The news today tells us that circulation is up in Maryland libraries. Instead of buying books, going to movies, renting videos, or otherwise spending money on alternative leisure time activities, people are returning to the old-fashioned, tried-and-true free resources of their local libraries.
The simple experience of walking into our library offers a glimpse of successful community-sharing we rarely notice and hardly ever celebrate. This is a place we all can come for pleasure, growth, leisure, company. Even more, there is a physical bond that it establishes between us. The books that I check out today might have been in your lap yesterday. The book I hold today may be toted about in your bag next month. I for one bemoan the loss of the Due Date sheet in the back of the book. It told me a bit of the history of the travels of the book, but even more, a bit of the interests of my community. I felt closer to my neighbors back in those days.
But this reminded me of something more I learned this past week that astonished me. In Europe, or so I am told, people do not own their hot water heaters. They only lease them. After all, it was explained to me, people don't really want hot water heaters. They want hot water. Yet to buy a hot water heater, which is the only way to get hot water here in the states, means a ten year investment, locking out the benefits of advances in technology and energy efficiency that develops over those ten years. No one is invested in the upkeep (companies even make money in the repairs) and no one cares where the broken, old heater goes after its useful life. No wonder we have such a waste-rich economy.
In Europe, the company owns the hot water heater, is responsible for its upkeep, is incentivized to have them be the most efficient (or the customer will rent from a competitor), and is responsible for taking them back and properly disposing of them, or better, recycling much of them, at the end of their usable life.
Indeed, why do we need to own things we don't want just to get the stuff they produce? What if we could buy the use of things to get the results we want without the burden of ownership, inefficiency, upkeep and waste?
This is a new way of thinking for most of us, and a new model for building sustainable businesses. We do this in some sectors of the marketplace: we lease cars, we rent homes. But what if we expanded that thinking. On the one hand, there should always be free libraries for all the books and films and things we want to read or see or use but don't need or want to own. But what if, for example, when we wanted to own a book, we could download the text of the book to an electronic book and have the book without having its "stuff". Amazon's Kindle works on this principle. The books you purchase for download come right to your hands via your Kindle, but also sit in your Amazon account for reading from any monitor or computer. And nothing of substance changes hands but zeroes and ones (and a bit of money).
Now I will be the first to tell you all the limitations of Kindle, so I am not urging you to go out and buy it. But they are on the right track. As are the outfits that run Zip-cars, the car-sharing company; bike-share groups; handbag swaps; clothing swaps; free-cycle, neighborhood groups that offer for free usable stuff we no longer want; etc.
This new approach of de-coupling the benefits of something from the (permanent) ownership of something promises to emerge as a key player in our reconstructed economy. It will be more affordable, more sustainable, and more efficient. And it will build stronge, caring, mutually-responsible ties among the various members of the community. We just need to open our minds, change our way of thinking, and reconnect .