the way we live our lives and we can now share our homes, our time and even our power tools with people from across the globe. From transport to tutoring to holiday hunting, businesses like JustPark, TaskRabbit and Airbnb are revolutionising the way we interact with the world as well as how we use our own assets.” He went on to make a number of recommendations about growing sharing economy businesses and, more recently, the European Commission published related guidance and policy recommendations (helpfully summarized by @meedabyte).

There are, however, concerns about the sharing economy’s rapid growth (such that, specific protections have been introduced in Berlin and Barcelona, whilst the Italian Government has consulted upon a dedicated Sharing Economy Act to formally regulate related activities). The concerns most commonly articulated centre around the impact that sharing economy businesses are having upon places where they operate at scale, the traditional businesses they’re disrupting, and the precariousness of the people who participate in what is also, sometimes, referred to as the ‘gig economy’; they are also bound up with debates surrounding personal/corporate taxation. It is unsurprising, then, that Matthew Hancock MP (now, Minister for the Cabinet Office) should have spoken only last week about the need to support both the ‘disruptors’ and the ‘disrupted’; and, we think there is real scope for public libraries to evolve their offer to support the latter over the years ahead (which we may well write about on another occasion). Notably, however, those same concerns have also given rise to advocates for ethical alternatives – for the Internet of Ownership and so-called ‘Platform Cooperatives‘ – alternatives which, we think, could dovetail with efforts to evolve library services in our increasingly read/write (interactive) world.

Test Balloon…

What if…public libraries could champion an ethical alternative to the corporate sharing economy and move to anchor a platform cooperative in which library users had a direct stake? Could libraries, as R.D. Lankes implores, ‘Kill the User‘ and co-produce collections and new services working with them? Libraries are hard-wired for sharing. It’s core business. But, at present, library services purchase then share content (stuff) with their users. They only very rarely invite their users to share content (stuff) with/through them. Could libraries and library users work together and drive up interest in reading/writing/sharing? And, could assuming the form of a platform cooperative also help sustain libraries in the medium to long-term?

How might it work (in a nutshell)?

We lost the formidable Dr Maya Angelou back in Spring 2014. At the time, I wanted to read ‘I Know why the Caged Bird Sings’. I went online to order a copy from my library service’s catalogue and there it was – except, unsurprisingly, I wasn’t alone. In fact, there were over 50 holds on the book flagged by the reservation system. So, rather than wait, I decided to buy a copy from my local indie book shop.

Now, were I based in an area covered by Libraries West, I might have opted to purchase the book from Amazon there and then and, in doing so, I might have generated a small amount of money for my library service (please, say there is such a deal in place there or else…?!). But, what if other copies were available – copies made available by library users – via my library service’s LMS (just as AirBnB make peoples’ spare rooms available via its website)? And, what if I knew, by borrowing or purchasing a book from another library user, I’d also be supporting my library service? Could a platform cooperative anchored by libraries grow access to books, encourage reading of up to date and high quality 2nd hand stock (in particular, where library service book funds are threatened), and proactively leverage convenience through a trusted pick-up-and-drop-off scheme? Could it make available a broader range of items in the spirit of evolving a community-based ‘library of things’, such that I could search/borrow/buy other stuff in the course of searching for something? Could a modest income for library services be skimmed from individual user transactions? Could users be invited to indicate their willingness to donate the full purchase price sought for their books (stuff) in order to help sustain libraries? Or, could users be encouraged to pay a monthly subscription to simply borrow things from a much larger shared collection of items?

Coda

We’ve spoken to a number of library users about their ‘frustration’ at not being able to contribute books they’ve either read or, else, written to their local library – whether because they’d welcome new/different stock being made available or would like to work with library staff to promote their creative efforts at the local level. We’ve also talked to lapsed library users about their interest in/willingness to donate books to libraries. They told us they would welcome an opportunity to re-engage as avid readers who, for one reason or another, no longer use their public library but fully appreciate the benefits they offer to the whole community; just imagine – crowd-sourcing books from lapsed users as a means to re-connect with them and promote the range of contemporary services libraries now offer (services they’re so often unaware of).

Next Steps

OK – so, that’s the idea and an outline of the reasons we think this could be useful / made to work. But, transforming services is rarely straightforward, and there could well be good reasons why this hasn’t been done already and/or shouldn’t be done at all (yes, I hear the scream: state aid – keep calm, don’t panic!). The purpose of this exercise is to understand whether there might be alternative ways in which libraries and their users can work together for mutual benefit, and we’d welcome your input to help us refine our thinking, so please let us know what you think.

10 Comments

  1. John Dolan

    There’s real power and potential here. I’ll be passing it on

    1. Annemarie

      Great – and, thanks!

  2. Nicolas B.

    We are a couple of french librarians exploring this idea too. For example, you should take a look at what is done in the public library of Languidic (Brittany). They’re runing a local network for sharing knowledge and stuff between users…
    A presentation on that topic (in french) : http://fr.slideshare.net/acim_asso/le-rseau-dchange-de-savoirs-entre-adhrents-de-la-mdiathque-languidic-avec-steeple

    1. Annemarie

      Thank you – we spoke via Twitter – your colleagues have been very helpful in introducing us to the Steeple project: https://www.steeple.fr/mediatheque-languidic

  3. Ed Mayo

    Libraries of the future? This is the best post I have read.

    1. Annemarie

      Thank you for your very generous comment – we’d love to explore if/how to take this forward with your input – so, please, do get in touch if that would be welcome from your perspective.

  4. Hugh Rolo

    I think the core idea of libraries as centres for sharing “stuff” is a great start. It’s the ripples of kinship that could make it really exciting.

  5. Laurie Putnam

    These ideas are definitely worth exploring, Annemarie. I’ve also been thinking about ways to integrate the resources of the library and the community, but hadn’t really considered the revenue-generation aspect.

    Maybe it would make sense to try a small-scale experiment based on the library’s existing infrastructure for sharing books. Could a library LMS be modified to give catalog searchers the options of:
    * Borrowing a library copy, or
    * Borrowing or buying a copy from a someone in the local area (could the system be set up so community members enter the books they’re willing to loan or sell?), or
    * Buying a copy from local a partner bookseller (a local business partner might be preferable to Amazon, so the whole system could support the local community)?

    This could be an especially useful system for academic libraries, university bookstores, and students with used textbooks.

    1. Laurie Putnam

      If you later expanded the system to include things beyond books, it would be worth thinking about how to view the service in the context of the library’s mission to facilitate literacy and learning.

      So if you included non-book stuff in the sharing network, might there be ways to include learning opportunities too? In Pennsylvania, for example, if you want to borrow a ukulele, a librarian will teach you how to play it (http://j.mp/1Pw1CIr). Why not tap into community expertise too? Could you build a database of local experts who could teach you how to use the thing you borrow, so you create a network of expertise to go along with the network of stuff? Maybe incorporate something like SkillShare at the local level? (http://j.mp/28ZuVcC)

      1. Laurie Putnam

        Long-term, the library could truly become a hub of community information.

        Could it someday be possible to catalog library holdings and programs, shareable community stuff, and community expertise in one integrated LMS? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could search the library catalog for “French” and find not just language books and recorded audio lessons, either in the library or in the community network, but also information about the library’s conversation groups and pointers to local French speakers who would be willing to tutor you? Then the community really does become the collection.

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