Virtuous circles

At the end of July, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library published the results of a cost-benefit assessment it had commissioned from an economist who works at the University of Toledo. The results were first reported by the Toledo Blade.

At infoDocket, Gary Price teased an article by Meredith Schwartz at Library Journal (both infoDocket and Library Journal are Media Source properties), then added a link to the report itself, which Price made availble on Scribd.

Price, Schwartz and Jessica Shor, staff writer at the Toledo Blade, cover similar ground. Two different approaches were used to determine that the library system’s 2011 budget, $35.3 million, delivered services valued at between $118 million and $136 million.

The full report quantifies the benefit in three ways:

  • Circulation (borrowing books) – $82 million
  • Reference (staff services) – $26 million
  • Value-added services (computer and web access, among others) – $28 million

The Toledo-Lucas library system hopes the return on spending evident in the report will convince voters to approve a 45% increase in the tax rate this fall. If passed, the increase will mostly restore funding lost to state cutbacks.

It would be easy enough for publishers to look at the circulation benefit and conclude that they sold books to Toledo-Lucas well below their market value. As I’ve argued in trying to understand the true impact of piracy, we don’t know what we don’t know:

  • Many borrowed books may never have been bought by those who borrowed them (that is, there may be a market for books whose effective price is zero).
  • Collection development may be the ante that libraries provide to deliver services that sustain lifelong reading.
  • Borrowers recommend books that they have read; the impact on purchases by others is not counted.

To me, libraries are part of the current book- and magazine-reading ecosystem. We have limited data on how their activities spur reading or sales of books and periodicals. Given that, publishers should  move quickly to gather more data and slowly in making changes that would weaken a potentially virtuous circle.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.