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Find the competitive sweet spot. How can public libraries compete?

By Ken Chad, CEO Ken Chad Consulting Ltd.

The article was originally published in Y Dolen/Information Wales Autumn 2008

Reprinted with minor emendations

In 2005, when members of library staff at the University of Wales in Bangor were threatened with job losses, the university consultation paper making the case for the cuts asserted that Librarians do not deliver value for money when compared to the internet. In the same year the Welsh Library standards 1 were published as a step to achieving efficient and modern public libraries for Wales. It was expected that the standards framework would help users and the Welsh Assembly Government to make informed judgements about the quality of services being received and provided. In 2008, out of rising public concern about the future for local libraries as councils struggle with the requirements to improve performance and reduce costs CILIP commissioned the Conway report on professional standards of service 2.

There is a clear sense that libraries are under threat. However what is missing, in my view, is any real sense that libraries operate in an increasingly competitive environment and that competition itself can be a major driver for improvement. In years of working with librarians I detect no fully developed competitive approach informing strategy. It was this concern that led me to address the 2008 Welsh Libraries Museums and Archives Conference in May 2008 3. In line with that presentation I will focus on public libraries.

When I talk to public librarians about their services and ask what’s the competition? I often get a rather bemused response. When I say that Google is a library service I still find resistance to the idea. One look at Google’s mission statement however makes it clear. What better definition of the library function can there be than to ‘organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful’ 4?

Those of us with long memories or historical sensibilities will know that public libraries are no strangers to competition. The building with the name The Library in the high street of my 1960s childhood was actually a newsagent that also housed a small commercial circulating library. The free public library paid for by taxation put it out of business. Half a century later commercial library services for the public are back on the scene. Changes in technology, especially those associated with the web have lowered transaction costs. Business models (such as advertising in the case of Google) have enabled free or very low cost services. As a result, at no cost to me, or the local authority, Google Book Search (or Amazon) provides access to a far deeper and richer collection of books (and other resources) than almost any public library. Moreover it has features that shame most library catalogues, including links to websites, Wikipedia and reviews. I am presented with a variety of fulfilment mechanisms to suit my needs, including, in the case of Google, an option to find it in a library. The shame is so few public libraries have linked their holdings to make them visible in Google. I can pay and have the book delivered in days. Viewed as a permanent loan this may be a cheaper option that a notionally free loan from the public library. I can also sell the book on Amazon, further reducing the overall transaction cost.

Of course libraries are about more than just providing books: and that’s my point. Looking at things with a competitive frame of mind helps focus on the distinctive elements of the service. Think of this as the strategic sweet spot 5: where the library’s capabilities meet customer needs in a way that rivals can’t. This is therefore the place where the library will get most return on its investment. A focus on the sweet spot enables the library to highlight the areas where is can make the biggest difference and add the most value. Indeed where it can be most competitive ..


(1) Welsh Assembly Government: Comprehensive, Efficient and Modern Public Libraries for Wales -

Promoting Higher Service Standards 2005-08


(2 ) 'Professional Standards of Service'. Report by Patrick Conway. CILIP 28 May 2008

(3) 'How can public libraries compete? ‘By Ken Chad. Presentation at the Welsh Libraries Museums and Archives Conference. May 2008.

(4) See

(5) For more detail see: 'Can you say what your strategy is?’ By David J. Collis and Michael Rukstad.

Harvard Business Review. April 2008

how_can_libraries_compete.txt · Last modified: 2018/09/20 14:55 (external edit)