Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Library

Despite most people’s awareness of the general price attached to lunch, it frequently seems that such insight has limitations. Precisely at a time when people are accustomed to getting much of their cultural content “free” of charge (and perhaps free of legality) from the Internet it is easy for people to think that even if lunch may not be free, that breakfast and dinner might be sans cost.

Yet, the intention is not here to dwell on the real price tag of food or technology, but instead to look at another area where the “free” terminology is frequent: libraries.

It is easy to think of libraries with the “zero” price tag approach, and indeed it is a way which many libraries encourage users to think. After all, at a library you can borrow books for without charge (this does not include late fees), you can use a computer to access the Internet (assuming a computer is available) without submitting your credit card, you can sit inside on a rainy day and read the newspaper without having to buy a cup of coffee, you can bring your children to story time without having to buy tickets, and so forth…

This focus on free is highly visible in the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s recent study “Library Services in the Digital Age” (about which I previously wrote). In the Pew study the word “free” can be found with such frequency as to force the report’s reader to recognize that when thinking about libraries this matter of “free” is not accidental, it is part of the way that the public thinks about libraries.

The public (according to the Pew report) values libraries (italics are mine) “offering free literacy programs to help young children” (4), when it comes to technology access many patrons “say they have used those free access points” (33), likewise many patrons think it is of high importance for “public libraries to provide free access to computers and the internet” (43), many patrons think it is important that libraries “provide free events and activities, such as classes and cultural events” (46), and it would not be difficult to continue pulling examples from the report.

Furthermore the above listed emphasis on “free” resources and events does not even include all of the mentions study participant’s made of using the library to “borrow” books, movies, music, and so forth. While such instances of “borrowing” do not always match up in the report with the word “free” a person knowledgeable about libraries can recognize that such borrowing would also likely be described as “free.”

The study thusly illustrates that for many library users the library appears as a site of numerous – useful and wonderful – “free” resources. There is, of course, excellent merit in viewers having this relationship to their libraries insofar as it likely encourages library usage. In a world where people are used to being told “buy something” wherever they go a library is a much needed respite. Indeed, the library becomes a sort of place where patrons have the freedom not to buy anything, or as philosopher Max Horkheimer once put it:

“Freedom is not the freedom to accumulate, but the fact that I have no need to accumulate.”

When books, music, computers are offered free of charge to the community the patron can browse the resources comfortably, without a sales associate hounding them to purchase something (and without the patron having to choose just one book [if one book!]) that they can afford.

Yet amidst all of the report’s mentioning of “free” was another interesting point, as several participants in the study:

“said that budget cutbacks had led their local libraries to scale back their hours, to the point that it was difficult to find time to stop by—especially when libraries didn’t have hours in the evenings or on weekends,” (31)

The relevance of the above quote is linked to two words: “budget cutbacks.” Alas, libraries may present users with a myriad of “free” resources to use, but despite the patron being able to borrow that book for free, the library at some point had to pay for it. This distinction is particularly important as the Pew study also featured a section in which participants listed the many resources that they hoped to see available from their libraries in the future, resources which would predictably be offered to the public free…but which would still command a hefty price.

This question of “free” is one that libraries have (let us be frank) mismanaged, and thus things being offered for use “free of charge” have been conflated as simply being “free” and as a result the cost is hidden from the very ones being asked to pay. And cost is a matter of great concern for libraries at the moment.

In fairness, the confusion does extend beyond the terminology used by librarians. In their recent joint testimony about pending budget cuts  (made on March 8, 2013) Tom Galante, President and CEO of Queens Library, Linda Johnson of the Brooklyn Public Library and Anthony Marx of the New York Public Library  (I previously wrote about this) noted:

“With additional funding, we can increase after-school programming and offer more early childhood programs to help young New Yorkers realize the promise of higher education. We can help more people prepare for the GED and other continuing education programs that will elevate them toward the degrees and careers they dream of. By building up our job-skills training programs, we can keep the unemployment ranks from swelling. And by increasing our hours of operation, we can reach more of those underserved New Yorkers who are just scraping by, but could do so much more with a little help.”

The humor being that after this plea for more funds the triumvirate of library leaders noted:

“As the City’s only free provider of education for all, NYC’s libraries are essentially and uniquely positioned to offer people the solutions they need in the information age.”

It’s a minor switch in tone but a very important one: the move from noting that money is needed to explaining that libraries offer things for free. However this request is being made (in the above quotes) of the city government, meaning the group that is really being asked for money is the city’s taxpayers – those who will use those resources – so can they really be described as free?

Books cost money (e-books may cost a library more), computers cost money, Internet access costs money, maintaining a knowledgeable and professional staff costs money, offering classes costs money, keeping the heat running in the winter and the a/c running in the summer costs money, and despite the smiling propaganda of “free” that surrounds libraries they have costs attached.

City governments (and governments in general) understand this financial cost, and thus libraries have been a popular target for the budget cutting hedge trimmers of austerity who know that despite the talk of “free” there is actually money there. From New York City to Chicago to your town to the next town over, the public investment that allows a library to offer its resources free of charge has been under a steady assault. Libraries, and librarians, have adjusted creatively and competently to operating on ever-smaller budgets with ever-smaller staffs, but the fact is that in order for libraries to offer all of the things that the public wants, well, libraries require investment.

Granted libraries (despite the talk) have never really been free. They are supported through national/state/city/local budgets and thus the patrons who think that they are using the library for free are actually paying for the library. It may not be a noticeable part of their local taxes, but some of their money goes on to the library (most people’s taxes don’t show a “public library” line item). Thus it is not so much that they are using a “free” computer at the library as it is that they are using a computer that they helped pay for along with their neighbors. Indeed libraries are ways for a broad public to leverage their shared purchasing power to provide far more shared resources than any (well, most) could individually purchase. And yet public recognition of this seems weak.

According to the Pew study:

“91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities; and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families,” (4).

It thus seems that 91% are getting an excellent value for their investment, but how much of a satisfactory return are they truly getting amidst budget cutbacks? The challenge for libraries and librarians is in making it clearer to library patrons that the appearance of “free” is actually paid for by those very same patrons.

In my previous piece about the Pew Study I wrote that it was incumbent upon the 91% who say that they care about libraries to stand up to do something to preserve their libraries, but in order for them to do this it is important for libraries and librarians to help challenge the “free” mindset that surrounds libraries. The cost of the books and resources needs to be made visible, for it is only once the financial cost is demystified that people are better able to lay out the financial cost to the community versus the societal cost should the library be eliminated.

It is extremely important for people and communities to have the types of resources offered at libraries available free of charge, but before a patron can borrow that book for free, it needs to be made clearer that the library did not receive those books for free.

A library is a community investment, and to make people recognize how further investment is necessary it is worthwhile to help them truly see how much they have already invested. Viewed in such a way budget cuts are not just an attack on something the community values, they are also examples of governments woefully mismanaging long-term community investments.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as a free library either.

Books Quoted:

The Max Horkheimer quote can be found on page 23 of:
Towards a New Manifesto – Adorno and Horkheimer – Verso 2011


About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

6 comments on “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Library

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