A kind reader has shared questions and concerns about a National Public Library Corporation via comments to Tuesday’s post. Others within the library community probably have similar reactions and so I wanted to give the discussion visibility by publishing it as a post. Please join the conversation!
… in the current political climate an “NPL” campaign would just be an excuse to cut public library funding further since we wouldn’t “need the public dollars”. I think that the kind of project you envision could be accomplished through IMLS …
And I replied:
… I’m convinced that without fresh thinking and bold leadership our public libraries will wither in all but the most affluent communities. ALA, OCLC and IMLS cannot effectively provide what’s needed; they would have done it already if they could.
A key strength of the NPL model is that it is well-established with a successful track record. PBS and NPR continue to make great strides in content & delivery and seem to be holding their own on the funding side. Rather than put local public stations out of business, they’ve helped sustain and nurture them through an array of good programming to draw listeners and funding support to draw contributors. (For some examples of how public radio is expanding, see last week’s article by Outsell news analyst, Ken Doctor.) I believe an NPL would do the same for local libraries.
The commenter responded:
I just can’t see it…it seems to me that only affluent communities would support this model, and it sure wouldn’t be in my urban rust belt community! And the other issue is basing public libraries on a national model of content and programming. Libraries are not one size fits all. I don’t want a national consortium telling me what topics my community should have or what programming we can offer. Not trying to be difficult here…honest!
And here is where I’d like to pick up the conversation …
Looking at public TV and radio can provide info and insights about how an NPL might work.
Evidence suggests people will support quality programming and services, even in areas with less affluent communities. U.S. Census data for 2007 lists West Virginia residents with the lowest level of personal income in the nation, yet they seem to support a healthy public broadcasting system. Its 14 radio stations and TV station attract 500,000 viewers weekly and produce 1,600 hours of content locally per year.
This model helps reduce inequities between income levels by creating resources that can be shared by all. In West Virginia, 30% of their public broadcasting operating budget comes from community support. Over 12,000 individuals and 100 businesses contribute to a resource used by half a million people each week. The poorest person in West Virginia can turn on the TV or radio and get the same programming as the richest. This isn’t true for libraries where differences in income levels result in significant disparities in facilities, collections and programming. Which is a nice seque into your concern about programming …
Public broadcasting makes good content available for local stations to choose for their individual communities. Some is produced by the broadcasting networks and some by local stations. Consider a few of the most popular programs on public radio. Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me is produced by NPR, This American Life by Chicago Public Media, WBUR of Boston produces Car Talk and Philadelphia’s WHYY produces Fresh Air. Though these programs are produced by four different entities, stations all across the country position them alongside their own local news and programming. Each station picks and chooses what best suits its needs. Sometimes the local stations are the consumer and other times they are the producer.
I envision things working this way with public libraries. Let’s say you needed content for an early literacy program at your library. Today you might create your own, or use something you got from a neighboring library, or you might trawl the web to see if any other libraries posted their materials. Wouldn’t it be great if you could access a nation-wide library intranet and easily get the info you needed? You could use it as-is or modify it — and upload your changes so other libraries could benefit. The NPL infrastructre I envision would make this internal sharing possible and provide tools so you could easily share information with the public. So let’s say PBS was running a documentary and your library wanted to host a discussion group about it. You could easily find materials other libraries had compiled and quickly post them to your website or pop them into your newsletter (also using tools provided by the NPL).
And this brings me back to the point about smoothing out inequities. A key reason public libraries struggle and the quality of their output is low is because their staffs are spread too thin, recreating the wheel over and over again. Having an efficient, shared resource pool would make content created by the wealthiest communities available to the poorest. Top-notch information tools would mean every library could have a good website, an electronic newsletter, etc. The availability of these resources would free up staff in the overburdened libraries to do what they cannot do today … so we might find them creating materials of value to the better funded libraries. The sharing would go both ways and everybody in the system would benefit.
Lastly, the NPL would help recruit funding for itself and also to local libraries. It would provide visibility and ROI for large donors and turn those funds into services for the public and local libraries, just as the public broadcasters do today. ALA & OCLC currently receive large donations on behalf of libraries and are unable to put them to widespread good use. They fund useless studies or create new library holidays or launch high cost projects with meager impact such as Privacy Revolution and GeektheLibrary. On the other hand, donations to PBS and NPR bring us things like documentaries and news reporting that contribute to the public good. As is true of PBS and NPR, the NPL would be staffed with professional fundraisers who would structure local funding campaigns that would augment local book sales, bake sales and raffles.
Two key points about the NPL: it is additive. Nothing is taken away from your library; you’d still have your local funding and your local autonomy. There would also not be competition for donations within your community. Like NPR, the National Public Library Corp would not accept individual donations but rather would direct contributors back to their local libraries. (I know, because I’ve tried to contribute directly to NPR and been forwarded to my local station.)
Participation in the NPL would also by voluntary. You could choose to become a member or not — and if your library was a member, you would choose which technology tools, content and fund-raising campaigns you wanted to use.