or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Free As in Libraries, But Libraries Are Not Free

   July 7th, 2011

Free as in Library signI have less and less time to keep up with reading RSS feeds these days, but a fantastic post by Carrie Straka, a contributor at Tame the Web, reminded me why it's worth it to keep current on blogs.

She attacks the myth that everything in the library is free, and explains why "a library card isn’t a 100% off coupon." Library materials aren't free - we make them freely accessible, because they have already been paid for. It's like the food in your refrigerator - it was purchased at one point, to be consumed at your leisure (or not used and wasted).

Many users believe that the services and materials we provide are free. As all library staff knows, this is a misconception. The services and materials we provide are not free. In fact, they are far from it. Librarians work within a budget and use all money provided to us through taxes, tuition, or other means.

The comments are also interesting.

And something else I'd like to add, in terms of patrons having misconceptions about ownership of library resources: I've heard some patrons say that they're not returning some item, because their tax dollars have paid for it and they want to keep it - and besides, their tax dollars pay my salary so they can tell me what to do.

This too is a misconception. In libraries, there is no translation between one person's tax share and possessive ownership over a portion of the collection. The entire community's taxes are pooled to build a shared community resource, and library staff are paid to maintain a useful collection and ensure all the materials remain available for the entire community.

It seems a little contrary to the library spirit, but I do tend to err on the side of serving the community rather than the individual. It's a fine line to walk, and my library's yes-based policy means we are accommodating in individual situations - but when push comes to shove (which is thankfully rare), I do consider the library a community resource, not a private one.

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7 Responses to “Free As in Libraries, But Libraries Are Not Free”

  1. lesbrarian Says:

    Anytime I hear the “I pay your salary routine!” from a taxpayer, I ask for a raise.

  2. Julie Says:

    I love the refrigerator analogy. That’s a perfect way to describe it.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @lesbrarian: I like that – if you don’t mind, I’m going to start using it too.

    @Julie: thank you – I was actually pretty happy when I came up with it, but it does seem to fit well, and it’s something I think most people can relate to.

  4. Carrie Says:

    Thanks for the comments about my Tame the Web blog post. I like the “community resource” argument. It’s true that we are building and maintaining a resource for everyone in the community with money from all taxpayers. I’ll have to point that out to patrons next time I get the “but my tax dollars pay for this” argument. I’ll also be using the refrigerator analogy.

  5. Swiss Army Librarian » Reference Question of the Week – 7/17/11 :: Brian Herzog Says:

    […] Free is questionable, but quite timely on people thinking of the library as genius bar – all the more reason reference staff need to also provide some degree of technical support. […]

  6. Jen H from NH Says:

    The “free” issue has been on my mind since I read that same blog post: of course libraries aren’t free really but I can understand why patrons describe it that way. And I don’t believe that harms us. The issue of ownership and entitlement is much more damaging, but I think people have the same attitude about any public service they are taking advantage of. Some days I want to ask if the person in front of me has even heard or read the word “share”! And I wonder when people’s scope of vision became so narrow that all they can perceive is “what’s in it for ME” instead of “how does this make my community better or stronger?”
    And then I remember: that’s why I became a public librarian, because I can see that broader picture and I think it’s worth every minute of promoting that ideal no matter the resistance I get from some citizens.

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Carrie: thank you – and thanks for getting this thread started.

    @Jen H: Interesting. Maybe libraries are viewed slightly differently than other public services, because our books and DVDs and other items are taken into patrons’ homes and essentially become “private” for the duration of the loan period. This is different than the Police investigating a burglary or the Fire Department putting out a house fire, or even than the Highway Department repairing or plowing the streets. Those are services people can’t really feel they “own” or take home with them, so they’re easier to understand as shared community resources. I’m sure other public employees get the same “my tax dollars pay your salary” line, but maybe not the same entitlement to their bullets/fire hoses/blacktop. This might actually put libraries in closer connection with our patrons than they are with other public services – I’d be curious to do more research in this area, comparing the perception differences among public services. Hmm.