Monday, March 19, 2007

Making Your Numbers

Last week there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about kids not using the library as much as they used to (the WSJ article is subscription only, but you can view it here).

This prompted a writer at Bloggingstocks to speculate on how public libraries might draw in more readers. I think one of his suggestions will appeal especially to all those librarians who are so excited about "business" and "marketing" and like to think about library users as "customers." I prefer the genteel library tradition, but some people want to sell their soul to Demon Commerce. Here's the suggestion:

"One of the problems with libraries (and public institutions in general) is that there is no strong incentive to attract new customers. Why is service at the DMV so bad? They don't care if you like it, and it's the only show in town. To encourage libraries to find ways to attract new readers, a portion of the compensation that librarians (particularly head librarians) receive should be tied to their performance: Did they see an increase in the number of books checked out? What about the number of young people signing up for library cards? Just like the CEO of a company gets paid more for improving profits, librarians should be paid for gathering more patrons. After all, libraries are taxpayer dollars at work and the more they're used, the more value we get out of each dollar."

Isn't that exciting! That's just like real business! I know some librarians get very excited and like to froth at the mouth when discussing "business" stuff, but we all know that if they knew anything about real business they'd be out making money instead of being librarians. But now all that can change!

Providing actual incentives to librarians to bring in the "customers"! That's definitely an idea that's been missing from all the business blather I've seen in cloud-cuckoo libraryland. Some librarians act as if librarians should all be working like dogs at breakneck pace to satisfy all their "customers." As any reasonable person might notice, though, there's no reason to work at that kind of pace if you're a librarian. Librarians get paid, and sometimes poorly, no matter what they do. I have no doubt that I could double my salary tomorrow if I wanted to work in some hectic, risky, private sector job and put in 60-80 hours a week. Heck, I could have been a corporate lawyer or an investment banker. But I don't like to work very hard, especially with no incentive. That's why I'm a librarian.

But with this strategy, librarians would have some actual incentive. Why work hard to increase those checkouts? Because your pay depends on it, baby. So take that, library "marketeers"!

As I understand it from my business friends, a commission model would probably be best. Since libraries don't generate much income and have little money to work with, we can't just give people raises to get this thing going. Instead, let's say we cut the base salaries of public librarians in half, and then set a quota for them of number of books checked out. I suppose to make it easy, we should let them circulate other items as well. I'm not sure if computer signups should count, but I'm flexible. We could probably add in "number of reference questions answered" or "number of videogames cataloged" to make sure everybody gets a square deal. The closer librarians come to making their quota, or "making their numbers" as the sales folks say, the closer they'll come to their old base pay. (Items circulated to library staff members don't count!)

Not only will this provide a businesslike incentive for librarians to get people reading, but ultimately it will save money. How? Easy. Just like in the business world, quotas are variable and subjective things. I have a friend who sells stuff (I won't tell you what it is, but she makes about twice as much as I do--and I don't do that badly--IF she makes her numbers). She just had her quota doubled, but with no increase in clients. Now she needs to get out there and move some product if she's going to make as much as last year. With no bottom line, quotas are more or less arbitrary, and under the new model libraries could just keep raising the quotas, thus guaranteeing that librarians will keep working harder and harder for less and less money. From a taxpayer's perspective, this is what's known in business-speak as a "win-win" situation.

I take back all my criticisms of the library "business" folks. This is definitely a way to run a library. I think it's about time for all those librarians who jabber on about business and their library "customers" put their money where their mouth is.


Anonymous said...

I have been expecting my library to set incentive-based promotions for the past year or so. I expect them to do so within the next two years. However, if they do so, I expect a few givebacks, such as free staff coffee from the cafe of the future and regularly cleaned restrooms. How can people be expected to read the restroom papers if the restrooms don't invite them to linger?

-the conspiracy theorist

Anonymous said...

My library makes the cataloging librarians achieve a quota every month, or basically their job is on the line. It leads to errors in cataloging, as you might expect.

BTW, I enjoy your blog, Annoyed Librarian. You have an excellent way of putting into words some of the feelings I've had about the way libraries are being run (into the ground)

Dances With Books said...

Ah yes, the lovely business "gurus" that would have us run libraries like Wal-mart (actually, I think someone wrote a piece making that same proposal). It never fails: some schmuck writes the latest elegy for the library, and the solution from the next person is to "suggest" the business model as if it was some revolutionary idea. Of course, you know a lot of them folks who spend way too much time in the library ghetto of the blogosphere are, as you point out, frothing at the mouth. If they want it so much, let them go sell something for commissions, or maybe be a waitress someplace (since they seem to equate service with incentives, and we all know waitress, the more they work, the more they make in tips).

So, what else is new? Once again, you hit it on the head, as they say.

tanner said...

Thank you once again, AL, for so cleverly articulating what I have been thinking about libraries for the past 10 years.
All this nonsense about thinking of the library as a business and referring to the users as customers makes me shudder. Unfortunately we have some of those people in my own library, including one corporate-speak-obsessed AUL.
We could use someone like you at my library, or maybe I could go work at your library. Are you looking for catalog librarians?

Greg said...

I feel bad for your friend AL, and admire her at the same time. There's no way I could survive under that kind of pressure.

Anonymous said...

Be careful what you wish for. (sic)The other shoe (an expensive one, being a business person's shoe) to drop is the "right sizing" and "going in another direction" NewSpeak one. After a few quarters of "making the numbers" (or not) the staff is winnowed and the facility downsized. Info desks are manned by remote operators in India, a few workstations locked to Google and Wikipedia are available like ATMs in a little vestibule whilst the stacks remain dimmed and "open" only once in awhile. Your local Liberry Board, awash in cash, has it's budget reduced, or if politically conencted, re-directed to a "Wildlife Refuge" or some other boondoggle involving lanf acquisition, lawyers, construction contracts, smoke-filled rooms and, yes, even martinis.

Amicable competence and a low profile seem far more apropos than being a "change agent."


shade said...

"Just like the CEO of a company gets paid more for improving profits" - I'd like to see the proof for this statement. Has the author never heard of the pharmaceutical industry? Golden parachute, anyone? And that idiot from Home Depot?

And why do institutions of public service have to make money? I've never understood this. If everything ought to be run like a corporation, why do we have a government? Can't we just outsource it?

Anonymous said...


For what it's worth, yes, we can.

See, for example, this USA Today piece.

AL said...

I'm skeptical, obviously, of the whole idea that libraries should be run like businesses or that they should be expected to be as efficient as a well run private company. I don't know much about the finances, but despite my criticism it seems to me that libraries are probably a pretty good deal as public services go, much better than public schools in my opinion.

shade said...

Well, shut my mouth. I was only half joking because I live in Indiana where the governor is selling off as many state assets as possible. I think he calls it 'balancing the budget.' Do you think we'll get more say as shareholders in USACorp than as citizens? And if the USACorp makes a profit, will we get a dividend? Oh, right, I'll be a wage slave same as always.

Susan said...

I'm actually doing my final project on this very topic: running a library like a business. You can call it wishy-washiness if you like, but I actually think you can steal some of the better business concepts and make it work. I think any "real" librarian would balk at calling our patrons "customers" but we could stand to borrow some of the techniques used in the way the good places out there treat their customers. I think one of the main things libraries have going for them is their personal connection with people. When I trained at SBC (Seattle's Best Coffee) the basic customer service emphasized active listening, acknowledging people by name when possible, and asking them to come back again, all of those things any good front line librarian should be doing as well. Not all that different really. And this translates to some other areas as well. Businesses have had to be warmer and fuzzier because it behooves them to create relationships, not just transactions with their customers, and that's something we can certainly stand to emulate.

Anonymous said...

I am so sick of hearing that libraries should be run like businesses. They are two separate things. We allow people to check items out for free. How many other businesses do that? How many businesses exist solely for the purpose of improving the community? Access to free information should be incentive enough to get people to sign up for cards.

Furthermore, I did not get a MLIS to work as a customer service representative. It seems like library science professors have been in the ivory tower for too long. They have forgotten how unruly, impolite, and unreasonable the public is. I am tired of hearing about the user.

I love your blog, Annoyed Librarian.