As if it wasn’t bad enough living in the sticks, things just got worse for some Virginians, library-wise. You might have seen the tiny story about the Williamsburg Regional Library rescinding borrowing privileges for people who don’t live in areas directly funding the library. Until this coming February, people in neighboring areas could sign up for a library card, even though they contributed no funding to the library.
The letter from the library director was terse: “In an economic and political climate where the library has received budget reductions and looks at a future filled with uncertainty, it became evident… that to sustain financial support the library must restrict its circulation privileges to users who live in localities that directly fund the Williamsburg Regional Library.” It was so terse that it didn’t make clear what financial support needing sustaining.
The local newspaper came out against the decision, in an editorial bizarrely entitled “Library censors.” The editor of the Virginia Gazette has extended the definition of censorship to a point where it’s even more incoherent than the ALA definition, since it’s not clear who or what is being censored. “The cost for outliers is near zero, unless you count the money saved on library cards,” he opined.
A letter to said editor called him on the sloppy language, and much else. The problem, it seems, it all those rural free riders.
The cost of providing borrowing privileges to the 6,000 free riders…is real and substantial, going far beyond the cost of library cards. It also includes, among other things:
- Wages and benefits paid to staff who check in and shelve materials borrowed by free riders.
- Wages and benefits paid to staff who pull materials requested by free riders.
- Fuel and other vehicle expenses moving requested materials to the pickup location designated by free riders.
- Cost of repairing or replacing materials sooner due to additional usage by free riders.
- Cost of purchasing additional copies of popular materials to meet demand generated by 6,000 free riders.
There’s a case to be made there, I guess.
I first came across this story thanks to a kind reader, who forwarded me this blog post and commented on the sense of entitlement some intellectuals have. The blogger, a professor at William and Mary, is very upset that she will no longer be able to ride for free at the Williamsburg Regional Library. I guess she’ll have to use the library at William and Mary. I’m pretty sure they have one.
Though I have to say, her arguments to the library director aren’t very persuasive. She implies that since she used the library for her children (now mostly grown, it seems), she should still be able to use the library. And she’s used it a long time, so she has squatter’s rights or something. Oh, and she has written books that the library stocks, thus, etc. One could point out that if her children got the benefit of the library during their childhoods, then they’ve been well served. As for the other argument, if that had any weight, John Grisham would be eligible for a card from every library in America.
The blogger would be more persuasive if she emphasized the needs of others, since she does have access to a college library, and, according to the stock reply from the Williamsburg library director, to a public library as well, though presumably a bad one. But instead, it’s all me, me, me, me, me.
One problem seems to be that the county libraries available to the good country people of Virginia aren’t very good. One could turn the case around and argue that bad rural libraries are good reasons for people to move to civilization. Certain cultural benefits accrue with population density, as humans have known since ancient times. You want a big library, move out of the sticks. It’s hard enough to get electricity and plumbing out to you people. Instead of giving them library cards, we could send them some U-Haul trucks.
On the other hand, there is one option curiously unexplored by the Williamsburg library: charging the outside users for library cards. The director won’t do it. He doesn’t mind if the country people come in and use the library goods in-house, but he doesn’t want them to borrow books, even if they pay for the privilege.
This seems strange to me. 6,000 people outside the funding domain have library cards. The director worries about sustaining funding. The letter-writer lays out possible costs to lending to outside people. Why not just do a cost-benefit analysis and try to increase revenue?
There are many ways to charge outside users. You could charge by their zip-code, or by the equivalent of the average property tax on their street, or some other way. Or you could just implement a flat fee. If the library started charging a flat fee of, say, $100 a card, then many of the complaints would be rendered moot. You want a card, pay $100. Only the true free riders would still be angry. If even half of the current card-holders paid the fee, that would generate $300,000 for the library.
Some of you might be thinking, “but what about the poor country people who can’t afford $100 a year!” Hmm, I guess there might be people like this, though it’s probably a matter of priorities. The poor complaining they can’t afford $2/week for a library card probably pay three times that for lotto tickets and ten times that for cigarettes each week. The lotto is a tax on stupidity, but a library card could be a subsidy for success.
This is a minor story, but indicative of the sorts of things libraries are doing to save money these days. However, this probably won’t save much money, and none immediately. It’s a gesture to make it look like there’s big savings afoot. It seems like a bad decision that the Williamsburg library is choosing to anger people over losing access to the library, when it could just anger actual free riders and potentially bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for its budget. If I were a public library director, that’s what I’d do. But maybe that’s why I’m not a public library director.