Monday, July 19, 2010

Would you pay to use your public library?

This past Sunday, the Guardian, an newspaper online that you really should be checking in with every day or so, ran a short feature on the refurbishment of the legendary London Library. (How has it never occurred to me that there is a big library open and ready for exploration in central London?) Anyway, the article explains that the London Library has had to raise its annual fees and has asked its members to bear more of the share of the cost in the upkeep of the physical space which, as you might guess, hasn't gone over too well. It made me wonder: would Americans pay to use their local library? If so it could be a model moving forward for publishers, writers, and the hemorrhaging book business in that it could provide a solid and reliable stable of consumers for books and cultural products like magazines, videos, etc. It also could be a way to generate some revenue for our extensive library system so they wouldn't be so reliant on local and municipal funding. For £395 (or approximately $600), patrons get access to over a million books plus nearly every periodical released since 1841. I know that it isn't in our DNA to pay for the privilege of going to and using the library but maybe we need to rethink that model? If patrons and citizens joined in the cost of keeping their library open with both taxes and a yearly membership fee, perhaps we could keep most libraries and their branches from closing (or almost closing...I'm looking at you BPL). I realize this isn't a popular idea but maybe one who's time has come?

The finest place to find yourself in the whole of the capital is in the book stacks of the London Library, best of all on the metal staircase that runs between the topography, history and science and miscellaneous sections. A million books are within your reach: almost everything interesting ever written in English, and several other languages besides. The wonder of the place is that most of this great collection is on open access, and, unlike academic libraries, available to take home. You don't just use the London Library, you explore it. The clanking, slatted cast-iron floors; the long narrow passages; a layout that sends even old hands into literature by mistake when they were seeking biography; the warm, deep scent of carefully bound books; the fact that you can, if you want, read every copy of the Times ever published, on paper: all this is available in return for the membership fee, and can never be replicated by an online search using Google. There is nothing pompous about the place, though it is a private club and has a roll call of famous literary members running back to Thomas Carlyle, who helped found it in 1841.
Think of how chronically understaffed, underfunded, and overworked your local library seems when you go in. Have you ever heard a librarian say "I can't believe it. I have all this money to buy books that the question isn't which ones should I get but can I find enough titles to spend the budget this year?" A yearly membership at your local library could go a significant way toward alleviating all the ills that plague the American free library system. I know that this, by definition, smacks of elitism because there will be people who can't pay a fee at all, hence the natural advantage of a free system. But the system has become untenable and in every community across the nation the sands are starting to be washed away from the foundation of the system. Admit it, your local library isn't open as much as you remember it was when you were younger. With a little tweaking and some compromise (the true American gift) there would be ways for anyone who couldn't afford the fee to have it waived. How about 2 hours per month of volunteer time in the library for anyone who can't pay the fee? Every library I have ever set foot in could use some help shelving, alphabetizing, and straightening the shelves. A fee (and volunteer structure for those not able to pay) could go a long way in returning libraries to their rightful place as the cultural heart of a community.

Over many generations the London Library has been amassing books and periodicals covering every aspect of the humanities to give readers, writers and researchers the riches of a national reference library for use in their own homes or workplaces. The Library's founding principles remain a blueprint for providing the most direct and liberal access to knowledge.

It is a central tenet of the Library that, as books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case of exact duplication, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the Library's shelves.

Over 95% of the collections, which now number some one million volumes, is stored on some 15 miles of open-access shelves which may be freely browsed, and over 97% is available for loan. With books dating from the 16th century to the latest publications in print and electronic form, the Library has sought to be contemporary in every age.

Wait, what?!? "Almost nothing has ever been discarded from the library's shelves." That is awesome and the annual fee goes to directly support the acquisitions and maintenance of a collection which never shrinks. Think about that. Furthermore, assuming you join the London Library, you get to read here:

In any case, it isn't going to happen here but it might just be the panacea that would cure the entire library system in the United States. For now, I understand the value of the free public library system but sometime in the not too distant future there will be a reason to start instituting a yearly membership fee to guarantee the survival of these institutions. The notion of government support-from local to national-is under siege and it is not out of the realm of possibility that one day libraries won't be supported by the municipalities in which they are located. When that happens they will either shrivel up and die or find a new way to survive. If the library system dies, we're totally fucked.

The London Library


Liz Svoboda said...

It's an interesting idea. I know that the library in my hometown just needed a huge expansion and they had to cut back on hours at the smaller branches to make it work budget-wise. The problem of the fee seeming elitist is a big one, especially when the service has been historically (at least in the U.S.) paid for through taxes. It has to be worse in major metropolitan centers and really small towns, but I think part of the problem could be helped with better library systems, so that the cost of maintaining a collection can be spread amongst several libraries.

M. M. Justus said...

Speaking as a former librarian, some people in the US already are paying to support their libraries -- many library systems charge out-of-district patrons to get a library card, because those people aren't already paying taxes to the library. Some pay lip service to making it at least somewhat comparable to what an in-district patrion pays, some don't.

Every time I told an out-of-district patron that s/he isn't entitled to a free library card, though, it raised howls.

My personal feelings on the subject are the same as my feelings on toll roads. I already pay for these things. With my taxes. A user fee on top of that is an insult.

I'd be willing to bet most people feel that way, too. We have a hard enough time getting people into the library to begin with. You don't want to set up another obstacle.