September 24, 2009 - stop doing it!
Recently I interviewed an author (Kate Lawrence, author of "The Practical Peacemaker") who made a beguiling argument: the path to peace begins with a simplified life.
In so many ways, Americans have chosen lives of busy consumerism. As a consequence, we run ourselves down, use up all kinds of natural resources at a wholly disproportionate rate to the rest of the world, and have little time left over for the deep satisfactions of spending time with friends, or just lying about and reading.
This insight applies to organizations, too. A few months ago, library managers got together to start planning next year's budget. It turns out that it is very easy for us to come up with new ideas, programs, and services.
But we were all stonkered by one exercise: what can we STOP doing? That's not an idle question; our resources are tightening, and the demand for our core services is on the rise.
Let me walk through a typical idea and response.
The proposal: Let's stop buying movies of any description. They are prone to theft. The DVD format is prone to scratches, making them all but unplayable after just a few uses. Before too long, the format is going to disappear anyhow, as they move to downloadables. This would free up a lot of money, space, staff time, and hassle.
Some people suggest that providing DVDs for checkout unfairly competes with video rentals -- but that complaint doesn't come from video rental stores. They know better, and tend to do best when they position themselves close to libraries. The mix of our wares is different, but they tend to be complementary.
Reasons for keeping: in some of our branches, movies account for almost a third of our checkouts. That's millions of transactions a year. We promote reading, but reading isn't the only kind of literacy, and a lot of families have come to rely on us for inexpensive entertainment. If our job is to respond to the public's demonstrated demand for intellectual content, it couldn't be any clearer: they want books AND movies AND music.
Resolved: we'll investigate other solutions to managing this troublesome resource. But it's worth it, because it's part of the library's mission to provide access to the intellectual content of our culture.
So then we trotted out another idea for the stop list: providing public distribution of federal and state tax forms.
There are a few things I bet the public doesn't know about this. We aren't required by law to do distribute tax forms. Nor are we compensated for doing so. Except for the occasional grant, and reimbursements for telephone expenses (funded separately), we get no money from either the federal government or the state. Virtually all of our revenue comes from local property taxes -- federal and state taxes just don't enter into the picture.
It gets worse. It takes a lot of staff time to order the forms and instruction booklets -- a nightmare of ordering, stocking, filling displays. Tax forms eat up a lot of library space, and we're running out of space.
The use of this service is in fact in decline. The vast majority of Douglas County taxpayers have Internet access, and most of the forms and instructions are available online.
And get this. Not only does the federal government not pay us to provide this service (when not even the Post Office does it anymore, which is actually part of the federal government), these days we have to pay for the forms. That's right; they charge us to do their work for them.
Was there ever a better service to stop doing than one that (a) has nothing to do with the library mission, (b) has nothing to do with our own revenues, other than depleting them, and (c) seems to be in decline anyway?
It happens that we've already ordered the forms for the next tax season. (It takes a lot of planning ahead, and we've been doing it for a long time.) But I'm thinking that this just might be the last time.
Comments and counter-arguments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LaRue's Views are his own.