The Netherlands is keeping afloat lots of institutions which used to be relevant but now hardly have any added value. Take the public libraries.
Every time I pass a library I see empty spaces with endless book cases. Every once in a while a lone student is sitting at a table pouring over his school books or his laptop. Lending books has clearly become a marginal activity. It makes sense.
With the wealth of information and stories available online, printed books are no longer viable. Some libraries are trying to generate a little money by organising cultural evenings, reading groups and workshops at €12,50 a pop, coffee and tea included, but they are fighting a losing battle.
€600m a year
A city like Amsterdam has as many as 26 libraries. There’s over a thousand nationwide. These libraries cost some €600m a year, €65m of which is covered by contributions from members. That means each library has an average turnover of €60,000.
That is not nearly enough. Every year councils and provincial authorities are paying out over half a billion euros to libraries. That is public money. Of course libraries have a social function. Making them free up to 18 gives every citizen, rich or poor, an opportunity to borrow books and use WiFi internet access, something which may not be available at home.
But as long as libraries need to be subsidised to the tune of half a billion, it may be a good idea to consider how to spend that money differently. Internet subscriptions can be had for €10 a month and half a billion could buy over four million families free access to the net. If we close down the libraries, every household with an income of up to €50,000 before taxes could have free internet access.
If we want to hang on to the libraries, we should explore other business models. Libraries could, for instance, rent out flexible work spaces to the self-employed. If they charged €100 a month that would still work out cheaper than the expensive alternatives offered by commercial providers like Regus. The advantage of Regus is its great network of office space all over the country, and that is exactly what the libraries would have.
If all thousand libraries were to work together on this it would blow the competition out of the water. The self-employed would have a quiet and affordable work space, with lots of reference books to boot. That is how an institution that is nearing its sell by date can be made relevant again.
Annemarie van Gaal is an investor.