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Changing technologies, changing business models:

a challenge for public

May 2007

This document was originally written as a response to…

A blueprint for excellence. Public Libraries 2008-2011

Connecting people to knowledge and inspiration”

By John Dolan, Museum Libraries and Archives Partnership

It is reproduced with minor emendations

Part one: context: changing technologies and business models Parts of this argument were published in my article ‘Same message: new messenger?’ CILIP Library + Information Gazette. 4th May 2007. .


‘For more than 150 years, modern complex democracies have depended in large measure on an industrial information economy…….In the past decade and a half we have begun to see a radical change in the organisation of information production. Enabled by technological change, we are beginning to see a series of economic, social and cultural adaptations that make possible a radical transformation of how we make the information environment….’‘The wealth of networks. How social production transforms markets and freedom.’ By Yochai Benkler Yale 2006. Available for free download at

This is how Yale Professor of Law, Yochai Benkler, describes the context. The time period he describes also neatly encompasses the rise and development of public libraries The Public Library act of 1850 is a reasonable milestone on which to base this assertion . So we can view public libraries themselves as one of the manifestations of the “industrial information economy”. How will they adapt to the New Information Economy? 

The business model of the free public libraries effectively put an end to commercial circulating libraries that had operated since the 18th century. This, like so many changes, did not happen overnight. When I was a very young child the building in my High Street with the name “Library” was in fact the local newsagents, stationers and assorted other bits and pieces shop. It retained the name “library” because at the back of the shop was a small commercial circulating library. By the 1960s it was already an anachronism and, although the shop itself remained in business, the library part was eventually closed. It could not compete with the free public library some quarter of a mile away. Even its prime high street location didn’t save it. The business model of a public service paid for by taxes eventually put it out of business.

__Technology and the Web: innovation and standards__

Libraries have employed, often with considerable skill and imagination, all sorts of technologies over time and in the 1990s were web pioneers. I think it is a pretty safe bet that public libraries were the first local authority service to provide widespread access to the public over the Web. However these technologies didn’t fundamentally change the business model of public libraries. Over the last decade the Web, though still a baby judged against the 150 year span of the public library, has developed and matured at a remarkable rate. It really is enabling those ‘radical transformations of how we make the information environment’ that Benkler describes. I originally wrote this paper as a response to John Dolan’s MLA consultation paper “A blueprint for excellence” because libraries in all organisations, but especially public libraries, face a huge competitive challenge. John Dolan has acknowledged what Google™ and others are doing and speaks of the “cultural change” that is required in library services adapting to the Web See ‘Libraries begin uncertain new chapter.’ Chris Alden. Guardian 22 February 2006.,,1715274,00.html . However, I do not believe the DCMS, MLA, CILIP or most librarians working in public libraries fully appreciate the depth, extent or pace of the change and its disruptive potential. This is not surprising as most of the innovation, the standards and, importantly, the new thinking in business models are coming from the commercial sector. The public sector is naturally and justifiably risk averse. Libraries have a good track record in the wise purchase and effective deployment of their IT systems. When did the press ever report a library IT system scandal? However, innovation does not come as a result of an “invitation to tender”.

New competition means traditional libraries now form a decreasing part of a much larger “library experience,” which is now inhabited by global library/information businesses. Far more effective engagement is needed with the commercial sector. Realistically it would be an unreasonable expectation for UK local government and libraries to have a dominant voice in what is now a global information market. But given the generally good record libraries have in cooperation and standards isn’t it just a bit disappointing that so few library organisations are members of the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) W3C member list

: no CILIP, no MLA. After all, one of the key purposes of the W3C is “evolving the World Wide Web toward a true information infrastructure”. Three cheers then for the Library of Congress, OCLC, JISC, Talis and ExLibris for their contributions.

__The library function is big business__

If any evidence were needed that the “library function” is big business, then look no further than Google’s mission statement Google’s mission is “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

. From its initial position as a search engine, it is now building content. And, tellingly, it started with libraries. The New York Times estimated that as of March 2007, Google™ has already digitized one million volumes at an estimated cost of US$5 millionAs quoted in Wikipedia  . One thing all these new commercial “library services” have in common is the Web. It enables them to have a global reach taking advantage of the “Long Tail”. ‘As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target [sic] goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare’ See the Long Tail website

. Most libraries, especially public libraries, take a narrower view, administered, as they are, on a local basis. There is no “world-wide public library”. Indeed there is no effective national aggregation of English (much less UK) library catalogues developed specifically for the public to use. John Dolan says: ‘It’s technically not impossible, we know it can be done; it’s really about looking at how we join up different systems in different authorities.”‘Libraries begin uncertain new chapter.’ Chris Alden. Guardian 22 February 2006.,,1715274,00.html So why the lack of progress? Inter-library-loan is often an expensive secret service. If you don’t find the item you want in my local public library catalogue that’s it. “Nothing found”-end of storySee ‘I can discover it but I can’t have it: resource discovery and fulfilment’ my Panlibus blog entry: for 27th September 2005.


In contrast, using Google Book Search, I can find and view online (for free) the text of, for example, Dickens’ “Hard Times”. It also gives me links to online services where I can buy the physical book. Hard Times is available for as little £0.01p plus £2.75 postage and packing. AbeBooks provides a catalogue of books far more extensive than almost any public library: it claims 100 million “listings“.From the Abebooks website

 The equivalent of branch libraries is the multiplicity of second hand booksellers (over 13,000) around the world. So instead of buying “The trouble with physics”, recently published in the UK for £25 at my local Waterstones, I can buy the better quality US edition on AbeBooks for a less than half price (including shipping). Abebooks claim in their company overview that they are ‘changing how books are found, sold, and shared with the world.’ Notice that inclusion of “shared”. These services build a community of users and weave their way into our lives. Sharing is an attribute in the new “Web 2.0” world and, of course, chimes well with the ethos of public libraries. You therefore might think some imaginative and savvy librarian created the Web 2.0 service “LibraryThing.” After all it employs library catalogue records (MARC records from the Library of Congress, no less“LibraryThing takes its book information from Amazon, the Library of Congress, or one of more than 70 world libraries”

) to enable people to catalogue their own books. But this is more a tactic to enable them to share information about books with others. In June 2006, ten months after it was launched, LibraryThing caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal.‘Social Networking for Bookworms’. By Aaron Rutkoff. The Wall Street Journal 27th June 2006

‘….his concept has blossomed into a vibrant community with 47,670 registered members -- some paying -- and a user-created catalog that includes more than 3.6 million volumes//.// In theory, that makes LibraryThing the 58th largest library in the U.S’. As of May 2007, membership is now over 200,000 members. In March 2007 AbeBooks launched its “BookHints” book recommendation service in conjunction with “LibraryThing.”‘ launches first ‘Web 2.0’ book recommendation system based on the collections of members’ Press Release. 5 March 2007
‘At LibraryThing, more than 10 million books from the personal libraries of booklovers have been cataloged, tagged (a short but personal descriptive term rather than traditional library or bookstore classification) and rated out of five’. 

Changing business models: free or ‘absurdly cheap’ commercial sevices

It is not, of course, that libraries are being singled out. The changes I describe are part of a much wider phenomenon. Just think of the impact that the ability to download and share files has had on the music business. In May 2007 the band Crimea decided to give away their latest album free on the Web. ‘Convinced that changes in the industry and the spread of digital piracy have made it ever more difficult to make money from selling records, the Crimea plan to turn the economics on their head by giving away downloads of their self-financed second album, Secrets of the Witching Hour. Music Guardian,,2068617,00.html

The band hopes to widen their fanbase and ultimately make more money from touring, merchandising and licensing deals than they would from sales of the album. So we witness a return to a very old business model for musicians!

Companies like Skype™ have enabled free telephone and video calls. Radio and TV is changing too. One look at the BBC web site confirms that. There is so much free content available for download and also available for re-use. Film four has changed its business model from subscriptions to advertising and is now free to users. Channel four has introduced 4oD offering free downloads of TV content.See website

Bookshops, often held up as good examples in many ways for public librares, are also under threat. In a controversial article in the Sunday Times in 2006 ‘A novel use of technology.’ By Bryan Appleyard. 15 October 2006, Sunday Times.

Bryan Appleyard said, ‘I, along with almost everybody I know, stopped buying in bookshops years ago. Why bother? Online, Amazon and AbeBooks have everything I need; in fact, they have everything anybody could ever need, and AbeBooks, especially, is absurdly cheap’. Does he bother to use public libraries I wonder? The reality for many users is that the public library is not free. It is true I can borrow the book of Hard Times for free, but if I want the spoken word CD I have to pay a fee despite the fact that Naxos (the company that produces the CD) offers it as a free download. Borrowing a library book can incur significant travel costs and if my library service does not stock the book I want I might have to pay something like £2.50 See for example London Borough of Richmond upon Thames

for an inter-library loan. Then there looms the potential fine for bringing the book back late.16p at day at the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames

For a bewildering list of charges and fines at Essex Libraries see

So suddenly £2.76 for what you might consider a “permanent loan” that is delivered to my door in days does seem, as Bryan Appleyard says, “absurdly cheap”.

__Summary __

The commercial sector is employing new web-based technology and undermining the business model of traditional library services in all organisations, including public libraries. Services such as free global internet search, low cost book delivery, free digital content and online social networks to share content reduce the need for people to use traditional library services.

So let’s not mince our words. These new web-based global services are a serious challenge to traditional libraries. The Web has already challenged academic library services as we saw with the outcry in 2005 when members of library staff at the University of Wales in Bangor were threatened with job cuts.For a summary see ‘Bangor University librarians face job cutsDrastic restructuring of University Wales Bangor library proposes the demise of subject librarians.’ By Mark Chillingworth, Information World Review 07 March 2005. The University consultation paper making the case for staff cuts bluntly stated, ‘Librarians do not deliver “value for money” when compared to the internet. Librarians lost their jobs.

It is clearly time to ask if public libraries provide value for money compared to the competition.

**Part two: How should public libraries respond?**

I should make it clear that I am not advocating that tax funded public libraries should necessarily replicate these commercial web-based services. It may not make sense to enter direct competition. So I would suggest looking again at the proposed “offer” in the MLA’s blueprint of, ‘a global, interactive information, resources and communications service 24/7, for learning knowledge and inspiration’. Doesn’t this (or much of it) already exist in the form of Google™ and other web-based information services? So the real question in my view is how can public libraries compete? Have libraries or the MLA done the marketing to establish their audience and the needs? Can they offer a service that is more relevant, more engaging, more personalised, cheaper, better, faster, more comprehensive and easier to use? How much will it cost? What will be the price to users?

Understanding the value chain

Librarians need to understand better where their services fit in the “value chain” and where they can add unique value. I am interested in the topic of technology and how it is transforming society. Amazon “knows” this because it has been tracking my book purchases and my searching activity—my “clickstream”. So it recommended the Benkler book to me. I had not heard about it elsewhere. I clicked on the link in my email from Amazon and was able to “search inside” some of the book’s content online and read reviews. Searching inside, I saw that I could download the complete book in PDF format—for free from the author’s web site! Amazon also suggested some related titles I might be interested in—and they are genuinely relevant. So in my path to gaining a better understanding of what is happening in the world, Amazon adds value. How much value does the library add? I search for the title. The response is “Nothing found”.

__The key roles of the public library__

I concur with John Dolan’s blueprint that libraries need a clear vision in order to be effective. I think it needs to be centred on a broad view of democracy. From John Dolan’s earlier comments quoted in the Guardian last year In ‘Libraries begin uncertain new chapter.’ Chris Alden. Guardian 22 February 2006.,,1715274,00.html I think he agrees with me. I wished he had repeated it in his blueprint paper. For me Philip Pullman expressed it very well and it is worth quoting him at some length. ‘[Reading] places demands on the reader, because that is the nature of a democracy: citizens have to play their part. If we don't bring our own best qualities to the encounter, we will bring little away. Furthermore, it isn't static: there is no final, unquestionable, unchanging authority. It's dynamic. It changes and develops as our understanding grows, as our experience of reading - and of life itself -increases. Books we once thought great come to seem shallow and meretricious; books we once thought boring reveal their subtle treasures of wit, their unsuspected shafts of wisdom.’ ‘War on words.’ By Philip Pullman, Guardian 6th November 2004.,,1343733,00.html

I would expand this view beyond books into the new digital realm. 

So this idea of democracy is not a narrow party political one. It is not static either. In his book “Setting the people free, the story of democracy”, John Dunn, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Cambridge, describes how the idea of democracy has radically changed over time. There has been constant tension between what he calls the “order of egoism” and the “order of equality”. He goes on to say. ‘A ruling people cannot confront one another in conditions of acute inequality.'‘Setting the people free. The story of democracy.’ By John Dunn. Atlantic Books. 2005

 The order of egoism (in essence liberal free market capitalism) is currently in the ascendancy. Dunn supports that in general but argues that the scales need tipping some way towards the order of equality. The public library can bring its own particular contribution to equality. Public libraries (unlike academic libraries) are for everyone. That doesn’t mean the same service for everyone. Libraries provide a very differentiated children’s service, for example. Equality has become an unfashionable term lately and is usually replaced by “social inclusion” in government speak. I share John Dolan’s view that libraries should be engines of debate and discussion and, I would add, just a little subversive. Libraries are home to the Bible, the Qur’an and the works of Richard Dawkins. As the education system becomes more and more commoditised with the learning process geared ever more closely to the job market, public libraries have an increasingly valuable role as knowledge liberators. Information is power and public libraries, have a key role here. I recall Jacob Bronowski speak movingly of his early education achieved through his local public library.

While I support proposition five of the “blueprint” that there should be improvement in all library services towards ‘contributing to the priorities of Local Area Agreements (LAA)’, - it cannot be assumed that these priorities will necessarily be aligned with the bigger vision for libraries. The fact that only 25% of public library authorities currently contribute to LAAs indicates that local government itself puts little value on libraries.Quoted during the 2006 Public Library Association Conference

Part three: Some ways forward

We need an action plan. At Ken Chad Consulting we are focussed on technology, change and its implications. So our contribution is modest, but we hope valuable one, in the areas we know best.


A concerted marketing effort (and by this I do not mean promotion) is needed in order to better appreciate the technology and business model context, what users are doing, what they want and the nature of the new competition that public libraries face. In their book “Blue Ocean Strategy” Kim and Mauborgne describe a strategy that avoids the rival-filled “red ocean” of heads-on competition, and instead they encourage organisations to find the “blue ocean” of uncontested market space. Is there a “blue ocean” for public libraries? If there is, does the domain have the skills to find and exploit it?

Technical and business skills

The public library sector needs a skills and talent programme to develop and bring in people who have the business and technical aptitude to enable libraries to compete. By business I do not mean public libraries have to operate as commercial companies. They do, however, now compete with commercial companies so need to understand what they are up against. The timeless skills around information management and metadata are at the heart of libraries and also the New Information Age. Businesses like Amazon and Google™ have come to realise that these are important and much wheel reinvention has gone on. The notion of “tagging,” which is at the heart of so many “Web 2.0” services like YouTube™ and Flikr™ is really no more than adding subject metadata. It is cataloguing. The key difference is really one of approach. Tagging (or “folksonomy”) is a very bottom up user-centric approach. Librarians apply subject metadata in a top down authoritarian way. Both approaches are valid, but tagging is the one getting the biggest development effort.

Leadership and a national approach.

Libraries need to scale up. There are over 200 public library authorities in the UK, and no single authority can hope to match the scale of even a modest global web-based service. The present state of national Inter-Library Loan (ILL) is dire. I waited so long for my request (with no information on progress) that I gave up and bought the book on Amazon.See ‘I can discover it but I can’t have it: resource discovery and fulfilment’ my Panlibus blog entry: for 27th September 2005.

Some positive steps are being taken, in particular in Scotland and Wales, but it may be too little too late. It is not that I do not appreciate the plethora of technical, administrative and political barriers, but where will we find the Sergey Brin equivalent saying ‘We want to be bold--we want to make a big difference’Sergey Brin, Google founder. Quoted in ‘Engine Of Fun And Profit.’ By David Lagesse in 31st October 2005
–and then orchestrating the necessary resources to //do// it? Technology is a real asset in enabling this scaling up but it needs some leadership and imagination. Issuing a tender for a regional or even a national Library Management System will not be the answer in my view. Libraries and the MLA need to find smarter ways for shared working with the commercial sector. 


As I stated earlier, the library domain has a good record on cooperation and standards. However, the standards driving the global information industry are not the next iteration of the AACR or even MARC. In general the baton has passed to W3C where standards like the Resource Description Framework (RDF)See W3C website

have been developed. Neither local government in general nor libraries in particular have an impressive track record of working within the W3C so there is a big skill gap to fill.

__Freeing up library metadata__

As the amount of digital content grows the complexity of rights can seem overwhelming. So it is not a bad idea to start with the easier task of making the metadata more accessible. This will not solve everything of course but it would be a worthwhile and (technically at least) relatively easy step in making content (print and digital) more discoverable. It seems to me that public sector metadata providers (like the British Library) get in a classic business model muddle here. Restricting access to catalogue records by charging for them or restricting rights to re-use them is not core to their business strategy. Public sector organisations often get caught up in narrowly conceived “cost recovery” models which are not aligned to their strategy and may even harm the overall sector economy. OCLC has done some great pioneering work here and so has (my old company) Talis. Libraries should support them. So let us start by getting all library metadata in a big, free, open pot (or lots of pots) and liberate it for lots of discovery and access opportunities including Google and many other search and social software services. Open it up freely so some smart developers can get their hands on it to develop new services like “LibraryThing”. Let us not simply create another “destination” web site that no-one, except librarians, will really know or care about.

__Community Engagement__

I applaud the recent BIG lottery fund project to fund community engagement by libraries but was disappointed when they told me the fund would not support technology. This is a shame given that so many of the new web-based services are “social” software (Facebook, SecondLife etc.) -designed to create and engage communities. There have been some heroic efforts of course, and in the UK, Gatehead Council’s involvement in the ePower project is commendable.See Wikipedia, despite the recent criticism remains, in my view, an amazing community achievement. Why didn’t a group of libraries do it? Given that public libraries still maintain a large degree of trust in their communities it seems to me they are well placed to use technologies like Wikis to help mobilise a variety of community created content. This seems to me to be a big opportunity that is ripe with exciting and democratic possibilities. Shouldn’t libraries be using their information management and metadata skills to enable web-mute communities speak to the world? Is so little being done a consequence of a lack of resources or (as I suspect) a lack of leadership, vision and technical skills?

__Audit of library IT__

Finally, I believe all public libraries should do an audit of their library IT. Many authorities have aged and uneconomic systems. They may still be giving sterling service of a sort but, as we have seen, where the value resides changes over time. An audit would show how money could be redirected to new higher value user-centric services. It would also reveal opportunities for integration and interoperability with other local authority systems. In my experience this is just one small but important way the local authority enhances its view of the value it places on its library service.

I salute the MLA, and John Dolan in particular, for kick starting the debate and look forward to a constructive and continuing dialogue. It’s time for libraries to fight back!

transforming_public_libraries.txt · Last modified: 2018/09/20 15:07 (external edit)