Municipal budget pressures are increasing. Traditional revenue streams, such as overdue fines, are flat-lining or in decline. There’s uncertainty on many levels – how resilient is print vs. ebooks? Is digital content drifting away from us? Will our current customers still be with us a decade from now?
A gift of uncertainty is that it makes it easier to question the way we’ve always done things, and easier to experiment with new concepts and business models. An example of this is my library’s fee-based business model for programs, called the Learning Place.
What is the Learning Place?
Launched in 2010 and still expanding, the Learning Place (LP) initiative has introduced classroom-style programs made up of 8 weeks of hour-long sessions that are designed to support the learning outcomes identified in the public school curricula of our jurisdiction. LP programs – such as Creative Writing, Essay Writing, Get Ready for French, Public Speaking, Math Genius, Reading for Meaning, and Study Skills – run with a maximum class size of 15 students; the registration fee is currently $51 per LP program. LP programs are delivered by qualified teachers (working on contract), rather than by staff or volunteers.
What About Free Programs?
We still offer the more traditional stream of “core” programs – the story times and book clubs – that are delivered by staff on a drop-in, no-fee basis. The Learning Place has not replaced or diminished the core; rather, it provides an alternative programming stream as an option within the broad spectrum of learning opportunities we offer.
How did we get to the Learning Place?
Almost all public libraries offer programs that support educational achievement – such as homework clubs, reading buddies, after-school tutoring – programs that tend to entail a significant investment of staff time to recruit, train and coordinate a body of volunteers to deliver the programs.
Many libraries also offer fee-based programs, often developed by staff on a branch-by-branch basis through contracts with external presenters and program-providers. Before the Learning Place, this was our practice, and it resulted in a patchwork of inconsistency in terms of quality, administration, marketing and pricing. Registration levels and revenue results were lack-luster, and staff were generally dissatisfied with program-development workload in relation to the sometimes disappointing results.
There had to be a better way forward, and our strategic planning process at the time provided the context for a re-think of our literacy and learning-based programs. What outcomes did we want to achieve? What difference did we want to make in people’s lives? How could we design programs that would have a measurable positive impact on participants’ skills, aptitudes and lives?
Our answer – the Learning Place – transformed the concept of education-support programs through a planning framework of quality control, embedded library messaging, and centralized planning.
The LP business plan started with socio-demographic data indicating that our community places a strong value on academic excellence. There was already a crowded local marketplace for ancillary education, with a wide range of private-sector tutoring and after-school student learning programs on offer.
To define our niche in this marketplace, our strategy was to invest heavily in the Learning Place ramp-up, injecting high quality standards into the content and delivery of LP programs. To ensure the quality of Learning Place content, we hired qualified teachers to develop the curriculum for each program, with learning outcomes linked directly to public school curricula. As owners of the program content, we roll out LP programs at teaching locations (our branches) across our city as part of the seasonal calendar cycle of library programs, ensuring consistently high standards of content quality and consistent pricing in all library branches. To ensure the quality of program delivery and the learning experience, we hire qualified teachers with strong expertise in teaching skills, student engagement, and ability to deliver content effectively.
Embedding Library Messaging
Another benefit of in-house development and ownership of Learning Place program content is that we are able to build library messaging into the curriculum of every program, connecting students to relevant library collections and services, and highlighting the value that libraries bring to the community.
Running Programs More Efficiently
Another LP objective was to streamline programming-related workflows and find more efficient ways to develop, administer and deliver fee-based library programming. This has been achieved through centralization of curriculum development, scheduling, hiring, contract negotiation, program evaluation and program administration. It has eliminated duplication of effort across the branches and freed up staff time for more core “free” programming and other service priorities in the branches.
Fee vs. Free
We are of course sensitive to the social equity issue, understanding that the culture of our profession has traditionally been adverse to the concept of fee-based library programs. Having said that, our reality is that for decades our municipality has mandated us to generate revenue from library programs, and the Learning Place does that very effectively. LP programs have found a ready and willing market, with strong rates of registration, high fill rates, reduced rates of program cancellation (due to low enrollments), and steadily increasing year over year revenues.
After school on weekdays and all day Saturdays, the SUVs pour into our parking lots, delivering children to Learning Place programs. In an environment of growing uncertainty, that certainly looks healthy. That looks to me like our libraries are being perceived by the community as education spaces, as places that provide a platform for learning success, as places that add value to their lives.
Time for Deep Change?
The success of our Learning Place experience suggests that it may be time for public libraries to transition away from “we are a public service”, and “everything we offer must be free”, toward a mix of fee and free, and toward a more entrepreneurial, more risk-taking mindset that is willing to explore new ideas. Perhaps the only certainty right now, is that to do nothing, to change nothing, is the most dangerous option.