Return to sender

In his column in American Libraries today, Will Manley makes a good point that librarians should think twice about agreeing to projects that — no matter how useful — don’t add to the library’s mission. In fact, librarians can even say “no” every now and again. Unfortunately, I found that the column has a few too many cheap shots, detracting from Manley’s message.

Manley’s target? A proposal floated by the U.S. Postal Service to offer retail postal services via partner libraries. It’s understandable that the idea should raise eyebrows among librarians. After all, the IRS program to distribute tax forms through libraries has been a perfect example of an unfunded federal mandate from the point of view of libraries that find themselves turning into ad hoc tax advice services every spring. (And as far as I know, nobody’s offering a joint MLS/tax accountancy degree.) While providing tax forms is a useful service, it’s not clear that it’s one that libraries need to be involved in, or that being involved furthers library aims.

Where Manley goes too far is in a series of lazy clichés about the USPS:

After going billions of dollars into debt and being almost aced out of business by the double whammy of email and private-sector carriers that actually deliver your letters and packages on time and in good condition, the USPS is finally thinking outside of the post office box: The agency has hatched the concept of putting post office kiosks in libraries.

Aced out of business by private competition? There’s no doubt that the environment has drastically changed for the USPS, but it doesn’t follow that the shift from letters to email has made it a dinosaur. A (to say the least) challenging oversight structure and uniquely onerous pension funding requirements imposed on the USPS by Congress have handicapped its ability to react. The USPS covers more territory at cheaper rates than postal systems in many other countries.  Also, it covers rural areas that private firms either would not serve at all or only at exorbitant rates.

Suffice it to say, I generally like the USPS — a stint living in Alaska tends to do that to one. The USPS also has a mandate that is very consonant with library values: universal service.

Of course, whether or not the USPS is fairly treated by Manley doesn’t speak to whether a library should agree to start selling stamps and collecting mail. It’s certainly a stretch from traditional services. But a little digging turned up a big difference from the IRS program: it’s not an unfunded mandate. The “Village Post Office” program, as it’s called, does offer compensation to the small businesses (and libraries!) that operate them. For a struggling library in a rural community whose post office has recently closed or reduced hours, starting a VPO could be a net gain.

Indeed, librarians should know how to say “no”. But they also should know to do their due diligence before deciding.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Return to sender by Galen Charlton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.