Memo to Libraries: Change or Die

Once upon a time, you couldn’t read “once upon a time” unless you first visited the local library.  But that’s no longer the case… and it is causing a serious problem.

Due to decreased funding, libraries are short on technology, short on hours and short on visitors.  In fact, library closings have become a viable alternative for many public and even school libraries.

The recently released 2010-2011 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study concludes that libraries are “grappling with a “new normal” of flat or decreased funding, paired with increased demand for public library technology resources. The result is a mix of the grim austerity, reflected in decreased operating hours and closed library outlets, in contrast with the robust delivery of technology resources that support workforce development, e-government services, and skills training for the competitive global marketplace.”

So what’s a library to do?

On college campuses, the bookless library is not just taking shape, it is taking the place of the traditional library.  As reported in TIME on Monday, “At Drexel University’s new Library Learning Terrace, which opened just last month, there is nary a bound volume, just rows of computers and plenty of seating offering access to the Philadelphia university’s 170 million electronic items.”  And Drexel is just one of hundreds of schools making the transition.

On the public front, big city institutions continue to secure essential funding. The New York Public Library for example is preparing to unveil a transformed main branch that architect Norman Foster says “anticipates the parallel and integrated worlds of electronic digital systems and traditional books.”

Meanwhile, in smaller towns like Kent, Ohio, funding is a little harder to come by.  Kent Free Library has been faced with diminishing state support.  In response, it has reduced its hours and cut its materials budget from $360,000 in 2008 to $120,000 this year.  Library director Stacey Richardson must now market a 1.8 mill continuing levy just to secure necessary operating funds.

As a man who covets his original copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, and still owns his first library card, I am sad to think libraries may one day become little more than glorified Starbucks stores that “fit seamlessly within a neighborhood and provide visitors a place to find a connection.” Think it’s a crazy comparison?

According to the Starbucks website, “it’s the wonderful people you meet that make Starbucks so special.  People like you. People with ideas, passion and curiosity. We’d like to help you have fun, dream big and connect to the people and ideas that interest you. Because we believe marvelous things happen when you put great coffee and great people together.”

According to American Library Association president Roberta Stevens, “Libraries have been and are continuing to transform themselves to be responsive to the needs of the populations they serve.  Libraries are busy because they are central to the lives of millions of families, students, older adults, entrepreneurs and those who require assistance in weathering the economic challenges of the past few years.”

Maybe we should just put Howard Schultz in charge of this issue and see what he can work out.

Jim Sweeney


Jim is a veteran of the agency industry and the founder of Sweeney. He is uncommonly passionate about the idea of creating and implementing insanely great marketing campaigns that achieve insanely great results. He pioneered the full-service, full-circle agency model and continues to forge new ideas in an ever-changing industry. And he is accessible to everyone about anything, seemingly all the time, serving as a mentor to all agency personnel and clients.