Library Basics — Membership

Are Libraries Getting the Business Basics Wrong?

Jane Cowell


At the end of 2022 I was struck by the question posed by Gabrielle Dolan business storyteller in her final blog post of the year.

‘Are we getting the basics right or wrong?’

It got me thinking about libraries and how often we can get the basics wrong due to an abundance of caution and an assumption that the status quo from the past 40 years is still relevant.

Let’s think about library membership.

Totally a business basic for libraries around the world. And judging by the figures nationally and internationally library membership is declining. Library membership is required to borrow our physical and digital collections and sometimes to use the library WiFi.

Of course we want to sign up members who are local, who can attend our library programs, borrow from our physical & digital collections, and ensure our physical libraries are a vibrant hub of people. So we may think verifying addresses with staff oversight is a basic requirement to meet this aim. Which results in every new member being forced to enter a physical library and interact with a staff member to sign up to be a member — in 2023! And we need more library members to join to add to our advocacy efforts for continued sustainable funding.

Let’s tip this library membership view to the viewpoint from a potential new community member.

I want to join and I want it to be easy. I may only want a taster of the library to see if the library is actually for me personally. In this case the basics of joining I would be looking for is:

  • an online form, with an automatic check of my address to verify it and
  • an option to signup to the eNews to find out what is happening (which might entice me to the physical building).
  • And of course, I want immediate access to the digital library and physical library catalogue. Because the physical collection might also entice me to the physical library. I also do not want a physical library card — I want it to go into my digital wallet so that I only have to carry my phone.

Is this a basic quick change libraries can make? — even if the membership is a 3 month digital only membership due to our governing body rules. Our marketing efforts for new library members would be on encouraging them to sign up permanently by coming into a branch to participate in the innovative program on offer.

Could we offer a temporary membership for overseas visitors with a visa? This option was especially important for the communities my library serves. Overseas based grandparents would come for an 8–12 month stay supporting their family who lived locally and they were then able to access our language other than english collections while they were here.

Innovative libraries around the world are also building in other benefits to having a library card. A Library card can allow a number of visits to the Art Gallery, the Museum or other cultural institutions — supporting both with visitors and another reason to join. What else could we build into Library Membership that increases the “cache” of being a library member?

Of course, we will not always get it right.

So we need to be prepared to adjust and try something else. This test, try and learn approach will help us work with our community members and policy makers to find the best outcome that works with our legal contractual requirements for our digital libraries, our governing organisations and our community members— and some will love it and others will not. And you know what? That’s okay too.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash



Jane Cowell

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics