March 15, 2013

Are libraries “priceless”?


An image has been circulating on social media, characterizing library services as free, but suggesting that a library card is “priceless.”

At a time when library budgets are being cut and the role of libraries is being debated, some grassroots pro-library efforts have been launched to build support. But in some cases, these efforts are touting libraries as “free” institutions. An image that has been posted on Twitter and blogs in order to emphasize the value of libraries, shows a receipt that suggests the cost of renting DVDs, books, ebooks, or cds is free of charge for patrons. A tag line at the bottom reads “Having a Library Card? Priceless.”

But in a blog post in American Libraries Magazine, D.J. Hoek takes issue with this characterization of the cost of library services. He explains that …

… libraries, as we know, do not exist for free. They cost their communities—whether composed of taxpayers, tuition-payers, donors, or a combination—a substantial amount of money. It’s well-intentioned to emphasize that libraries provide materials and services without exacting immediate payment from users for each transaction. But today it is at best a mistake and at worst self-destructive to underrepresent the considerable ongoing investment that the members of a community make to have library collections, technology, personnel, and facilities available to them.

As libraries respond to the challenges facing them, some have suggested adding a small circulation fee—something like fifty cents—to make up for cut funding. Last year in The Atlantic, Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the American Library Association, responded to an Atlantic editorial that argued for instituting such a policy. He worried that collecting fees would be a barrier for entry for the people who needed library access most, and that the amount of revenue generated would be less than what public support and municipal budgets could provide.

Raising awareness for libraries and building popular support for their budgets is counteracted by this notion that libraries are free, Hoek argues.

Rather than promote the “free library,” let’s remind our communities of their great investment and of the tremendous wealth of returns they derive from that investment: materials, specialized assistance, and programming. That doesn’t mean libraries are free. It means that the cost of libraries is worth every cent.

Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.