When Luxuries Become Necessities

Seeing some discussions of air-conditioning (and those poor souls lacking it) on Friendfeed lately have me thinking about the progression from "luxury" items & services to "necessaries."

I grew up without air conditioning. The humid, hot summers of Long Island for a fat kid were miserable without A/C. I always considered it the height of luxury when I visited someone's house (or, ahem, the freezer section of the grocery) and they had the magical cooling machine. My father, who worked outside in all weather in all seasons, suggested I drink a great big glass of suck-it-up-atine. Instead, I lived in the pool or held my face to the cool floor tile in the basement.

When I got to college, there was an airconditioning control in each dorm room. I called Housing and asked if we got charged extra tuition if we used it. (They were very kind and did not laugh at me. At least, not while I was still on the phone.) By the time my roommate arrived, I had grown accustomed to keeping the room at a steady 60 degrees in the swelter of a Kentucky summer, and the ever-polite Tiffany studied in layered socks and her jacket on her bed while I basked in cold air.

(When I mentioned the gift of free air conditioning, my mother reminded me that in truth, that air conditioning was costing me upwards of $32,000 a year. I considered it worth it. You can bundle up in layers if you are cold, but when you are hot, you can only get so naked before folks call the police.)

To this day I rarely visit home in the summer months because heat makes me miserable and there's still no A/C at Mom's, and I refuse to live anywhere without central air. Air conditioning has moved from a luxury to a necessity for me. Yes, this can be scoffed at as a "first world problems" sort of thing, but it greatly impacts my quality of life.

In any case, I have been thinking of this in terms of libraries and library services. At what point do our pilot programs and newly implemented services move from luxuries to necessities for our users? Think about the reaction you would get if you removed the following (relative) newcomers from your services:

- media (DVDs, CDs, etc.)
- technology lending (laptops, iPods, e-book readers)
- other services

A real life example: the NCSU Libraries have developed a service where the Library purchases all required textbooks for the University curriculum and places them on reserve. After only two semesters, students absolutely expect their materials to be available. While they are grateful, it is quickly moving from being seen as a service to a basic expectation of the Libraries' service provision. I imagine there would be quite the uproar if the service was abruptly discontinued.

And so, if libraries are providing materials and services that are moving from luxury to necessity, how are we capitalizing on this? Are these shifts in expectations communicated well to your board, your faculty and administration, your community, lawmakers and those with control over the purse strings? What was added to your library intended as a bonus service that is now an integral part of your mission? Is there anything you could add that might have this kind of effect? How do you measure this shift in user perception?

And then, in these trying budget times, when a program or service has been extraordinarily successful and has made this jump in expectation, what do you do when budget cuts come through?

Random summer thoughts by a librarian who remains tickled that summer stays outside, and that her sweat is not a currency the way her father's was.


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