A kind reader sent in this link wondering if there was really a controversy. It’s a reader poll in Rhode Island that asks the question: “Should Libraries Charge Fees for ‘Popular’ Books?”
The writer expressed surprise that the Newport Public Library has a rental collection of very popular books and charges $.25/day for them, though it also has the same books in their normal circulating collection that can be checked out for free, if you want to wait until the 34 people in front of you finish reading the book, and without the incentive to read and return that even nominal rental fees provide.
By the time that many readers get through with a book, you might wonder why you wanted to read it in the first place, which should be a reason not to bother reading the book at all.
I thought rental collections like this were quite common, but maybe I’m mistaken. It’s a way for libraries to fulfill their mission to get as many bad books into the hands of as many people who are willing to walk through the doors of the library and drive up visitor and circulation statistics. Everybody wins!
What objection could there possibly be to this common practice? After all, nobody is forced to pay the nominal rental fee for the fast track to a bestseller.
But there’s always some resistance to anything, I guess. One comment read, “That’s weird….I’m pretty sure it’s called Portsmouth Free Library for a reason.”
Yes, it is called the “Free Library” for a reason, but not the reason you think. If I remember correctly, “Free Library” is the name a lot of new public libraries gave themselves to distinguish them from subscription libraries, where you couldn’t use the library at all without paying for a subscription. If you can use all or even some of the collection for free, it’s a free library.
Another comment was less sarcastic though maybe not better informed. “They should be free, and politicians need to wake up and realize the importance of education and the various other services libraries have to offer.”
The book in question that prompted the poll was Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole. From what I can tell, King is a smart guy, a good storyteller, and a more than decent writer, but I doubt even he would argue that providing fast access to his books in libraries had anything to do with “the importance of education.”
Even if libraries had higher budgets, they’d be wasting their taxpayers’ money to flat out purchase 40 copies of some recent bestseller rather than purchasing a couple of copies and providing others through a rental collection.
So is there a reasonable objection to this practice?
If there is an objection, the best one is probably that it’s undemocratic, and that a public good like the library should be equally provided to all, and that charging a fee privileges those with money over those without.
That’s pretty much the American Way these days, so it might not be an objection at all. It’s now even the working policy of airport security, where those willing to pay more get to jump the queue.
The rental book fee is analogous to the airport security line fees. Those with the money don’t have to wait in long lines with the plebs, whether they’re waiting for a full cavity search at their local airport or waiting to read about full cavity searches in the latest thriller.
Since letting those with money jump queues is as American as mom, apple pie, and establishing military bases in foreign countries, that might not really be an objection. In America, you get what you can afford, whether it’s education, health care, or safe living conditions.
Thus, the response to this objection might be, so you can’t pay $.25/day to read the latest bestseller? Why don’t you go get a job instead of hanging around the library all day?
And it’s not as if $.25/day was a lot of money. It’s only a fraction of what a lot of Americans pay for their lattes every day.
On the other hand, any fee barrier is inherently undemocratic, especially for an institution that prides itself on serving everyone equally.
But on the third hand, there’s not much of a democratic rationale for making sure everyone who wants to can read Stephen King in a hurry.
Whether to charge fees to rent books from the library is more complicated than I thought.