Flexible public library service models for the new century: strengthening the network and securing the future.
Flexible public library service models for the new century: strengthening the network and securing the future prepared by Hudson Howells Asia Pacific Consulting for the Libraries Board of South Australia in association with the Local Government Association of South Australia and the Chief Librarians' Association of South Australia. August 1996. 3 sections - The Report, Summary report and National summary report plus a pc version (an interactive kit) October 1996. The disk has been sent to all Australian public library services and may be purchased for $10 prepaid from Plain Central Services 8 Milner Street Hindmarsh SA 5007 fax(08)83402524
This report has been prepared by a
consulting company to, in the words
of the consultants
identify innovative and flexible models
of (public library) delivery, including
community information services, which
will assist councils undertaking
amalgamations and other reforms.
It was funded by the National Office of Local Government within the Commonwealth Department of Environment, Sport and Territories complemented by funding from Plain Central Services, the Chief Librarians' Association of SA and the Local Government Association of SA. Unfortunately, after finding my way through the main report, summary report and national summary report, and reading the same things time and time again, I doubt that any busy local government authority CEO will read through all of this documentation in order to deal with the models proposed. There is also an annoying typeface error that results in interesting words such as OmigratedO, Ohead onO and AustraliaOs being scattered throughout the report.
Whilst recognising that the three different sections of the report have been targeted at different readerships, I still found difficulty in understanding why it has been presented in this way. My guess is that it will probably be left to professional librarians and committees of the Libraries Board of South Australia and the other commissioning bodies to thoroughly cover all aspects of the written report and look at setting in place some of the recommendations.
I was sent the interactive presentation after I had read the hard copy of the report and found the multimedia presentation more enlightening, constructive and persuasive than the hard copy because it sets out the objectives of the proposals in a far more effective manner.
It seems that in Australia, New Zealand and Britain, we are trying to deal with the tremendous job of bringing our public libraries `up to speed' with developments in technology and also to provide them with the resources to offer the public relevant and timely information in a growing number of formats. In Australia, public librarians and local government are grappling with the fact that our public libraries are being heavily used by the traditional client base and at the same time needing to make them more relevant to a new client base which will use them as a source of information for the economic development of the country.
The general feeling that I get as I read the latest round of reports, including this one and 2020 Vision, is that everyone is posing the questions of how are we going to make public libraries more relevant, without being prepared to give some thought to the cold hard facts that a substantial investment in infrastructure, staffing, training and equipment is needed to enable public libraries to provide access to the information superhighway. The federal government's reduction of the promised $11.4 million to $2.2 million has only served to highlight the fact that local government, with possibly a little help from some state governments, will again be left to foot the bill for undertaking this major national financial commitment.
The Hudson Howells report specifies many of the challenges now facing public librarians and offers some solutions which are sound. However like the other reports of recent times, it fails to offer implementable suggestions for many of the major issues. It skirts around the investment that is needed to ensure public libraries provide for community needs in the current environment, stating that
financial pressures on state and local
government authorities as a consequence
of state budgetary decisions and
local government reform indicate a
potential threat to library services...
public libraries should be therefore
exploring alternative funding options to
secure their futures...
...the mix of funding for public libraries
will shift from state and local
government subsidy to increasing
reliance on income from commercial
No commercial venture that I know of in public or state libraries has ever made the type of money that would be required to fund the resources and operations of a top class public library service or to fund the requirements of networking and electronic service provision.
In a report that will be released later this year, a British and a Canadian public library manager have assessed fundraising as an alternative financial support for public library services and also looked at the barriers to be overcome before successful fundraising of any kind can be undertaken. Their report concludes that the challenge for public libraries is to find ways to supplement the traditional forms of funding, but that most of the methods of fundraising are time consuming and require a large amount of staff input.
However the consultants have, at least, recognised that funding is crucial to developing the new public library service. Under the heading Commercial opportunities is the following
One of the critical areas facing public
libraries is that of funding. Based on
the research and consultation
undertaken during the course of this
project, it is anticipated that this issue
will, over time, become even more
critical and that public libraries need to
address alternative sources of funding.
Clearly, one of these opportunities is the
commercialisation of some aspects of
Selling client data
So what ideas do the consultants have?
The single largest asset of public
libraries in South Australia is the
customer base. Without this base,
libraries have no reason for existence. It
can also be argued that this base is
greatly underpotentiated. [My
Macquarie did not show this word, but I
get the drift.] Little information is
recorded against the customer base and
little or no commercial value is made of
it. It is estimated that there are 820,000
public library customers in South
Australia, 644,000 residing in the
metropolitan area with the remainder
residing in rural South Australia.
Further, the records of these customers
are spread over more than 130 databases
across the state. In this form they
represent some, but not significant
commercial value. If however, these
records can be merged on the one
relational database, the commercial
potential increases significantly...
The report outlines the benefits of a statewide database of library members such as reduced administration and duplication and giving library users the benefit of one card for access to any library's resources, all of which make good common sense and would save both library and library user's time. It then extols the commercial value of this database suggesting the sale of the information held on the database to external suppliers and the opportunity to sell library based products to the clients!
Ethics and privacy
My professional ethics and the issues of privacy raise a number of questions about this suggestion. Would the citizens of South Australia raise objections to this database such as those that many Australians raised when the Australia Card was mooted? Where does this leave librarians when they are asked to identify the reader who last borrowed a book that may lead to the arrest of someone, or a case against a library user who is to be charged under the censorship laws or some other law that may be promulgated in the future? One library may be prepared to divulge this information from the statewide database where others definitely would not. I have met American librarians who have gone to gaol because they refused to divulge information about their library clients or the materials used by library clients, but not every librarian has the same strong ethical sense of the confidentiality of the relationship between the library and the client. The issue of privacy looms large here.
Then, providing library customers were happy to tick the box on their library card consenting for their names to be used for mailing lists, who receives the profit from the sale of the information? The library centralised body, the local authority or the library responsible for keying in the information to the state database? If the database was sold are the profits divided amongst libraries on a per capita records on the central database basis or does the profit go to a central body which spends the money on library infrastructure or IT needs across the state? Much work and seeking of agreement would be needed to iron out these issues, particularly if local government was still footing the bill for the majority of the operational costs of the public library services and the maintenance of the database.
A further ill considered suggestion is made in relation to the government and other community information supplied through public libraries
While the consultants believe that this is
a valuable service to the community, the
question arises as to whether the
organisations supplying the information
should contribute to the cost of
distributing this information. This
question will become even more
important as federal and state
governments close various department
offices in local communities. It is
suggested that this should not be
regarded as a commercial opportunity
for income generation, but rather an
opportunity for the various government
departments concerned to take an
equitable share in the costs of
distributing this information.
But how many will be prepared to pay? Eventually it is the citizen who loses because they either have to pay higher charges so that the government department can afford the cost of distributing the information or they will never get the information because the government department will put it on its home page and disseminate it in that way--and only people with access to the internet or to a public library with internet access will get it.
The report talks about the `Transition to the market driven public library'. It states that
The consultants believe that it is time
for South Australia's public libraries to
enter a new `marketing' phase in order
to respond positively to the pressures of
government budget decisions, local
government reform and the IT
revolution. Without change, libraries
run the risk of becoming `marginalised'
and irrelevant in the context of the
community's broadening needs for
information, recreation and learning.
It suggests that libraries respond to the development of databases and new information access by marketing their skills to private and public sector organisations either independently or in partnership with a range of existing or new service providers. Great, if public libraries have the facilities and communications infrastructure to do this. Yet, again, marketing services presupposes that the services are available and that they can be provided professionally enough to be charged for. Some large suburban library services are getting to that stage, but there are many that have been starved of funds and resources for so long that the upgrading will take some time to effect.
A large part of the disk and a section of the report is devoted to the flexible and integrated marketing model. This model has been designed as
a tool that will assist decision makers
from within local government and
public libraries (hopefully working in
cooperation) to tailor individual models
that will best fit their individual
The model is in the form of a wheel or web with concentric circles representing customer needs and demands, market segments, library services, distribution, pricing, communications, structure and strategic partnerships as the hub. The services offered and types of users under each of these areas are delineated in each section. By using the wheel or the Excel spreadsheet provided on the disk, the consultants claim that an analysis of customer needs and demands can be undertaken and a behavioural segmentation of the customer base can be done which will enable the library to better define the services that it should be providing. Time did not permit me to try this out for my library service, although I think that prospective users would have to print the recommended steps for doing this off the disk before proceeding to use the Excel model. Which of course presupposes that your public library service has access to a pc with the appropriate software. If you do not, you could probably make a movable model of the wheel and turn it to get the same answer. On the other hand it would also be wise to ask your customers what they require, and define the services you will offer according to their needs.
However the report does recognise that there are both existing and potential customers in public libraries. It is suggested that libraries also use the extensive list of services delivered in public libraries provided in the report to make a prioritised list of services for which each market segment would have a demand.
A strategic marketing plan is recommended for South Australia's public library network which would encompass the development of a public library brand. This would seem to be advantageous for public libraries provided that each public library can deliver the `products' that would be advertised. The shift to consumerism is always difficult if the provider cannot meet the consumer' s expectations.
Options and models
Many of the recommendations make sense and challenge the wisdom of local authorities developing individual public library services which are separate entities. The report offers a series of models that could be followed after local authorities have had boundary changes and undertaken amalgamation. These include the cooperative model, like the Victorian regional model; the regional hub model which recommends one central library offering a complete service surrounded by specialist libraries offering reduced services; the consolidated model which focuses on a central library and the closure of smaller libraries and their replacement by perhaps an electronic service; the virtual model; and the commercialised model which transfers library management to the private sector. Each of these still requires the investment and commitment of local government to their library services, but the models could be used effectively in different communities.
I do have a concern that if the models were used in some rural areas, such as those where local government has been reluctant to provide for library services, they would result in an even less effective public library service. Whilst the report talks about the use of electronic services or kiosks in rural areas, with a central hub library at a distance, the equity of access issue for rural populations is heightened. If Australians choose to live m rural settings they are still entitled to receive a public library service. Perhaps an option is to access the wanted item on the electronic kiosk and place an electronic order and have the item posted directly to the user. However recent studies highlight browsing as a major source of public library use. Perhaps this will take the form of browsing the internet or electronic kiosk in the new world of the South Australian rural community public library.
The PowerPoint presentation on the accompanying disk offers a good overview of the suggested models and would be useful to present council or local authority management groups to enable them to understand and consider the options available to them following the amalgamation of local government areas. As stated in the report, library staff would also need to think laterally about the possibilities of the different models and the opportunities to provide a more relevant service to their community.
The Smart state model
Set out is a `Smart state model' which has much to commend it in the following suggestions
A `seamless' library system will exist
between state, public, academic and
school/community libraries with single
membership at the user's host centre
enabling access to use of facilities at all
libraries in South Australia
Smart cards will be used for access to
all information, information retrieval/
delivery and, where necessary, customer
It is recommended that an IT strategy
be developed and implemented for
public libraries in South
Australia... (including) an integrated
online network for all South Australian
libraries...a high speed broadband
network to allow all South Australian
libraries equal access to the internet and
other electronic databases and
potentially to provide for
telecommuting. The upgrade of
hardware and software in all South
Australian libraries to take advantage of
the enhanced services offered by
improved telecommunications. With this
system to be networked to similar
systems across Australia.
Costs and funds
This vision is every public librarian's dream--but from where will the funds come? If the State of South Australia and local government is prepared to act to make the above concept a reality, then many of the suggestions in the report can be implemented. The report states that local government currently contributes $19.8 million to the operating, capital and purchasing budgets of South Australian public libraries and has estimated that $3.72 million would be required to implement an IT strategy. It suggests that this be contributed by the state as a once off grant. However public library managers would be aware that this cost is only the tip of the iceberg when the wiring, building, staffing, training and ongoing operational and communication costs, plus the cost of upgrading hardware and software is taken into account. These presumably would need to be met by local authorities. At the risk of sounding ungrateful on the subject of once off grants, I reiterate the concern of local government managers across Australia who are continually being asked to bear the ongoing cost of once off grants from magnanimous federal and state government departments.
In reading some of the comments in the report about things that apparently surprised the consultants, I wondered whether they had, in fact, ever thought about the issue of public libraries, what their prior expertise in the area was and how they were chosen for this important task. The speed at which the selection of consultants was announced following the close of expressions of interest made for some interesting comment at the time. For example, the consultants signal some surprise in the first page of the executive summary when they state
In addressing the study's objective, the
consultants found it necessary to
examine much broader strategic issues,
such as state government information
technology (IT) strategies, in order to
provide a framework for future library
service delivery models
State government IT strategies are, and have long been, a major issue for all public libraries. This has been recognised by practitioners for some years as we have tried to come to grips with the needs for statewide connections to the internet such as the VicNet project, to work with state governments m the development of information kiosks and to lobby for funding to set up common systems and protocols for access to the type of network proposals suggested in the `Strengthening the network' section of the report.
Contradictions in the report arise from the insistence that public libraries must look at market segmentation in order to better serve the customer base. It is stated
The main emphasis...is to reinforce the
importance of segmenting the market.
The reality is that it will be impossible
for libraries to be `all things to all
Yet in an earlier section of the report we find, in one overlong sentence
The consultants believe that South
Australia's public library network is well
placed to take advantage of its many
strengths and to continue to meet
statutory obligations in relation to
meeting the needs of the whole
community (and that) public libraries
will find a redefined sense of place
within the community, becoming major
community cultural facilities but
continuing to meet the basic
information, recreation and learning
needs of the community (and) will
therefore continue to have an element of
human interaction and fulfill their
important social function as meeting
places for people whose prime reason
for usage is social interaction or some
other intangible nonlibrary reason (eg
Market segmentation will not facilitate public libraries withdrawing from the basic roles delineated above and that they have carried out successfully in Australian communities for a long time. What we do have to do is to ask our client base what it is that they are seeking from our services and tailor our services towards the needs of our clients.
The report has an extensive section entitled `Primary and secondary research'. It states that the research comprised a combination of indepth interviews and electronic mail/telephone/facsimile correspondence. Sixteen national and 16 international institutions were contacted and 9 national and 7 international institutions participated in the survey. Of the national survey, only state libraries and university libraries were covered, with the exception of the Wimmera Regional Library Service. Of the international, 3 were university libraries, one was the UK Office for Library and Information Networking and only 2 public libraries are quoted, one in the UK and one in the US.
The choice of libraries for the indepth research perplexed me. There are some excellent models of public library cooperation and electronic networking in the US which are ignored and university libraries are not as pertinent in providing comparisons or models for public libraries. The Milton Library in the US, which is used as one of the public library services contacted, has computers in the library accessing the internet and is part of an automated network which allows the sharing of resources among 25 libraries that circulate 2 million items per year. If this is being quoted as a benchmark, recognising that there is a preference not to benchmark against circulation, then there are Australian public libraries providing the same internet services, networking between libraries--on perhaps a smaller scale--and turning over well in excess of what the 25 libraries quoted are achieving.
The Ronneby project in the Sweden is also quoted. This town of 29,000 has achieved some interesting results in the use of IT, but the project in the Hunter Region of NSW would be more pertinent as an example of what can be done in cooperation between local government, the university and industry. This model is certainly one which is achieving excellent results and draws on the expertise of Dr Veronica Lunn who has travelled widely and studied the opportunities available in the field of networks and information.
For good measure the report also includes the Intamel statistics from large public library systems. These were probably thrown in to show what large networks can achieve and to quote some comparative statistics. But when the catchment population statistics of South Australia are taken into consideration, how can comparisons be drawn between such widely disparate cities as Toronto with 2.2 million people, Manchester with a population of 2.6 million and Adelaide with 980,000. Added to this is the fact of the urban sprawl of Australian cities plus the totally different operation of the libraries. Many of the Intamel group of libraries have main collections in vast libraries that have been in operation for over 140 years. Manchester's library, for example, was opened in 1852. Perhaps I have totally missed the point the consultants meant to convey by using these statistics, but the impression is that they had been collected by the Bizline research service of the State Library of SA and were then used. However they are interesting reading and will probably provide some benchmark figures not readily available to public library managers.
Pluses and minuses
In summary, the strength of this report is that it will offer a starting point for lateral thinking into the possibilities for public libraries in South Australia, given the current local government amalgamation process. The existence of the Plain Central Services division of the State Library of South Australia and its successful part in the current operations of South Australian public libraries could be the impetus for much of the cooperative action recommended to take place.
The weakness of the report is that, like many of the recent reports, no matter how much consultants exhort public library managers to join more competitively the information revolution, or be marginalised the cold hard facts are that this costs money. There is no model in the world to show how to avoid this and no tier of government is currently prepared to provide the funds other than local government. A network partnership will certainly assist in cost efficiencies, but despite the marketing and commercial aspects of this report, there is not enough money to be made to remove the financial investment of upgrading public libraries from local government, or any willing state government.
If you want to get an idea of some of the model suggestions, use the disk format of the report to gain a quick and professional overview. Trying to wade through the three written formats is not recommended and neither is giving the written format to local government CEOs. Rather, sit them down and run through the PowerPoint presentation. For library managers, you will need a quiet, uninterrupted time to work through the disk and the Excel program.
Another model to watch will be the British Library and Information Commission's report on public library networking to be prepared by the taskforce led by John Nolan at Birmingham Central Library. John states that
We need to ensure that libraries'
fundamental contribution to social well
being and economic prosperity is
maintained and indeed extended and
that full use is made of the qualities that
libraries have embodied throughout
history, of being a place for the whole
community to meet, communicate,
discover and enjoy.
Well said, and I wish my South Australian colleagues much success in implementing their vision for the future using some of the proposals in Flexible public library service models for the new century: strengthening the network and securing the future.
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|Publication:||Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1997|
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