Early in my career I was taught how to wring cost from a process or product. Instructors had me trace every interaction & transaction involved in procuring a product or service, assign a cost to each and assess its value to the deliverable. What I learned was, essentially the deliverable holds value and everything else holds cost. The closer a supporting process or product is to the deliverable, the better its cost-benefit ratio. Conversely, value declines as the physical, temporal or organizational distance from the deliverable increases. It was an illuminating learning experience and I’ve called upon it every work day in the past 25 years.
A new $750,000 literacy grant from Dollar General Corporation caught my attention for a few reasons (here and here), not least because it exemplifies the high cost of library micro-grants. This grant, administered by the ALA, awards $5,000 to 70 libraries located in close proximity to a Dollar General store or office. The application prompted a few questions for me. If libraries get $350k, how much of the remaining $400k is allocated to program administration and development of the ALA’s American Dream Toolkit? Will this toolkit be the next PrivacyRevolution? Requiring use on bookmobiles was also curious; wouldn’t it be better to let the libraries determine how to best meet the needs for literacy services in their communities? Lastly, taking the entire effort into consideration, how much benefit would accrue to patron literacy services? (See a quick graphical cost/benefit analysis for a singular service at the bottom of the post.)
The cost of this grant seems to far outweigh its benefit for patrons and participating libraries. I’d think staff time would be better spent delivering direct patron services and focusing on purposeful activity within their own control than working hard for a few thousand dollars laden with substantial overhead and narrowly prescribed uses. In fact, this may sound radical but I’d encourage libraries to ignore grants like this one altogether. They are structured to benefit bureaucracies and corporations and require work that is tangential to the genuine public value libraries can deliver.
Funding and service delivery are areas where a National Library Corporation (NPL) could add enormous value. The NPL could work with donors to leverage their contributions for maximum impact. In this case, it could use the $750,000 from Dollar General to create services to promote literacy and efficiently make them available to subscriber libraries. Surely a focused team with a large budget could do this more effectively than staff at dozens of libraries with just a few thousand dollars at their disposal and other job requirements on their plate.
For donors, the NPL’s development staff would have greater resources and expertise than individual libraries to provide visibility for their contributions. For libraries, the NPL could help them demonstrate value and reach out to their communities by creating high-quality program outreach kits. These kits would be part of a coordinated library campaign to foster constituents making connections between library programs & services … and aid them in saying “ah, there’s our libraries at work again”.
A key structural element of the NPL is that it would be more than an intermediary; it would produce services with direct patron benefit such as technical infrastructure, content, outreach and library staff training. Individual libraries would simply subscribe to the services they find valuable rather than struggle individually to scrape together resources and create the services themselves.
It would be fabulous for patrons to know their library had access to quality programs & services they’d become aware of elsewhere. I’ll bet library usage and requests for services would increase if they were high quality, well-defined and well-promoted by the NPL. I also believe the public, foundations and corporations would more readily fund concrete, proven services — just like they do today with NPR and PBS.
Wouldn’t it be great if public library staff could…
- Conveniently access consistent, quality services from a single source for a single subscription fee?
- Access a single repository of well-organized and high-quality training, education and outreach materials (for patrons and library staff as well)?
- Work from a single dashboard with email, event/volunteer/website management, news, knowledge base, nationwide colleague network — perhaps even integrated research databases, library catalogue and patron database, meaningful statistics …
- Say goodbye to costly and tedious administrivia involved in working with micro-grants, ‘free’ internet services and multiple suppliers?
Sound good? All we need is a few million dollars to get the ball rolling … just a few million dollars to reinvigorate our public library system. Trust me, this one has a great cost/benefit ratio.
Cost Benefit Analysis of Dollar General 2010 Literacy Grant. (Example = providing literacy tutoring to adult learners.)
|Apply for grant & follow up.|
|Report grant application activity to local management, trustees, etc.|
|Participate in a 60 minute media training session with ALA’s Public Information Office (PIO) via conference call.|
|Promote the American Dream Starts @ your library using the @ your library trademark, the ALA logo, and the Dollar General logo.|
|Inform local and statewide library networks, including your state library association, of the ALA/Dollar General grant and your project.|
|Contact/inform your local Dollar General store regarding the ALA grant and your project.|
|Contribute print and online resources, including library profiles, to the American Dream toolkit and website.|
|Submit quarterly reports to ALA’s project manager.|
|Submit a comprehensive final report to ALA documenting your library’s accomplishments, the impact of the project, and your use of funds.|
|Schedule training, arrange payment for tutors|
|Deliver tutoring session|