February 17, 2018

Worth the Price: Reflecting on the Problem of “Free” | Editorial

Rebecca T. Miller“When a library goes out for a vote, the librarians shift from being partners in education, skills building, personal enrichment, and community identity. We turn into the Tax Man,” write political action committee EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka and Rachel Korman in their take on 2014 referenda (see “Winning All Over the Map”). This predicament is true for all libraries, but it is especially pointed for libraries that struggle at the polls.

Why are libraries worth the price we pay for them and more? The answers should be on voters’ minds as they hit the ballot box for referenda large and small. Most of the time voters realize the value. Time and again we have seen the bulk of library levies pass, with communities saying an overwhelming Yes to the call to pay up in support of library service when it becomes apparent that their libraries are at risk.

That majority spoke again in 2014. Overall, a full 190 libraries reported on referenda this year. Of those 148, or 78 percent, passed. There’s good news in the budget survey, too, with an overall boost of 4.3 percent. LJ’s Lisa Peet mines the results (see “Paying for People.” p. 30), noting a resurgence of upping the spend on staff. These strong numbers are great to see after years of downward pressure, and the emphasis on staff indicates reinvestment after years of trimming or holding the line.

All the same, as Chrastka (a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker) and Korman report, there is a worrying “softness in voter support” to address. They point to less than ten-point margins in 32 of the results reported, and less than five-point margins in 17 of them. Close calls are great when they go the right way but brutal when they don’t.

The EveryLibrary folks examine the “forces of ‘No’ ” that gain traction in some settings and identify the uncomfortable transition some communities experience around tax votes—when the library morphs into the Tax Man.

Yes, libraries’ “free” pitch suddenly becomes a problem. How many times a week do you tout a program or offering as free? We might think that our communities know that they actually pay for libraries, but if the bulk of our communication with them over time is about the “free” resources at their disposal, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a disconnect.

The iconic ethos of “Free for All” broadcasts a beacon in cities and towns across the United States. It offers the all-important promise of access, an unprecedented gift from the community to itself. But could it backfire when too many voters experience a dissonance when they get asked from time to time to pay additionally for something they are often told is without cost? That friction in messaging could be enough to turn them off from supporting the library.

Why would we expect these key stakeholders to switch their thinking from free to fee so swiftly? Michigan’s Kent District Library leadership didn’t, and it made the difference. Director Lance Werner anticipated blowback from antitax groups and pulled them into the conversation on the library’s use of taxes. “This type of engagement is our responsibility” and “our opportunity to redefine the library tax as different from ‘any tax,’ ” Chrastka and Korman write.

I agree, we should make sure our communities are fluent in why the library is worth paying for. And, further, we shouldn’t restrict the conversation about money to elections. Instead, we should stop talking about “free” and instead work to sow a deeper understanding of the library as a shared resource—one that enables a community to address gaps together and build a more vibrant culture. In short, replace something that’s free to take advantage of with something we own collectively that has something to offer everyone. Such a stance could cultivate trust and a deeper sense of ownership and perhaps engage a new level of use that itself, over time, transforms the library and the community—and leaves no doubt that the library is worth the price.


This article was published in Library Journal's February 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.



  1. We don’t use “free” in our library. IF I hear a staff member- or member of the public- call us free I politely correct them. We are free at point of service. We are a prepaid membership club. Our job is to provide as much value as possible for our members, and potential members. This is paramount, especially because they so rarely feel as if they get a choice in paying dues.