Why We Need Free Public Libraries More Than Ever

Yes, it's time to bring a beloved institution into the 21st century -- but not by making it less effective


As a former head of the state library agency in Massachusetts and a taxpayer myself, I read with interest the recent Atlantic editorial in which an elected official from Swampscott, Massachusetts proposed public library user fees as a reasonable and "modern" solution to some perceived imbalance.

Under this proposal, a 50 cent user fee would be added to each book circulated by the library. In addition to addressing the supposed tax inequity created by the current system of funding for the Swampscott Library, the proposal would generate an estimated $300,000 in additional funds for the library.
The fact is: This would be the costliest additional revenue ever generated.
The reasons for this are twofold: First of all, this fee, while described as nominal, would hurt those most in need of the free services the library offers. While Swampscott is a relatively well-to-do town by national standards, there are plenty of unemployed and/or poor people living in the town. The costs that might not make a difference to the wealthiest users would certainly constitute an additional barrier to use for almost everyone else.
This would be even more the case for young people. Given the overwhelming proof that library use makes better readers, higher achievers, and more successful workers, we want our young people to feel comfortable coming into their local library, whether or not they have money in their pocket. The impact of these fees would certainly be a disincentive for those young users who would benefit most from library use.
The second reason is plain old economics. The municipality invested $560,000 in local taxes library services last year, about 1 percent of the total municipal budget and about $40 per capita for each of the town's 14,000 residents. In return, the library circulated 161,000 items in 2009 (not 600,000 as claimed), about $3.50 per circulation. And that's not counting all the story hours for children, public access computer usage, public programs, assistance in locating information on health, financial and e-government information, interlibrary loans and many other valuable educational services provided to the community. The 50 cent fee would actually generate about $80,000 in revenue, not $300,000.
The impact of the "nominal" user fee would unquestionably be a reduction in the library's use. This is very evident in France, where some local libraries charge small user fees in addition to receiving public support. The result: Libraries are used much less, resulting in a much lower return on the public support provided.

In short, the small amount of additional revenue results in a much less effective use of  the public support. With a fixed investment in a service that benefits those who use it and their community the more they use it, you want them to use it as much as possible. Seems perfectly clear, right?
Now, as to the notion that we need to stop thinking like it's 1900. Libraries stopped thinking like it was 1900 many years ago, and are now providing users with access to online digital resources (and the really valuable ones are not free) e-books and 24/7 online access to library services. And national surveys show that the public considers public libraries the most effectively run of all municipal services.
Libraries provide all residents with unlimited access to the reading and information resources that will mean the difference between success and failure for Swampscott residents as individuals, Swampscott as a town, and the United States as a nation. They are supported by a very modest contribution of public tax funds, and provide a fabulous return on this investment by any measure.
Sure, the library is an old fashioned concept. So is democracy. So is equal opportunity. So is getting your facts right.

Image: Litonali/Flickr