A British author told the BBC last week that in light of the impact of government budget cuts, libraries should consider charging a small fee for checking out a book. Michael Jecks, who bills himself as “Master of the Medieval Murder Mystery,” suggested a charge of 15 pence (currently about 22 cents). He doesn’t believe the fee should be universal, suggesting those under the age of 18 or on means-tested benefits be exempt.
There’s no question budget concerns exist for U.S. libraries. According to the American Library Association, 24 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 and nearly half were more than 11 percent. Significantly, that reflects state funding. The vast majority of funding for public libraries comes at the local level, where finances certainly are no better. In fact, the fiscal 2008 public libraries survey indicates my local library received 96.5 percent of its funding from local government. By the way, the Census Bureau reported earlier this year that in 2008 just under 25 percent of American households had at least one person getting means-tested government benefits.
Are borrowing fees something public libraries should consider? Some fees already exist. For example, my local library charges nonresidents a “membership” fee between $5 and $6 month to borrow materials, depending on the length of the membership. Still, the concept of charging for library books goes against the grain of our views of public libraries. We tend to consider free public libraries in almost the same vein as free public education (and, from my perspective, for good reason). Still, most scholars agree that publicly funded free libraries were a 19th century invention for America. Great impetus came from Andrew Carnegie, who provided funding for libraries in more than 1,400 American communities. Among the conditions for those funds was that the community annually provide 10 percent of the cost of construction to support library operations and the library provide free service to all.
There is some surface appeal in Jecks’s thought that borrowing fees are “just a small contribution” towards funding libraries and “it’s not the sort of amount which is going to break anybody’s bank.” Certainly, exempting those under 18 and, for lack of a better term, the needy makes sense. Still, what are the chances requiring someone to prove they’re receiving government support will discourage them from checking out material? Or that someone slightly above whatever standard is set may be in a situation where it’s a choice between checking out library books and a half gallon of milk? Quite frequently, these are the people who may be most in need of what libraries offer. In fact, this year’s State of America’s Libraries report from the ALA concluded that since the recession, local libraries have “become a lifeline.”
User fees make sense for certain things, such as swimming pools or a surcharge on tickets to a sporting or cultural event held in a government-funded facility. But libraries are more than just a quality of life issue; they are crucial to a community’s strength and survival. As someone said earlier this year, “Cuts to libraries during a recession are like cuts to hospitals during a plague.” Among the worst things we could do is reduce public support and try to replace it with alternatives that could do more harm than good.
In short, the library was a place where most of the things I came to value as an adult had their beginnings.
Pete Hamill, “D’Artagnan on Ninth Street“