User Fee for Public Library

Due to budget problems, the local public library system is asking me to pay a $80 annual fee if I want to continue my membership.

After the initial shock, I decided to pay the fee. Come to think of it, I don’t see anything wrong with library users paying a fee for using the library.

Public does not have to mean free. Public transportation is also largely funded by taxes, but riders still pay a fare when they use public transportation. Public libraries can be operated the same way: users pay an annual fee or a per-item fee when they use the library.

Free does not mean it costs nothing to provide the service. When the library is "free," the cost is just included in something else, namely property taxes. Instead of raising taxes and forcing everyone to pay — whether they use the libraries or not — I think it’s very fair to charge people who actually consume the service.

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  1. Money Beagle says

    $80 seems a little steep. I would guess that probably over half of patrons get less usage per year than that. I think a lot of patrons probably go once every couple months and get a book or CD or DVD or two, and call it good. You could immediately wipe out half or more of your patron usage by instituting such a fee. Myself, I know that I also use way above this amount, so I would probably pay it (grudgingly) as well, but I just worry about the casual user, and how declining usage on their part could end up spiraling these fees out of control, until eventually there’s just a few hardcore patrons left. And you know what would happen then, they’d say that usage didn’t even justify keeping it open.

  2. serbeer says

    Well, everyone is still paying the same taxes. But now they cannot use the library unless they become members.

    And what about occasional use in other places? When I travel, I sometimes come into public library to use internet, etc. I even did that while traveling in Europe. I normally do not take laptop along while traveling so Wi-Fi spots are not an option for me. So, if I travel through your city, I either pay $80 or cannot use internet in public library?

    And what about the fact that this is going to hurt low-income population. For many of them, the only access to the internet is through public library. But now they have to pay to get in, and I am not sure many will go for it.

    I think this undermines the idea of everyone having access to public libraries and their services (only borrowing privileges sometimes had limits). I think this is very bad idea. Not sure what you could do, but initial shock was there for a good reason.

  3. Harry Sit says

    @serbeer – Well obviously everyone isn’t still paying the same taxes. Property taxes are down because property values are down. Income taxes are down because of unemployment.

    I’m sure the fee structure can be fine tuned over time to address the occasional users, similar to how Netflix used to have different fee levels for light and heavy users, or the “freemium” model you see from many places. In-library browsing and Internet usage can be free as well.

  4. serbeer says

    TFB, my property taxes are UP, albeit only slightly. That is so even though official value of my property went down. Because property value is only used to assign relative weight to YOUR share of property taxes in total pile. Total pile is not reduced just because property values are down–it is not like income taxes. So most likely, unless tax distribution changed, local libraries are still getting this year as much as they were getting in the past.

    If library needs extra income, I’d suggest they increase late fees/fines. Because while it may be unpleasant to face $10 bill instead of former $0.70 if you are a week late, at least you have a way to avoid it if you care to try hard.

  5. Jonathan says

    Interesting, I figure I pay around $25 a year in late fees on books right now. I view it as supporting the library. 🙂

  6. Alex says

    What I don’t get is why a library has to be public, especially in this day and age of easy access to information. I wonder if library usage is going up or down? I’d much prefer competing library systems, both for-profit and non-profit. Let the market figure out the best library model. Perhaps access for low-income customers can be subsidized, but there is no reason for governments to be in the book rental business.

  7. nickel says

    serbeer: Look at it this way… In the absence of the fee, taxes would have to go up. By instituting a fee they are only “taxing” those that use the service.

  8. nickel says

    Alex: As far as I know, there’s no law against opening a for-profit library, and yet we don’t see any. Sounds like the market has already spoken.

  9. Harry Sit says

    @nickel – To Alex’s point, it’s hard to compete against government’s taxing power. If there were no public libraries, I can see how it would be a good business for the bookstores to rent books in addition to selling them. It drives repeat traffic to the store. You make money on the same book again and again. In countries where there aren’t as many public libraries, people do rent books. Before Netflix and before libraries started stocking more DVDs, Blockbuster had a good business renting DVDs.

  10. nickel says

    Actually, I stand corrected – sort of… I do recall seeing “Buy It, Read It, Return It” signs in the airport a few years ago. Not sure if they’re still doing this, but you could buy a book at the airport gift shop, read it, and then return it within six months to another other shop owned by the same company (I think it was Paradies) for a 50% refund.

    The downside was that you had to pay list price. Thus, in the end, you wound up paying almost as much to “rent” the book as you would if you just bought it at Amazon. Plus you had to keep the receipt, keep the book in good shape, etc. if you had any hope of returning it.

    Haven’t seen any of these signs recently, so it may have died out.

    P.S. Libraries aren’t what’s hurting Blockbuster. It’s the DVDs-by-mail as well as the online streaming that are killing them.

  11. Random Poster says

    So let me get this right:

    You pay taxes to fund the initial creation of the library;

    You pay taxes to allow the libary to purchase books and materials so that the library is, in fact, a library;

    And, now, you have to pay a fee to actually use the library that you have already paid for?

    I can see a membership fee being charged, on a go-forward basis, for new community residents (i.e., those who did not contribute to the initial funding of the library or its operating costs over the years), but to now charge a fee for those who have been footing the bill all along seems a bit over the top.

    In my mind, it is akin to requring motorists pay a toll to use a road that they have already paid, via taxes, to construct.

  12. Harry Sit says

    @Random Poster – In addition to initial funding and purchasing materials, there are ongoing expenses as well. New books and materials cost money. Replacing worn items costs money. Employees cost money. The fees go toward those ongoing expenses. New community members benefit from past investments. People moving away don’t get their money back. I’m not sure anything can be done about that.

  13. Denver Todd says

    I doubt that everyone who gets the card will actually pay the fee. I bet that there will be a huge amount of waivers going to victim groups of every sort. Thus, your $80 is actually an income transfer. Just saying.

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