Goodman: Library Needs New Business Model



Why must the library cut service hours again? In the beginning of 2009, Gwinnett County library branches were open 71 hours per week. We are now being told those hours will be cut to 40 this fall. Why?

Only part of the answer is the reduction in county and state funding. The other, and the most important part, is an inability or unwillingness of the library to adapt to a changing environment. Over the past three years we've seen tectonic changes to our nation's economy and our county and state government's finances.

The money is simply not there. But that's the case for many families and numerous businesses in Gwinnett and across the country that do manage to live within their means by adapting and changing. Unfortunately, the library is stuck operating under a business model that may have been ideal for 2009 and before, but wholly inappropriate and crippling for the economic, financial and technological realities of today or the future.

Under the library's current business model, revenue, staffing levels and service hours are linked together in a death spiral of reduced service hours and depleted financial reserves. It is time to break those links.

What is needed is not more money, but a new business model. One that looks at the world as it really is, not as it was or as we wish it to be. For example, the library has boxed itself into an untenable position by promising to treat all branches the same. While politically expedient, this approach does not treat all customers fairly.

The hours the system closes "all" branches may affect customers at one branch more severely than the customers at another branch where those hours were not a important. So treating everyone equally ends up ensuring that no one is treated fairly. In fact, a survey of library patrons showed that a majority would be OK with "their" branch being closed on a particular day as long as another branch within convenient driving distance was open.

Similarly, the library administration needs to focus more clearly on preserving library services than on preserving library jobs. While the number of full-time equivalent positions has been reduced, primarily through attrition, these tweaks affected only the lowest level job classifications. Personnel accounts for 70 percent of the library's operating costs. The library must adopt more flexible staffing models that include adjustments to all positions, classifications, ranks and job descriptions.

Seeking new revenue sources to address this crisis, as proposed by the library board chairman, only delays the time till the library makes needed changes. I do not believe turning to the private sector to replace lost government funding, as he proposes, is a realistic or viable approach to correcting what are essentially operational and organizational issues. It's fantasy to believe the library can raise the millions of dollars needed to make up for the funding shortfall by relying on improvised fundraising or advertising gimmicks.

The library is not a high school football team trying to raise money for uniforms. The library staff and a volunteer board do not have the expertise, experience or time to carry out such a charge. And a staff so stretched that it's unable to keep the doors open more than 40 per week, surely can't have the time to get involved in selling advertising or fundraising.

For the sake of the residents of Gwinnett County who depend on library services, we can not afford to waste another day expecting to find a pot of gold waiting for us at the end of a rainbow. The library board and administration should be using its time, energy and creative talents to develop and adopt a 21st century operational model. That should be their top priority and operating policy.

Dick Goodman, a Suwanee resident, is a Library Board of Trustees member.