Daily Archives: July 3, 2012

Library Profit = Community Relevance


I have long advocated that 21st Century libraries need to operate more business-like, and that 21st Century librarians need to develop business acumen. While this is essential to 21st Century library operations and survival, it may need more justification to be suitable to some as a 21st Century librarianship principle.

The major distinction between the library organization and a business is the “bottom line.” Businesses are in business for profit. Since a service business is most closely analogous to a library, a service business either delivers better service than their competition, or they earn no profit. Without profit they won’t stay in business. Libraries also provide a service and should be able to measure the “profit” of their service. The problem is that libraries as a governmental agency operate like all government agencies – as a cost center – where the bottom line profitability is virtually never measured.

Considering that not all businesses are highly profitable, there is a continuum of profitability. If your business is highly profitable then you are thriving. If your business is unprofitable, you are dying. That’s an undeniable business principle – if you’re not thriving, you’re dying. To keep from dying a business must thrive.

Just as not all businesses are highly profitable, so too not all libraries are highly “profitable” in the sense that the funds being spent to keep the library in business are not being spent most effectively to cause it to thrive. How relevant or irrelevant a library is to the community it serves is the measure of its profitability. The library’s “profit” is measured in terms of “community relevance.” In business, if you’re not profitable you die. For libraries, if you’re not relevant you die.

Library Profit = Community Relevance

There is a scale of profitability and relevance, it moves in the direction of profit or loss, and relevance or irrelevance. The center state between profit and loss is “break even” – neither profit nor loss. Unfortunately, there is no “break even” state for a library – unless one wants to consider where libraries have always traditionally been – dependent on the good will of tax payers and governance – as break even.

While libraries have historically operated with heavy reliance on other factors such as positive community history, citizens’ good will, a presumed inherent value to the community, and some basic community services that no other agency provides (i.e. summer reading, and ……….…), those traditional support factors are disappearing like so many things in our society are changing. A library can be marginally relevant, but that is closer to dying than it is to thriving. A library that is marginally relevant is not likely to be good enough to survive. Under any circumstances, marginally relevant is a tenuous place to exist in the 21st Century.

It should also be an undeniable 21st Century library principle – if you’re not thriving, you’re dying. To keep from dying a library must thrive.

Library Profit = Community Relevance

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