Libraries Offer a Model for the Sharing Economy

[Hear an in-depth discussion on this article and its topics in this episode of The Enragés]

When the term “sharing economy” is heard nowadays, it often conjures up thoughts of apps such as Uber, Lyft, or AirBNB, but such apps are little more than attempts at coopting the branding of the sharing economy while not actually operating on those principles at all. Sharing economies are truly peer-to-peer, whereas these apps act as middlemen between workers and their customers. While there are truly decentralized sharing economy apps such as Cell 411, freecycle, and the like, I’d rather focus on a much simpler and less high tech example that offers a model for the real sharing economy: libraries.

Now when I say libraries, most understandably think of public and private libraries filled with books, computers, etc., but the library model has been applied to so much more than books. Tool libraries, infoshops, community science labs, hackerspaces, makerspaces, gyms, free fridges, community centers, community gardens, etc. can all operate on similar principles. These are shared community spaces where community members have collective access to the shared resources collected within those spaces. Gyms are libraries filled with exercise equipment, infoshops are libraries filled with radical propaganda, community gardens are libraries filled with seeds, gardening tools, and growing spaces, and so on.

This model allows more people to have wider access to more resources at significantly lower costs and with significantly less waste. Why buy a tool you will barely use and then let it sit around unused the rest of the time? Your neighbor may need the same tool for something and now there are two collecting dust when those jobs are over. Instead, go see if your local tool library has the tool you need, check it out, and then return it when you’re done so your neighbors can use it. If the local tool library doesn’t have the tool you need, then you can go buy one and maybe donate it for others to use when you’re done. It’d be no loss since you would still have access to the tools you bought as well as the rest that others have donated as well. A net win for all involved.

Inevitably these spaces will need people to maintain them, items will endure wear and tear, and other costs will incur as these spaces operate. But how do we fund these models? Especially in a way that keeps these spaces more accessible. Public libraries manage to keep their spaces open to all, but that’s due, at least in part, to the fact that they get government funding. Absent of that, how do we keep that model alive? One option is to expand the function of the Friends of the Library model. Currently, many independent Friends of the Library groups help to aid their local libraries in various ways, including fundraising. Many will host booksales and other such fundraising events and donate the money raised to the local library. Why not have Friends of the Library groups host more fundraisers or even open fulltime shops to help fund community libraries. Some private libraries, including most radical infoshops, are even funded by donations from individuals and community groups while still remaining open to all.

The other popular model used to fund operations like these is to charge a membership fee. Many private libraries, gyms, hackerspaces, etc. run on this model. Unfortunately, one downside to this model is that it often excludes non-members from participation and creates a financial barrier to entry, but memberships to such spaces still cost far less than the resources you end up gaining access to via that membership. While many spaces may strive to be more accessible and have less financial barriers to entry, that is not necessary for every single sharing economy model. There are benefits to shared access and use regardless of which model is utilized. While it is more desirable to make these spaces as financially affordable as possible, that is not always possible under capitalism and thus paid memberships can serve a purpose where adequate donations are not readily available. Many paid membership-based sharing economy spaces have some free aspect to them as a compromise. Most gyms offer free trials, most libraries only require memberships to actually check out books with in-library access being free, most hackerspaces and makerspaces host regular open houses and non-member events that are free to attend, and so forth.

The other big question is one of ownership. While public libraries are, at least in theory, owned by all taxpayers in a shared fashion, private library models vary with some being owned by a third party and rented by users (as with most gyms) and others operating on shared ownership models where all or a portion of users have a democratic stake in ownership. Obviously, shared ownership is far more in line with sharing economy principles, but those that do not utilize shared ownership models still have the environmental benefits that come with shared use. So we should utilize these resources for their environmental benefits and cost effectiveness but we should also stand in support and encouragement of employees practicing their collective bargaining rights and so refuse to cross any picket lines that may form when employees do engage in such practices. If the space is already unionized, that’s an even better starting place in terms of bringing it closer to a shared ownership model.

Even among shared ownership models, there are differences. There are two main types of shared ownership models: employee-owned and member-owned. Many go with one of these two models, but some operate on a mixed model, with employees and members co-owning the spaces. While member-owned spaces can be useful, especially in contexts that don’t require employed staff, spaces such as gyms and libraries do need staff, and so allowing employees an ownership stake, as well as a democratic stake in decision making, is the ideal when it comes to taking sharing economy principles to their logical extent.

Shared decision making is also an important aspect of many sharing economy spaces. While some library models operate with very little shared decision making, some do democratize decision making among members, employees, or both. Again, as with spaces that do not require actual staff, it makes sense to have members make decisions for the spaces themselves in a shared fashion. On the other hand, spaces that have employees should strive to give those employees a voice in the decision making if they wish to operate on sharing economy principles. If not employee-ownership, then unionization is the next best option to achieve some level of shared decision making among employees.

So while libraries may offer a model for creating sharing economy spaces, we must recognize that there are differing approaches among library models in terms of funding, access, ownership, and decision making. Some of these models are more in line with sharing economy principles than others, but all push us in the right direction. However, we must never settle. We must continue to actively strive to bring these spaces further in line with authentic sharing economy principles. Not every library model will be independently funded via fundraisers and donations, accessible to all regardless of finances, and collectively owned and run by employees and members in a democratic fashion, but we have to start somewhere. Let’s start there and push beyond to a shared future.

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