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Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted: February 16, 2010 05:22 PM

Hollywood Rips off the NY Public Library

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New York City has a budget shortfall of monumental and historical proportions. Library services are likely to be cut. So you can imagine my shock to read a story in yesterday's New York Post about the repeated use of the research librarians at the New York Public Library by the producers of Mad Men.

The story points out that "The writers of Mad Men...call frequently while working on the show." As an example, they have called to determine whether NYC taxicabs had "off duty" lights in 1963, and for other period questions - like what was on TV the day of the Kennedy assassination.

Gimme a break. AMC and Matthew Weiner - do what producers have done for generations: get yourselves a bunch of interns to do your grunt work. Aren't you embarrassed that poor people are paying taxes because you're too lazy or cheap to do your own research?

But the abuse of research librarians doesn't stop there. They routinely field questions from other elitists - like golfers to settle arguments. Or drunks to settle barroom disputes.

This is a great service for students and broke novelists and others who need some quick research help, and might not have access to the Internet or convenient library resources. But it shouldn't be available, free, to everyone. What's more, currently, it's not only free, but it's available 24 hours a day, and by text. Ease of access encourages frivolous, expensive use.

And to add insult to injury, these calls could be coming from anywhere in the U.S.

The city must put a stop to this. Librarians should be given specific instructions to turn away questions from businesses that can well afford to dig up the answers on their own. And they shouldn't be spending taxpayer money on questions like "I am searching for the word that refers to the strange things people use as bookmarks." (An actual example.) Taxpayer-funded research services shouldn't be used as the ultimate source of trivia.

At the same time, NYC has an opportunity to turn the research function from a cost into a revenue stream. Set up a corporate subscription rate. Charge customers for questions that are obviously frivolous. Treat it as a business and market it accordingly. The powerful brand of the New York Public Library could drive a meaningful and profitable information business. It's easy to scale, too. You could add out-of-work librarians and college students to meet the need.

If the city doesn't know how to create this, find a strategic partner who can - and share in the revenue. Better yet, I'll volunteer right now to donate my consulting services to help the library turn the valuable content they are giving away, into an economic asset for the city.

As for the schnorrer producers of Mad Men - well, I hope their free lunch will soon be over. (I'm sure that their three-martini lunch, however, will continue.)

 

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