Turns out that in India that idea isn't so far-fetched according to this post on Bangalore's Citizen Matters blog describing how Indian entrepreneurs have responded to the fact that India's public libraries fall short of their U.S. counterparts with regard to what we would consider basic services - from up-to-date collections to welcoming spaces to story times...by creating for-profit libraries that offer these things and more.
Looking at the websites for some of the libraries profiled in the Citizen Matters post I was surprised by the ingenuity of the business models.
Eloor, which was founded over 30 years ago and has five branches across India, is at this point a strictly physical library although it plans to offer an online catalog and Internet-based services soon. Members pay a deposit plus a "reading fee" of 10% of the purchase price of the book (or more if the book is kept more than the 14 day loan period). The reading fee is the library's source of revenue, while the deposit is to ensure that books are returned and is refunded in full if the membership is closed. The amount of the deposit determines how many items the customer is allowed to check out at any given time. People who choose not to become members can borrow books without paying the deposit, but they have to deposit the full purchase price of the book which seems to be refunded (less the reading fee) when the book is returned.
Mylib.in is a hybrid physical and online library offering both a reading room (I loved the description from their website - "a comfortable reading space surrounded by books which gives the age old charm of "Reading in a Library". We feel great when families spend their weekend afternoon in our library or when school kids drop by after their school or when executives laze around in the bean bags after their office hours to catch up on the business magazines.") and an online catalog of items that can eithre be picked up at the library or delivered to (and collected from) home or office within 2 days. Much like Netflix, Mylib.in offers a variety of pricing plans to meet different needs from "pay per book" to various combinations of membership terms (3 month, six month, etc.) and number of items that can be checked out simultaneously.
"Easy Library" seems fairly similar to Mylib.in with regard to how it operates (combination of physical space and online/delivery) but with a fee structure more like Eloor's. Easy Library also offers events like story times for kids and author talks.
Then there is Just Books - similar to Easy Library and Mylibrary.in with regard to services but a franchise business model with 13 locations across Bangalore and opportunities to open franchises in other cities.
Private "children's libraries" are a niche in their own right, with libraries such as Out of the Box and Discover Kids Library offering physical libraries, collections of books, magazines, puzzles, and toys, reading enrichment, outreach to schools, and other services typical of an American public library's Children's Services department.
Browsing all of these websites really made me think about both our public library services and our funding models here in the U.S. While I firmly believe in the value of libraries as a public institution, I think we could learn from what is happening in India. Could we too offer Netflix-style home delivery if people were willing to pay for it? Is a pay-per-use model really so bad? What about charging extra for value-added or priority service?
Some of these are ideas we've tossed around here at PVLD, but learning about India's private libraries made me realize that they are not just concepts, they are viable business and service models. Definitely food for thought!