Regular followers of this blog know I watch law library trends, one of which is the merger of courthouse law libraries with local public libraries. Mergers among public libraries are just as, or more, common. A number of recent stories about both mergers and decouplings got me thinking about this again. The positives about a merger tend to be shared services and efficiencies – library users get access to more. More online resources, more staffed hours, more physical volumes. But there’s a financial undercurrent that the two parts are probably greater than the final whole cost.
One part of this is context. When a courthouse law library and public library merge, they are (a) in the same political geographic location, and (b) funded, in part at least, by the same government source. Many of the mergers in public libraries follow a similar pattern, often a large city library and a more rural county library system. Some recent examples:
- A proposal in La Crosse, WI, wants to create a single tax levy and the funds would pay for both city and county libraries, rather than tax each separately, because the mayor is concerned that city citizens (higher rate) are paying for county users who use city library
- Four other counties in Wisconsin are contemplating merging their systems, for relatively modest savings (~$100,000) but it allows for selling off a location and consolidating service points
- Indianapolis recently merged with a smaller independent library, on the premise that access to the IPL collection and services is how the smaller library can grow in lieu of additional funding
- An Idaho county and city might merge for better services, but raise issues of governance (taxation without representation!) if one governing board eliminated, rather than new one created
- A merger is recommended in New York, even after following a single tax approach
Most of these mergers are driven by obvious financial issues. Sometimes there’s a financial reason that leads to something short of a merger, like a commitment to share space with like groups. And not all mergers work out.
There’s a lot to get right with a merger. First, the underlying cost-benefit analysis has to be right. If you’re promising to keep a certain level of staff or a certain number of locations, this can be challenging. The more funding sources you have, the more governance structures or inputs you need to manage. The communication – starting as early as possible – is critical, as a merger that looks good on a spreadsheet may not play well to library visitors.
At its crux, though, there has to be financial savings. Your new library arrangement is either delivering a lot more services and information for the same amount, or you’re able to deliver the same services for less. In the world of courthouse or public law libraries, with double-digit content increases, that leads inevitably to pressure on your non-content costs: staff and space. The interplay is such that fewer staff in the same space will lead to fewer services (or, perhaps more frankly, fewer metrics to measure the usage).
When a governance body says no to a merger, they’re essentially saying that they have the financial wherewithal to go it alone. Metropolitan public libraries are easily in this category. Population growth + local taxes can keep them ahead of costs.
There isn’t really an equivalent in public law libraries. None of us have the financial growth potential and scope of service that public libraries have (3D printers, homeless services, maker spaces, tool lending, seed banks, among others). Also, unlike public libraries, we’re much further along (like medical and scientific libraries) in the transition to online primacy.
As we shift from information ownership to information subscriber, we can free ourselves from our physical space in ways public libraries can’t. Public law library success will be in finding the right balance of small physical footprint, efficient warehousing of print, and distributed access to online information resources. There’s no reason mergers can’t work well to help achieve those goals.