E-Books and the Miami-Dade Library Crisis: One Way to Help Thwart the Misers

Miami-Dade Library website All of Miami-Dade’s library branches will remain open, apparently, despite Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez‘s earlier talk about closing 22 branches in the M-D system. But 169 librarians will lose their jobs, and hours will shrink under his newer plan if this foolishness becomes reality.

The public uproar against Gimenez’s stinginesss—please join more than 5,000 library fans  in "Liking" the Save the Miami-Dade Public Libraries page on Facebook, no matter where you live—goes on.

Might greater reliance on e-books and other digital content end the crisis instantly? Of course not. Even now, it isn’t as if the M-D system has ignored all the possibilities. Still, according to slightly dated but still germane federal statistics reproduced in a report from OCLC, the system spends $1,990,515 on paper books and other print materials out of a total materials budget of $3,158,830. Print still rules.

Clearly the time has come for a coherent national strategy to help speed up digitization of library systems like Miami’s and use the efficiencies of e-books and other digital items to squeeze more out of tax dollars—while also increasing the total amount of money for libraries and content. In other words, be more generous at all levels of government but at the same time expect more value. That way, librarians and other citizens can better fend off the Scrooges. Avoid ever shutting down neighborhood branches, valuable in many ways beyond loaning bestsellers and other titles, and don’t get rid of all paper books, especially picture books for children. But in the end, E should be the main show for many reasons, including the fact that so many politicians are pandering to tax-haters.

You can write lyrical tributes to paper as a medium and remember that content is just a fraction of total library expenditures, but keep in mind that in places like Miami, every penny of savings from e-books will count. Would you believe, Miami libraries are able to spend only $1.47 per capita on books and other materials in all formats—just a fraction of the national average of around $4.20. Shame, shame, shame on Gimenez and other local politicians. How will they ever be able to talk credibly about education when Miami stints so brazenly on books for young people and their role models, their parents? Recently arrived Hispanics and other new Americans will especially suffer, as will seniors living on limited budgets. Libraries and books promote both prosperity and assimilation. Cities like Miami—as well as my own hometown, Alexandria, Virginia, itself an embarrassing underperformer at around $3.25 despite the tens of thousands of low-income people living here amid countless Mercedes and BMW owners—need to reinvent their libraries, not starve them.

Here are a few ways public libraries could use technology to get more bang per tax dollar and increase their already-considerable attractiveness for funding:

  1. If a national digital library endowment and two robust national digital library systems were established—one public, one academic, so public library needs did not suffer under the thumbs of the academics likely to dominate a "one big tent" approach—then librarians would enjoy more bargaining clout with publishers and other benefits. The library market would be bigger.

    Ideally the two systems in time could buy most books directly from publishers rather than having to go through middle people such as OverDrive. While public libraries are about much more than books and other content—remember all the valuable services like reference and story-telling hours!—it is endlessly significant that only around 12 percent of their operating expenditures go for actual books and other items. Expanded digitization, as noted, could boost this percentage if we implemented it properly. (A related "must" would be, among other things, sufficient attention to digital divide issues.)

    Meanwhile, through the two systems and related activities such as a national library subscription service for people who wanted immediate availability of their favorite titles, the endowment would end up adding more dollars to the publishing universe. So the publishers actually would come out ahead even if they received less per book.

  2. Fewer librarian staffers would be required for, say, shelving books as paper collections shrank over the years, but the money could be redeployed to expand literacy programs and other much-needed services, which trained librarians and others could provide.

  3. As paper collections shrank, more space could be available for other community purposes, such as homework havens for young people and other gathering places for them, entrepreneurs and other groups—complete with such wrinkles as 3D printers. Other space could be rented out to compatible commercial enterprises such as bookish coffee shops and copying centers.

  4. Library systems actually could expand their public mindshare by using some of the saved money to set up mini-branches—in popular shopping centers and elsewhere—that displayed collection items. See this video from the Douglas County, Colorado system, showing a "wall-sized iPad" that you touch to get details on individual books. Here’s what OverDrive is doing along those lines. Tablets and comfortable seats could encourage browsers to linger in the mini-branches, and any selections would be immediately available for home use. Library staffers could manage the mini-branches rather than perform clerical chores such as shelving. Remember, paper books themselves are just one cost.

Helping public libraries survive challenges such as the one in Miami is no small task, so let’s hope that the Digital Public Library of America will in time come around to the wisdom of the twin-system approach and encourage public libraries to form their own system to deal with the related complexities and respect the Five Laws of Library Science. As observed here before, there is no reason why a public digital system couldn’t pick up gigabyte after gigabyte of unencumbered content from the academic side. Far from being dumbed-down versions of today’s public libraries, the new incarnations could be smarter in every respect and offer more value in countless other ways—thereby justifying higher library budgets.

For now, best of luck to Miami library advocates, and I hope they’ll look ahead, beyond the current crisis, to explore new forms of miser-proofing such as those described above.

Editor's note - this article was re-published with the author's permission from his blog, Library City.