There Are No Free Libraries

The best messaging promotes our real-world value

March 13, 2013

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Over the past few months, an image has been making its way around social media to underscore the value of libraries. It’s a checkout receipt from “your local library” that lists various borrowed items—three DVDs, five books, one ebook, six CDs—and the cost to the borrower for each, all of which are $0. Below the grand total of zero at the bottom of the receipt is the image’s take-home message: “Having a library card? Priceless.”

It’s one of several recent examples I’ve noticed in which libraries are characterized as being available at no cost to their users. Library marketing campaigns promote materials and services as “Free @ your library.” Freegal, a popular subscription download service available through some libraries, presents itself through its very name (free + legal) as a lawful no-cost source for digital music files. The American Library Association’s State of America’s Libraries Report 2012 repeatedly extols the importance of free library services, particularly during this time of economic downturn. As it states, “Americans are becoming ever more keenly aware that libraries are prime sources for free access to books, magazines, ebooks, DVDs, the internet, and professional assistance.”

Of course, the concept is not new. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the term “free libraries” differentiated libraries that were fully open to the public from the subscription libraries of the day, which were available exclusively to paying members. The “free library” model is the cornerstone of modern libraries, no matter how they are funded, so long as they are committed to assisting anyone who wishes to use materials or seeks an answer to a question. (Unrestricted access was so central to the founding mission of Philadelphia’s public library system that it remains prominently reflected in its name: Free Library of Philadelphia.)

But libraries, as we know, do not exist for free. They cost their communities—whether composed of taxpayers, tuition-payers, donors, or a combination—a substantial amount of money. It’s well-intentioned to emphasize that libraries provide materials and services without exacting immediate payment from users for each transaction. But today it is at best a mistake and at worst self-destructive to underrepresent the considerable ongoing investment that the members of a community make to have library collections, technology, personnel, and facilities available to them.

At the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, media personality Glenn Beck made this same error in his closing keynote speech, in which he passionately condemned the social and economic changes brought by the Progressive Era—the period in US history that saw, among other developments, the widespread establishment of educational institutions and libraries (including the Free Library of Philadelphia) that were freely open to the public. In the midst of decrying those outcomes, Beck mentioned how he attained his knowledge of history. “I educated myself. I went to the library, where books are free.” Comedian Jon Stewart called out the irony during the February 22, 2010, episode of The Daily Show: “Glenn, Glenn, Glenn: The library isn’t free. It’s paid for with tax money. Free public libraries are the result of the Progressive movement to communally share books!”

Just as Beck exaggerated to make a point, librarians themselves have been glossing over the fact that library users pay, albeit indirectly, for everything their library offers. Rather than promote the “free library,” let’s remind our communities of their great investment and of the tremendous wealth of returns they derive from that investment: materials, specialized assistance, and programming.

That doesn’t mean libraries are free. It means that the cost of libraries is worth every cent.

D. J. HOEK is head of the Music Library at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.