The Culture of Sharing

New companies and new technologies are reinforcing a culture of sharing resources, according to James Surowiecki in his article “Uber Alles” (New Yorker, Sept. 16 2013). Surowiecki takes the perspective of the U.S. marketplace, an environment that historically has run on a buy-to-own mindset from its consumers. Newer companies, observing how mobile technologies value access above all else, are betting on a change in consumer philosophy. Ride-sharing companies (Lyft, Sidecar, UberX, RelayRides, Getaround are all detailed in the article) and media-sharing companies (NetFlix, Spotify), are all speculating consumers would prefer to have access to a variety of goods rather than own a limited number of goods.

What does managing the availability of a collection of resources to a pool of subscribers bring to mind? To me, clearly it’s librarianship. From a macro level, how much does a library’s responsibilities differ from those of the companies listed above? We’re both in the market of access, not ownership; our success depends on ensuring our patrons get the resources they need when they need them.

On the one hand, isn’t it greatly encouraging that the market is starting to see resources the same way a librarian does? The business model emphasizes management of already acquired resources: rather than try to connect a buyer to a seller, the goal is to connect a subscriber to a resource. Ownership is devalued, and access becomes all-important.

Librarians do have knowledge and experience in this environment, and I’m sure those in our profession could be a valuable resource to these subscription-rather-than-ownership-based companies. However, rather than seeing this as an opportunity to teach, librarians need to monitor this development because of what we can learn. The market will shake out and show us which companies are the best at satisfying their customers in this new subscribe-to-borrow arrangement. At absolutely no cost to us, we have the opportunity to observe this experiment, the results of which we could incorporate into how we manage our resources and satisfy our patrons and users, and all we have to do is watch and learn.

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