For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
September 13, 2007 - Why Don't We Charge?
Not long ago, we finished up our public meetings around the county, collecting responses to our long range plans. One of the questions that came up a couple of times, and then came up again from a staff member recently, was this: why don't we charge for some services as a way to raise money?
Several candidates for new fees were mentioned. We should charge those teenagers who want to use video games. We should charge people who use the Internet for longer than half an hour. We should charge businesses for the use of our meeting rooms. We should charge the people who use our study rooms. We should charge people who put items on hold, but don't pick them up.
Part of me can't help but notice that people usually want to charge other people for services, not for the services they use themselves.
But here's a better answer. We do charge.
Libraries aren't free. They are prepaid. When some one says, "let's charge businesses for meeting rooms," they're really asking to charge them twice. Residential property owners already pay annual taxes. Even renters pay, it's part of their rent. Business owners pay even higher taxes.
Internet use, holds, and study rooms are all services that we have decided are reasonable expectations of a modern public library. We factor those costs into our budgets.
Once, someone told me that he thought we should charge a nickel for checking out books. Then he multiplied our circulation by a nickel. "Look at all the money you'd make," he said. Then, we could reduce his taxes!
But of course, it wouldn't work like that. The mothers who check out 40 books a week for their kids, and thereby get them hooked on reading forever, would stop, or check out only 5. Students wouldn't check out an extra book for their homework. People would stop placing 20 holds they didn't pick up, yes, but they also wouldn't be coming to the library as often, or feel as good about it. Bottom line: fewer books in fewer homes.
Another suggestion was to charge $5 per library card. Raise the price, raise the perceived value! But I think it more likely to be a disincentive: mom would buy one card, and use it to manage the whole family's library use. That's sensible. But it would also deprive children of the joy they would feel (I know I did) in that pride of ownership. I am somebody, known to the library, a citizen with rights.
Charging for meeting rooms seems to make sense, until you realize that almost all of those meetings are held by non-profits. They wouldn't be paying someone; they would meet at people's houses or church basements. Meeting at a public library involves them in a larger community, helps them gain visibility, helps them connect with other groups. It's a strategy that builds community.
So it seems to me that fees for library services, on top of taxes, are a sure strategy to reduce library use, decreasing the opportunity of the library to make a positive impact on people's lives.
Ultimately, the point of the public library is access. The purpose of public taxation is to spread the costs of library services among all, and thereby remove a barrier to education, entertainment, and participation in our community, especially for the folks who might otherwise not be able to afford it. That accessibility is behind the idea of "promoting the general welfare," providing a resource predicated on equal access to the benefits of our society, and the opportunity to better yourself.
So for the record, I'm opposed to trying to nickel and dime our community to the point where they stop using us. It just doesn't seem to do anyone any good.