Are Libraries “Free”?

August 29th, 2007 · 8 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

I was reading comments on a blog and paused over one that said that libraries are “free options” in the book world. Over time, that idea roiled around in my little brain. Are libraries really free? ‘Cause if they are, then, wow, finally there’s something in this world without a catch.

It is time that we all become activists for reading.

Libraries are free only in the sense that it costs nothing to borrow a book. As long as you return it within the proscribed time. If you’re late, you get to pay a fine. Whether or not another patron is eager for that particular book, you pay for being late. As one who advocates libraries, I believe that all fines should be paid without complaint. If you want to believe that library books are free, you have to play by the rules.

Libraries are, of course, funded by taxpayers with supplements from other sources. Librarians must be paid for their work. Books must be purchased with cold, hard cash. Tape and computers and connectivity and carpets and shelves and databases and inter-library loans all come with lovely bills attached. Even the most civic-minded corporation will not subsidize the expenses of this nation’s libraries. Though I do wonder if Google might be thinking mega-donations to the library system might help its cause.

It should would help libraries.

Some of us pay more into the library system than we take out. Some of us take more than we give. Libraries are, like fire departments, community-supported endeavors. Personally, I always vote to pay more for libraries whenever given the option on a ballot. I am under no illusions that most people have this obsession.

As we saw last year with Salinas and have seen in the past year with other communities, library funding must compete with a whole host of other community priorities, and libraries often lose. We have this crazy, mixed-up relationship with taxes and public services in this nation. We all like the benefits; we aren’t so nuts about paying more to get them. When a county or city is faced with a list of essential services and a limited budget, hard choices must be made.

Everyone loves a library, but cut the police? You’ve got to be kidding. New books versus filling the pothole on my block? Hello, my car is expensive…you think I want to mess up my alignment? Books? Who needs books?

Libraries feel free, but they aren’t. While library patrons benefit from their myriad services, the entire community (plus grants, fundraisers, and generous donations) pays to operate your local branch. Yesterday, on the radio I heard something that gets said a lot: new taxes are a non-starter. We have to live within our means.

When the average household does this, it means keeping necessities and cutting luxuries. When a government does this, the pool of necessities is enormous. I think most readers of this site would argue that libraries are the most necessary of necessities, until the issue of health programs for children arises. Then, well, save our kids. Save our schools. Save our police.

And so on.

If you believe that libraries are an essential part of the mix — and, remember, all that No Child Left Behind stuff is impacting the funding of school libraries…and that’s not a good thing — then you need to make sure that funding libraries is a local priority. Whether you see the fact that 1 out 4 Americans did not a read a book last year as a cause for hand-wringing or a cause for hope, you must acknowledge that access to community-supported books is critical.

It is time that we all become activists for reading. Let’s start with our libraries.

[tags]books, reading, libraries, librarians[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

8 responses so far ↓

  • Melissa // Aug 29, 2007 at 8:59 am

    Thanks Kassia for the reminder that we all owe a huge thanks to the communities we live in for supporting their libraries.

  • Ann Frantz // Aug 29, 2007 at 9:40 am

    Although I buy most of my own books (and fill most of my walls with them), I greatly value libraries for the supportive community they offer to writers, the depth of research services, the comfortable at-home feeling they provide.
    (Although a coffee shop next door would be helpful in most cases).
    In addition to taxes, if you love your local library, send it a check now and then. If we all did that, “free” issue aside, we could keep them going so that kids always have a place to go after school, we’d have an alternative work space when the four walls at home get too close, and library hours could be longer. In my town, that’s a big one for users.
    Ann Frantz
    author, Emilee’s Song – which will someday be published!

  • Chris Fletcher // Aug 30, 2007 at 7:16 am

    I’m thankful to live in Portland, OR, where library levies usually pass. Even so, there’ve been times when hours had to be cut. Shocking as hell, though, is Jackson County (in southern OR) shutting all 15 of its libraries back in April due to lack of funding. It’s the biggest library closure in the U.S. An entire county without a single library…hard to imagine such a thing could happen, but it did. So no, libraries aren’t free. And if we don’t safeguard them, they can be taken away.

  • Letha // Sep 3, 2007 at 9:03 am

    On Friday a first-grade class came into the library to check out their first book at our school. We went through the, well, I call it “The Care and Feeding of Books,” discussing such borderline boring things as carrying a book correctly, turning pages, having clean hands-well, you get it. Each student using his or her shelfmarker selected the book of his or her choice and, then, it was time for them to go back to class. Each first-grader (terribly short and wonderfully cute) stood in line waiting for the teacher to lead them back. Each was hugging his or her book-hugging is the absolute, best way to carry anything precious. They looked at me, were brave enough to waggle a finger good-bye in order not to drop their precious load and walked off. The pride on each of their faces is always a bit too much for this old woman. Every year the monies allotted to school libraries is dwindling. Every year assessments and the cost to produce them is rising. What’s wrong with this picture? Libraries are free? Hardly. Libraries are expendible? Seems to be heading in that direction. Hmm, I think I’ll go hug a book.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 3, 2007 at 11:58 am

    Aw, how cute. It’s hard to believe that I was once one of those little darlings, carrying my first library book out of the library. Of course, within a year, I was carrying, like, ten or more, but that’s how it goes. Books…you can’t read just one!

    Also, I should note that your site (Mom…the person who surely checked out that first book to my sweet, little innocent self) is a great resource for those looking for great books for kids (also, adults).

    Whenever anyone talks about the decline of reading in the United States, they rarely follow up with “we need to do more to fund our school libraries” or “we really need to fund our local libraries”. It really is time we started a movement!

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 3, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Chris (how is the book doing?) — I was absolutely thinking about the Oregon libraries as I wrote this. Cause and effect.

    Ann — you’re so right about giving to local libraries. I’m seeing two “Most Wonderful Posts of the Year” this holiday season!

  • jagwinder // Apr 8, 2008 at 12:52 am

    i want to read free books and i may like your library.

  • dave // Nov 25, 2009 at 12:10 am

    People dont be shy to donate books and movies the library can use them. They appreciate it.