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Monday, July 25, 2011

Should Public Libraries Charge Fees?

Should public libraries charge fees to "rent" their materials? Does it make economic sense in a 21st-century economy to adopt this business model? Or does it fly in the face of libraries' jobs to deliver info for free? 

Read this short article in The Atlantic and see if you agree: 

Right now there are 92 comments where people are engaged in heated discussion about whether libraries still matter, and whether there are still people in the US who are too poor to be able to pay fees. 

What do you think? I'd especially like to hear from readers in countries where people do pay membership fees to use the library. How does that work? Does it keep some from using the library? Do you use a sliding scale to make sure fees are affordable at different levels? 

We clearly need more funding to keep libraries open -- are rental fees the way to do it? 


Jesse said...

Here in the US, our patrons have ALREADY paid fees to use the library, in the form of local taxes. Charging them a second time would be a slap in the face.

Django Bango said...

As I've written about before, I think there's no problem in offering a special level of membership at a price- as long as this gives a special set of benefits.

To ask them to pay twice is too much, unless we move to a certain collection, such as Popular DVDs, that are only purchased and funded via these fees- meaning NO other library budgeted money goes to their purchase or repair. Perhaps a $5 a month membership to the DVD library would work- maybe not. I'm all about finding out though.

~Kathy Dempsey said...

@DB: That makes sense -- paying a special fee for special services, or privileges. BUT -- then doesn't that discriminate against those who cannot pay? Would there be an outcry about libs no longer being great equalizers?

@Jesse: If the tax monies that libs got were stable amounts, and if they brought enough $ to operate, I'd agree. But that model isn't working so well anymore and is likely unsustainable. So if we say no to any extra charges, where does that leave us?

Both responses are popular & have been discussed elsewhere. I'm looking to get new ideas & to start a more broad conversation. What else can we consider?

Kate said...

I have to appreciate that someone is opening up the field of conversation: perhaps the library needs a business model? At the library where I work, we have no way to increase funding except by getting donations, or by convincing the county to allocate more money. We measure our success by usage, but we have no way to translate higher usage into a greater ability to provide services.

I think it's extremely important that libraries continue to fill a role for people of all income levels. But I also agree that it's time to put the options on the table. Libraries are experiencing budget cuts and closings, so I think we can all agree that the current system isn't perfect. So let's talk about fees and other creative ideas. If fees won't work, let's talk about what else we could do?

(As part of my library's promotion team, I have to bring up one more point: free things are consistantly viewed as less valuable than things you have to pay for. Is it possible that a fee system would make us seem more valuable?)

Ryan Livergood said...

My library's mission is to provide "FREE and open access to the world's knowledge, information, and culture" so I see charging even a small fee as something that goes counter to our mission. The author suggests that some of the revenue generated could be used for a "small café to earn revenue on those people who come to the library for its in-house offerings like computers, newspapers, and magazines." Based on several conversations I have had with people, these small cafes hardly make any money (and are lucky to break even), so, while a good service to offer, it isn't exactly going to raise a lot of funds for your library. I think buying a keurig coffee k-cup machine and selling k-cups to patrons is a much better option.

Cleoppa said...

I've thought I'd like to set up a system where people either rent newer movies or have some sort of subscription for newer movies. This will allow us to buy them (we don't have the funds to buy most of them at the moment) and then in a month or two or three, we can put them in the general movies and everyone can watch them at no cost. That way, everyone can enjoy movies, but we have more funds to stock the movies.

~Kathy Dempsey said...

@Kate: Yes, often free things are looked upon as not worth much. And I think the fact that public libs give away so much for free, and therefore attract poorer people, make them unattractive to many well-to-do people (some of whom are in positions of budgetary power).

@Ryan: True, if "free" is in your mission statement, that's hard to argue with -- unless you alter the statement a bit. I've also heard that cafes don't make much, and your K-cup idea could help. But it wouldn't be enough to save a lib if its budget was slashed by 25%.

@Cleoppa: A good targeted idea where fees would clearly serve a certain collection. Remember, tho, most people have no idea how libs are funded -- and how little they actually get.

Given these responses, what about charging small fees for things that could obviously be labeled as "cost recovery"??
* a small fee to use meeting rooms (which need to be cleaned before & after)
* fees for craft classes (where materials are provided)
* in-house movie screenings (where the lib paid to license the film)
* printed pages! (I think it's past time to give countless sheets of paper away for free; people get that.)

These things are not the "free access to info" that many libs promise. Other ideas??

~Kathy Dempsey said...

Keith Michael Fiels, the Executive Director of ALA, has written a response to this article in The Atlantic:
He is against charging fees, but not for the reasons we've discussed here.

Anonymous said...

I am a British national and I am currently in Warsaw, Poland where local public libraries charge a fee to use the internet. Their reason is because it then deters people who do not have money from staying in the libray fo an hour or more. I was specifically desined to discriminate against the underprivelidged ie the ho,eless and the poor. They have no lisence and do not pay taxes on the extra income. It is illegal.In the UK this would be seen as a illegal act and a disciminatory one. Case closed.