Library Funding

Locally, there’s a bit of a debate brewing – with budgets slashes, the City wanted to close the least-used local library, at least temporarily; doing so would allow them to essentially leave the other libraries in town untouched, as far as funding and services go. Of course, some folks get their undies in a bunch at the thought that such a vital public service as a library be closed, crap economy or no, and so now it looks like maybe that library will stay open, but all the facilities will have their hours cut.

Whatever happens, it got me to thinking that perhaps it’s time to reexamine the prevailing model for library funding…

A smoothly-operating library receives no money from the people who actually use it – i.e. the patrons; it is funded entirely through donations (few and far between) and tax revenue. (Yes, libraries do collect overdue fees, but they’re negligible.) While libraries serve an important public service – that’s why they’re subsidized, after all – I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t time to consider charging for some library services. I don’t believe it’s practical to operate a library as a profit-making enterprise, but charging a token sum for certain services could help better fund libraries by, in part, deferring a portion of the operating expenses to those who actually make use of the library.

According to one online reference, the local (Ramsey County, MN) public library system circulates almost 2.5 million items a year to a quarter-million users, and the Saint Paul public libraries do even more – 3.3 million transactions by just shy of 300,000 patrons a year.

Assuming that’s the case, let’s pretend that half of those items checked out every year are non-children’s books. If Saint Paul charged adults $0.10 per book checked out – ten cents – they’d raise $160,000. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $17 million annual budget, now slashed to $15 million, but it’s a start. If they charged adult patrons for access – call it a “membership fee”, maybe – at $1 per month or $10 per year, they could raise another $1.5 million or so, which is hardly chump change. Is internet access a right, or a privilege? There aren’t any internet cafes in the city (at least, that I’m aware of), so why not charge folks, say, $0.50 a day to surf the web? A couple simple fees like that and they’ve basically made up the $2 million budget shortfall.

I think it could work – how about you?

Published in: General | on March 4th, 2009| 4 Comments »

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4 Comments

  1. On 3/4/2009 at 6:24 pm Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake Said:

    I agree. As long as the fees stay negligible, I think it would work fine. 10c for a book? 50c for a day of internet access? Who’s going to complain about that? I suppose some will, just on principle, but when you’re talking about “fees” that are orders of magnitude smaller than any comparable service, reasonable people won’t think twice.

    Of course, I’d be curious to see what a simple donation box would bring in, such as what you find at free private museums and such.

  2. On 3/4/2009 at 9:23 pm Centribumble Said:

    Good call. Having a concession rate for students, unemployed, seniors etc. would also curb complaints. Probably even best to let those guys borrow for free and then charge a slightly higher amount for the employed.

  3. On 3/6/2009 at 2:09 am Tim Said:

    I don’t think that is a good idea. We need people to use libraries. I know that if there had been _any_ cost to the library while I was young then we probably wouldn’t have gone there, and I’d be a vastly different person. For the same reason that I switched banks when my old bank started nickel and diming me, people will stop coming to the library. It wasn’t that the little transaction fees were expensive to me, but they bugged me, so I decided to opt out. We need more educated, well read people. Even if it’s trivial, anything we do to raise the barrier to entry seems to me like a bad thing.

    Just look at the lack of success of the pay newspapers online. Nobody went to them. Even though the cost was pretty trivial. So they had to flap around and come up with different revenue models, like ad supported or ad-supported with a cutoff after which you had to be a subscriber to read old articles, etc. I’d be afraid that people would do the same thing. They’d just go read fanfic online or hit reload on digg a lot rather than read books.

    I’d also be afraid that it would add a lot of overhead to the library trade. Now you have to have a cash register and keep track of various people’s accounts and maybe do bill collection and set up credit/debit infrastructure and so on. Some of that may already be in place for late fees, but I kinda doubt it.

    What I really wonder is what is different now? When I was growing up, our schools and libraries had enough to get by and do some interesting stuff sometimes, even in the quite rural and backwards place where we were. Why are we as a society not able to do that any more? This isn’t just because of our current problems. We’ve had this issue for years. It perplexes me. But I digress. Sorry.

  4. On 3/6/2009 at 12:16 pm Nemo Said:

    I don’t know that using online newspapers is a great example – IMO, the biggest hurdle there was the inconvenience – nobody really wanted to pay online using a proprietary transaction system, then use a login and password to access the sites. With the library example, it wouldn’t really be that annoying to be able to fork over, you know, a buck, actual cash, right there at the library when you’re checking out.

    Hell, large-ish library systems could probably go with prepaid cards, along the same model as prepaid bus passes, and how spiffy would that be? Give everyone you know $25 gift cards to Amazon, or $10 gift cards to the library? If you’re trying to promote reading, $25 for someone to get four paperbacks (or, more likely, alas, one DVD) at Amazon really can’t compete with $10 to let someone check out a hundred books at the library.

    Even if you’re opposed to the idea of pay-to-play, is the idea of paying a premium for premium services really a problem? For example, suppose you could check out three books at a time, for a week at a time, for free – and every additional book, and every additional week, was ten cents. (Four books, two weeks = $0.40.)

    IMO, libraries need new revenue streams in order to be able to continue to provide the expanded level of services they’ve become accustomed to providing, and which the public has become accustomed to using. Rather than playing budget games – robbing Peter to pay Paul – it seems most reasonable to ask the people who use the libraries to carry at least part of the additional burden, and I think that if people “get something” for their money, it’ll be much less objectionable than the sort of fund-raising Public Radio does.

    The problem isn’t that society as such isn’t able to support the schools and libraries, but that during recent years of budget surpluses, they’ve become too dependent on using their “expanded” funding as operating costs for “expanded” services, rather than putting what should have been seen as one-time funding towards one-time (“capital improvement”) expenses – remodeling, modernization, et cetera. A roof or parking lot or bicycle racks you pay for once – extra staff or expanded after-school programs or internet access and technical support you have to pay for every year