Libraries and the sharing economy

honeycomb_collab_econYou read a lot these days about the sharing economy. The rise of companies like Airbnb or Home Away where people can rent lodging from other people rather than hotels or ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber is redefining economic models away from a top-down corporate-driven economy to one where goods and services are delivered on a peer-to-peer basis. The graphic, by Jeremiah Owyang, illustrates some of the many companies that currently comprise the sharing economy. Many people observe that this new model is less wasteful, more economical of resources, more sustainable, requires less infrastructure, and encourages a greater level of civic engagement.

Librarians and library advocates have lately begun pointing out that libraries are the prototypical sharing economy. In 2013, Texans borrowed 119 million items from Texas public libraries or nearly five items for every person in the state. At the State Library, our Talking Book Program, a signature program that has existed since the 1920’s, lends materials in recorded and Braille formats to Texans who cannot otherwise read standard print due to visual impairment or other disability. The 13,991 active users of this service borrowed 845,969 items in 2014, or 60.46 items per person. If that service and its customers were a discrete public library jurisdiction, the Talking Book Program would represent the second-highest lending per capita among all public libraries in the state. And the program also lends users the machines they need to listen to the materials.

These materials are a lifeline to users of the Talking Book Program. Many, perhaps most, of these customers would have no other place to go for these materials. The state funding used to provide this service, this aspect of the sharing economy–less than $2 million per year–yields huge savings to end users who would have to purchase the books they read for very expensive prices for a one-time-only use. And this program is made possible through a national sharing system called the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped operated by the Library of Congress. This national network allows for the purchase, creation and sharing of downloadable and other resources by users in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

We contribute to the sharing economy in many other ways as well. TexShare and TexQuest services share access to digital content among users of public, school, and academic libraries resulting in cost-avoidance of over $200 million per year to local libraries every year. Through shared use and collective purchasing with state funds, these resources were accessed over 100 million times and over 50 million items downloaded in 2014. We also support resource-sharing via interlibrary lending across the state, we collect and make available the archival record of the state to all citizens, and we guide state and local agencies in the most effective ways to share their public records with the public.

Libraries represent a highly sustainable, cost-effective, civically engaged model whereby for a minimal investment of public support, valuable information resources can be shared with the widest possible number of users. And we’ve been doing it for over a hundred years longer than any of the companies in the graphic.

To read more about the sharing economy:

For more on the TSLAC Talking Book Program, check out this great video by Rio Grande City Community Television featuring our TBP staffer Saidah Ochoa:

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