Fee-Based Programs – a New Business Model for Uncertain Times

mplGuest blog by Deborah Walker, Director for Library Strategy at the Markham (ON) Public Library. Deborah can be reached at  dwalker@markham.library.on.ca.
Website: www.markhampubliclibrary.ca

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.

Quality Control

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.


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3 Responses to Fee-Based Programs – a New Business Model for Uncertain Times

  1. Rob June 3, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

    I’m a big fan of revenue diversification/generation for public libraries. I’m just not getting your math. 15 students x $51/course for 8 weeks means your teachers are getting less than $100/class with no cost attributed to course development or program costs. So basically the library doesn’t make any money just good will?
    You make it sound like this is the funding silver bullet, but to me it just sounds like all the other programs libraries run for free.
    And your metrics for outcomes are ‘classes are full’?
    Sorry, sounding like same old, same old to me.

  2. Barbara Kelly June 4, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    Thank you Deborah for this post and thank you Ken for, as you tend to do, hosting a space for interesting conversation.

    It is time for a deep change and we need to explore all the available options. Given what Deborah points out about her community and the revenue expectations of her municipality, this appears to be a very logical response generated by some strategic thinking.

    If I take what I understand of this situation and attempt to apply some critical thinking (what is the issue to be examined, what data and information do I have available, evaluate the quality of the evidence and dig at the assumptions with the famous “so what?”) and if I run the information through some basic business analysis tools that get at cause and effect (perhaps I’ve even had a dangerously small amount of Six Sigma training), used some form of a SWOT/TOWS, a performance analysis, and work-shopped some scenario planning with key stakeholders, I believe that I would see the community gap in supporting school success, the needs of the my stakeholders, the strength of my organization and the possibility of performance success. All charts, matrices, and maps would point to this fee-based program and perhaps some other revenue streams as well.

    In the public library world we are catching on to the powerful tools and approaches that have made other industries lean, strategic, and if they get it right with their value proposition, relevant.

    The most successful businesses also know, articulate, and live up to their values. All of their business strategies are run through those values and the resulting actions demonstrate those values.

    When all the analysis and strategy is on the table, where are our values? What enduring values do we share as an industry (okay, profession) and what do they look like in our different communities?

    There are many strategic and tactical paths open to us and many ways of arriving at the best ones for our communities. I believe that we can do better than fee-based programs for improving the learning outcomes of children, particularly once we can articulate and apply our values to our thinking and actions.

    Fee-based programs are short-term solutions, problematic, and undermine what I believe to be our enduring values of access and equity. As well, they will undermine the possibilities of our unique value proposition and relevance to the communities we serve.

    As a fabulous library leader said recently, “I don’t just want your heads at the table, I want your hearts.”

    Again, thank you Deborah and Ken, conversations make a difference.


  3. Sharman King June 12, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Hi Ken

    This is a very good example of my supposition – libraries are a nexus for intellectual activity in an intellectual community. I cannot think of any possible competition with the possible exception of universities and schools, but these institutions are much more bound up in logistics and conceptual inertia.

    The other aspect is for libraries to expand their (possibly revenue-raising as an extra value service) access to e-materials. I’d be happy to pay VPL for a combination of newspaper and current, popular ebooks. This access should not be limited by available copies – perhaps a ten or twenty or thirty dollar a month “Netflix” model.

    The book publishers would get, say a buck a circulation unit. If they’re currently saying a book can be circulated thirty or so times before a library has to by a “new” e-copy a publisher would get a continuing, sustainable and predictable revenue stream from every title. And, provided their book is able to attract an audience, they would seamlessly scale the revenue potential of their catalog. And they’d still get their magic thirty bucks a book.

    The libraries would become marketing partners with the publishers while preserving their web and existing physical nexus. Libaries and publishers would be participating in a cooperative marketing enterprise.

    What’s not to like?