Costco stores as role models for Internet-era public libraries (caveats ahead)

BusinessWeek story on CostcoThe rage is to compare everything in creation to a business. But be careful when doing so with America’s public libraries. They are civic and service institutions, not profit-making corporations. A major caveat!

Just the same, in a library context, I was intrigued when President Obama once again singled out Costco for its success. It’s delighted shareholders in recent years while paying hourly workers around $21 per hour on the average. Granted, Costco isn’t your typical retail chain. It focuses on upscale markets (and bulk purchases). By contrast, public libraries need to serve everyone, especially the poor. That’s yet another caveat.

Still, in Costco, I see a few lessons for public libraries in the digital era:

1. Costco has a strong retail corporate culture. It invests in its people and promotes from within as opposed to mindlessly going the usual MBA route. First-year employees get several hundred hours of formal training. Talk about ways to maintain customer-service standards!

Likewise public libraries should strive to help staffers adjust to the digital era while hewing to traditional library values and culture. Alas, budget cuts often make adequate professional development impossible. A national digital library endowment could assist in some cases, besides helping to pay for e-books and other digital content. Books by themselves aren’t enough. Along with teachers, librarians can encourage books’ absorption. It can happen through means ranging from story-telling hours to family-literacy drives updated for the era of econo-tablets and e-books on cellphones.

2. Also, Costco cares about its brand identity as a place for savvy, value-oriented shoppers. It’s ignored Wall Street demands to jack up prices just because it can. Similarly, public libraries should resist the call of trendies. They should remain “book warehouses”—modernized for the digital era—even while offering many new services unrelated to books. Low-income patrons especially need books and other content. Libraries should be wary of tossing out their calling card, especially when recreational reading can do so much to boost academic achievement.

3. Speaking of value, Costco promises not to mark up prices by more than 15 percent over costs. If public libraries want their budgets to grow, they must think in similar terms and offer more value to the public. For now, only about 12 percent of an average library’s operating budget is for books and other content. Digital technology could dramatically increase that percentage. It could help libraries survive in an era where bean counters so frequently set the tone at local, state and federal levels.

4. By corporate standards at least, Costco is egalitarian. Its chief executive pulls down a nice salary but still is well below the pay of Walmart’s CEO. That’s something to consider when the head of the Queens public library system is making close to $400K a year. Queens has won its share of honors in librarydom, and he should be compensated well. But that much? The difference between $400K and $200K-$250K could have paid for more than a few e-books, not to mention the preservation of some lower-level jobs.

If nothing else, I’m wary of the academic world’s oft-elitist values aggravating the inequality problem in matters of pay and others. This is one reason for intertwined but separate academic and public library systems online—especially since the needs of the typical patrons of public and academic systems can diverge so widely. Overpaid library leaders are more at risk of losing touch with the needs of Americans outside the elite.

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