King County has opened what they call the “Express Library” — a building with no staff available for public service where customers can pick up their holds, browse a small paperback collection, search the catalog on a locked-down computer station, and use a telephone to call another nearby staffed library. From the Library Journal story:
To get into the building, patrons must scan or type in their library card number, but books can be returned via a book drop outside. How to maintain security? Cameras both inside and outside the building.
My questions really revolve around whether this saves the library much money at all. In talking with one of my colleagues, we came up with the following costs that still exist at his location:
- rent of the building & parking lot
- utilities (lights, heat, phone, broadband for the limited computer access)
- garbage collection
- cleaning service
- materials delivery service
- staffing on the other end of that phone line to help people
- Plus you really will need staffing at the location to drop off and organize holds on the shelf, restock the browsing collection, check in the returned items, reboot the computers when they undoubtedly fail, etc.
So, for the cost of some computer cameras and a card-based door entry system, your library can also get rid of all of its staff apparently. While I am not opposed to a holds-pickup station somewhere in your community, I do think it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a “library.”
It raises the question–what makes a library a library? And not just because there aren’t live staff there. There is not a full browsing collection of materials, no internet-enabled computers, no wifi, no rooms to read or study in, no programs, etc. If someone said “Either you shut down this facility entirely, or take this $40,000 to install security cameras & a door lock and keep it open as a holds-pickup station,” of course I’d take the money and have something rather than nothing. But I truly, truly wonder how much this facility actually saves…and what its true cost is in the neighborhood they serve.
In times like these when we are all facing budget cuts, I think we need to really think about what we’re getting for our money–for both facilities/capital and staff expenditures. What is the return on investment? What is the real cost of operating a physical location? What about turning more to virtual services (a topic for a future blog post)?
At what point does a library become a used book store? A drive-in book pick-up station? At what point does a library cease to be a library?