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.