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 Ultimately, I don't know if libraries have seen significant changes in patronage or funds since the policy was revoked.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.