Sunday, August 1, 2010


This is interesting. Over at Survival of the Book, Christopher raises the idea of instating subscription fees for local libraries.
For now, I understand the value of the free public library system but sometime in the not too distant future there will be a reason to start instituting a yearly membership fee to guarantee the survival of these institutions. The notion of government support-from local to national-is under siege and it is not out of the realm of possibility that one day libraries won't be supported by the municipalities in which they are located.
Christopher's right that libraries are facing serious budget setbacks and issues. There's also a point to the idea that volunteering to pay off fines (raised earlier in the post) will help libraries immensely. But I wanted to add a few thoughts to this idea, ones that may seem in favor and also vehemently against.

Two or three years ago, a library I tend to frequent (not in the U.S.) revoked its subscription fee (which I had been paying). For many years (indeed, as long as this library had existed), subscription fees were part of the package. Children got cheaper deals, while adults were forced to dole out quite a bit of money in exchange for books and resources. Then a law passed to end this practice. Residents have free access to any library in their city. Meanwhile, if you want access to a bigger, better library one town over... no problem. Pay up.

The fact of the matter is that having subscription fees did not really keep most people from using library resources. Checking books out may have been impossible without a card, but people still used the libraries. On the other hand, they had no other choice and the policies were unfair towards those with fewer means. Ultimately, I don't know if libraries have seen significant changes in patronage or funds since the policy was revoked. It's probably too soon to tell. And, keep in mind, this was all abroad.

Still, to imagine now that the opposite would happen in the U.S. disturbs me. I am lucky to have had many library cards throughout my youth - I have seen good libraries, better libraries, and libraries that were... shall we say... bad. For the most part, though, the libraries I encountered all had one thing in common. They all always had lots of people. Lots of kids checking out books. Lots of teens working in study rooms. Lots of unemployed or retired adults looking for various forms of entertainment (or jobs). These people come in, check books, music, movies, knowledge out and then they return it. That's what a library is - the government funding free access to knowledge for its people. Is there anything more democratic than that? Sure, it may not have started as that originally, but that's what libraries are today.

It always makes me a little sad to see things that seem like regression. While there may be a lot of cold logic behind the idea of charging for libraries, as someone who has stood on the other end of it I have to say that it's not recommended. Paying for libraries feels like someone is keeping knowledge from me. And in today's economy, libraries are more important than ever before: keeping kids well educated and entertained after school, allowing adults to learn, and making sure that knowledge is provided equally to everyone. This is not the time to cut back on library budgets. It's also not the time to start charging people for subscriptions.


  1. We are lucky to have a well organized, and successful Friends of the Library. Every year they raise a tremendous amount of money. However, there was still the issue of possibly losing several branches this year until the landlords chose to help out and make it more financially feasible for some of the branches, very busy ones at that, to stay open.

    This is the best part of grass roots support and why it should be fostered. I'm not sure how many libraries across the country have Friends of the Library, and/or business men and women willing to help. But in this day and age, we need them more than ever.

    It truly is time to put our support and resources behind an institution than is, and always should be, there for everyone regardless of their social or economic status.

  2. I'm a cold logical type who thinks there should be user fees for everything, and I would love to have libraries in the US operate on such a basis. I won't say "public libraries," because I don't think they should exist. Paying for a library shouldn't seem like someone is keeping knowledge from you any more than paying for an internet connection does, and besides, you are paying for libraries, as a taxpayer.

    I also don't think the idea of providing knowledge equally to everyone is necessarily a worthwhile goal. Making the same service available to everyone means that the actual value of that service to the individuals will vary immensely. By attempting to serve the entire "community," libraries make themselves almost useless to many. Stocking up on bestsellers and providing what amounts to free daycare with internet service rather than expensive journals and academic monographs doesn't provide me with anything I can't get in my own home with less hassle. Only the lowest end of the spectrum benefits from this kind of equal provision of services.

    User fees are generally a much more efficient way to ensure people get something they care about, rather than something they are simply forced to pay for whether they find it valuable or not. I could join a library that only specialized in academic journals and didn't allow any children at all inside, while others could get their daycare and access to MySpace at some competitor. Otherwise libraries are stuck attempting to meet the needs of the lowest common denominator and alienating others.

  3. I'm kind of speechless, and not in a good way.


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