This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

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.

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