Libraries Aren’t Free

Recently, ALA retweeted a tweet that originally came from @FSG_Books. It was a library haiku that read: A library card / is a 100% off / coupon for great books. This is a misconception throughout libraries everywhere. A library card isn’t a 100% off coupon. A library card is a tool that allows users to take advantage of the services and materials that have already been purchased for them. People who use the library and borrow those books have already paid for them. They’re not free books when the people borrowing them have already paid for them.

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.

Librarians should be challenging our users’ beliefs about the library every day. Let’s start by challenging the belief that library materials and services are free. When users ask, “Is it free?” or “Is there a charge?”, try responding by saying “No, your (tax dollars/tuition/company’s expenditures) have already paid for it.” I bet you’ll be greeted by confused looks. I think users forget that they’ve already contributed to the library with their taxes or tuition. We can encourage library usage by showing people that they can take advantage of something they’ve already paid for.

By Carrie Straka, TTW Contributor

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10 thoughts on “Libraries Aren’t Free”

  1. Julie-You’re absolutely right! How could I have forgotten all the times I’ve been mistaken for a volunteer?

    Carrie

  2. You are partially right. I do get mistaken for a volunteer, and the books are paid for using (mostly) tax dollars. But I can’t tell my patrons that. They will (and already do sometimes) tell me that “My tax dollars are paying for your salary!” (I won’t do her online college course homework), “I KNOW Copies don’t cost that much, you’re trying to rip me off!” (.15 each), “You got the book back, why do I have to pay for the collection agency?” (After 4 months of warnings).
    Yes, libraries aren’t free, but the individual tax payer doesn’t pay for all of the books/DVDs/databases/etc. themselves. Grants and other assistance helps.

  3. Christine,
    All good points. I didn’t consider grants and other assistance. Thank you for correcting me.

  4. I did not mean it as a correction, I was simply pointing out that in some larger libraries some patrons are very aware that their taxes pay for the library and therefor they obtain an extreme sense of entitlement forgetting that they are not the only supporters of the libraries. I wish that our patrons were more aware of how much it takes to run a library, both financially and as a commitment from the professional and para-professional staff. I just love the ‘how much did the library save you’ calculator: http://www.supporthclib.org/involved-calculator.html is one example. Thanks for your article, it really got me thinking.

  5. Every public library website should have a copy of the Library Value Calculator, tailored to that library’s services and including a statement of the average portion of the annual operating budget that comes from each resident. I’m in the middle of updating ours right now.

  6. Great post. Clearing up this misconception can also help in academic libraries where students don’t understand why they have to pay for an article they found on Google Scholar, etc. It’s helpful to explain that if they access the journal through the library resources, it’s “already paid for”.

  7. Of course what patrons mean when they say “free” in relation to a public library is that they can have an empty wallet and still get materials/assistance/access : so it is free right that minute, in that instance. At some point they paid for the library to exist and be staffed, but at the instant in which they are using the library we are “free”. Does that devalue libraries and staff? I don’t believe so, I think most people are quite aware that libraries are full of paid staff and purchased materials but are still consistently pleased with being able to use a library at no charge on any given day.

    I think the much bigger misconception that all public servants struggle with and that was clearly identified in the comments is the sense of entitlement patrons get because they do know their tax dollars support a library: free doesn’t bother me, but “MINE MINE MINE” really does. And I know my fellow public servants at city hall and the public schools share my experience in that regard.

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