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No More Library Cards, Free Riders

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.



  1. Thanks for this. Susan Wise Bauer is a professor at W&M only in a sense as loose as the Gazette’s definition of censorship.

  2. We live in what is technically a rural county, right next to a metro county. The nearest in-county library to us is quite far away, and has a less than stellar collection. The other county’s library is about 4 miles from us. Since we don’t live in that county, we have to pay $50/year for library privileges. It’s really quite simple. Once a year, I hand them my credit card. It helps their bottom line, and I get a tangible benefit.
    On the one hand, I think the amount is rather high, since I know the library’s share of my property taxes wouldn’t be nearly so high if I lived in that county. On the other hand, the money I save by not having to drive to the library I am paying taxes for more than makes up for the cost (not to mention the cost of not buying so many books).

  3. Librarian in "the sticks" says:

    Our library charges $25 per year to people who want library cards but are not residents of our county or the neighboring counties with which we have reciprocal agreements. The figure is equivalent to the per-capita amount we receive in property taxes for county residents — that way, out-of-county folks pay the same amount as residents to use our library. Seems fair to me, and a better solution than the one Williamsburg chose. You got this one right, AL.

  4. G. Meredith says:

    Rather snippy post, and misses the point. In both the original story and a second one last weekend, the library director claims the reason is political and to protect a funding source. Charging a fee to the outliers IS a funding source. Your opinion appears formed before you ever read about the issue.

  5. Goddessothestax says:

    One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned: the “home” libraries for these out of area patrons “aren’t very good”. Is that because they’ve had this other free library and voted down mileages for their own libraries?

  6. You did miss one rather large point. At the Williamsburg library, you must have a library card to use their computers. This means that those people in a more rural area that do not have their own library, cannot use the library computers to access the internet. The types of people who don’t have money to have internet access at home? The same people who can’t afford to pay a $100 a year fee per card. And with so many places requiring an online application for work, internet access is incredibly important, and you are taking it away from those who need it the most.

    Also, Williamsburg gets a significant amount of funding from the state, which gets this money from the tax dollars of every VA resident. If they are willing to turn down this money and only run off the contributions of Williamsburg residents, then this policy makes sense. Until then, they are using some of our money and denying us privileges.

  7. “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.”

    It doesn’t work quite that easily. Selling library cards makes the case that contracting for library services (or funding it with tax dollars) is unnecessary. Why sign a contract for several hundred thousand dollars when individual citizens can simply buy a card? Same with property taxes – why should people who never use a library have their tax dollars support one?

    And how much money do you think a public library would take in if it funded itself through people buying library cards as opposed to taxes and contracts? I will tell you: not enough to fund a decent library.

    Selling library cards is even worse for public libraries than the “media rental center” future you foresee and decry.

  8. The catch it, it is probably hard to quantify how much a Williamsburg-JCC taxpayer pays to the library in order to come up with a fee. Most municipalities break it down, but they do not there. And they have really low property taxes, with most revenue coming from hotel, restaurant, and other taxes paid by tourists. So Williamsburg residents deal with obnoxious tourists in order to have really nice public facilities. I’ll also say that the neighboring counties that most users come from are very rural and have really small public libraries.

  9. Dear Annoyed Librarian,

    You have now annoyed me, since you’ve missed the entire point of my complaint.

    1. Charles City residents have BEGGED for the opportunity to pay fees in exchanged for cards. We are willing to pay $100 per card if that’s what it takes. The library board of trustees has refused to tell us why this is not an option, instead giving us a lot of vague language abou

    2. We aren’t free riders. Charles City has no industry. We pay massive amounts of sales and use tax in Williamsburg, since we work, eat, shop, and entertain ourselves there. We also pay Virginia state tax, which is then funneled into the Virginia library system.

    There is no way for us to improve our local library, as Charles City is primarily below the poverty level. We can’t fix our roads, let alone buy books. In addition, the William & Mary Library, which I do have full access to, has no children’s collection or popular collection. I use it often for research. It’s not much use for other reading.

    I would think that a librarian, annoyed or contented, would be pleased by my desire to read more books than are contained in our “local library,” which is one room in the Charles City courthouse, open only on weekends. Actually I’ve read everything in it. No exaggeration.

    Incidentally, I have been teaching at William & Mary for fifteen years and remain a Visiting Adjunct Professor. Not sure why any of that is relevant to my not getting a non-resident card in exchange for a fair fee–except that every other locality in Virginia offers library cards to people who WORK locally, even if they don’t live there. I work there. Still can’t get my card back.


  10. Sorry, the above post seems to have dropped some text. The end of Point #1 should read, “giving us a lot of vague language about how this is politically impossible but giving no explanation as to why.”

  11. I should also add that one county (York) next to Williamsburg that is geographically spread out and only has one library pays the Williamsburg library a per capita fee each year in order for those residents to use the library because WRL is closer than their county library. York county has talked about opening a new library closer to users in Williamsburg so they don’t have to shell out a fee, but this proposal was met with a lot of criticism to York users that thought building a new library would be more expensive and not as nice as the Williamsburg libraries.

    So my guess is that York County is throwing a fit that users in other neighboring counties can use the Williamsburg libraries without any contribution. York would probably prefer to have it’s Williamsburg library users pay individually than they pay for everyone at that end of the county, because surely they are paying more money than there are users. So if Williamsburg would start charging some counties on a single user basis, York would probably pull county level funding and require its residents to individually pay as well.

  12. Prof SLB
    Swem Library has both a children/juvi collection and a popular reading collection and a popular DVD collection. All are small and not to be compared with the public library but they are there. Also, the Law Library has a popular reading collection.

    Jen, York also reduced the per capita fee to the Williamsburg Public Library and the public library consequently reduced the number of items that can be placed on hold and reduced the number of books that can be charged by user.

  13. To Susan Wise Bauer:

    While I agree with most of your comments, you’re obviously under-utilizing the W&M library. Swem does indeed have both a popular collection and a children’s collection, as well as a kick-ass interlibrary loan department and an acquisitions department that would more than likely obtain any popular book that you’d like to get your hands on.

  14. There’s an easy way around the issue of people who want library cards but couldn’t afford the out-of-area fee…call it a hardship waiver or exemption. For example, if you can show that you have an active EBT, Medicare, or Medicaid card, then you get a library card with no fee.

    Do folks with those kind of cards like advertising it? No, but if you can’t trust a librarian to keep that information to themselves, who can you trust?

  15. Randal Powell says:


    I have to wonder about a university employee who would rather use a public library than a good academic one. For one thing, academic libraries tend to be much larger and better funded. For another, academic libraries have interlibrary loan whereas public libraries almost always do not. Having access to a good academic library is similar to having an unlimited gift certificate to Amazon. I really don’t understand why this is a personal issue at all for you.

    As for poor people who live in rural areas in Virginia not having access to a good library, I feel for them. Unfortunately, the majority of the people in Virginia would rather pay lower taxes than have access to stellar public libraries accessible to everyone. As AL suggests, one can always move to somewhere better.

  16. Excuse my misstatement: W&M’s library does have a collection of “juvenile books” intended for education majors. It is neither designed for nor welcoming to actual juvenile readers. I know this because I have used it extensively for constructing curricula; most titles in it were published before 1980 (or 1960). Check the card catalog for details. SWB.

  17. Granby at Vellinghausen says:

    Few of the commentors and AL apparently know much about Hampton Roads. If you can make it to Williamsburg Library, why not go a further 20 minutes down the interstate to the Grissom library in Newport News. The Newport News Public Library system will give a card to any Virginia resident (among others). OK, sure, obviously anyone who *does* know Hampton Roads doesn’t want to deal with 64 around rush hour, but the NNPL has (or used to have) a better collection anyway. And if you’re driving to Williamsburg from wherever, often you can get to Newport News almost just as easily. Again, there are some traffic issues during certain days and times, but given the fact that 1.) NNPL will give a free card to any state resident and 2.) NNPL has a pretty decent collection why not just go there? It’s at least an option, especially if you just take Jefferson all the way in from Williamsburg. It’s almost just as quick.

  18. I’m not sure why the library won’t consider charging non-residents for a card either. However, a flat $25 or $50 or $100 won’t cut it. In Illinois, non-resident cards can be purchased but the cost is based on one of two methods – as decided by set Library policy (i.e. they can’t switch depending a case by case basis).

    The ‘simple’ method takes divides the library’s income from property taxes into the local population. This produces a rough average that can be applied to non-residents.

    A more involved process requires the non-resident to bring in their tax bill and the library staff determining what their share of library costs would actually be.

  19. Granby at Vellinghausen says:

    Randal Powell you don’t know what you’re talking about when you say “Unfortunately, the majority of the people in Virginia would rather pay lower taxes than have access to stellar public libraries accessible to everyone.”

    It amazes me how many people get on here and spout platitudes with no idea of even the basic reality of the specific case to which they think they can apply their platitude.

    “Most of the people in Virginia” live in major metropolitan areas; as of 2007 over 5 million of the approximate population of 7.7 million lived in the three major metropolitan areas in Virginia (the Richmond area, Northern Virginia, and the Hampton Roads metro). This is according to a study done in 2007 by UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center; and it showed the demographic trend was for more people to be moving from rural areas to the metros. So most Virginians still do live in the metropolitan areas (i.e. major cities and surrounding counties.) And it should be no surprise that according to the Virginia Department of Taxation’s Local Tax Rate Survey for the last few years that, guess what, the localities with the highest tax rates are the major cities and surrounding metro counties. The library card policies for these library systems are fairly liberal; Arlington and Fairfax give cards not just to residents but anyone who works or goes to school in the jurisdiction, and have reciprocal agreements with surrounding counties and cities. Both Richmond and Henrico county (metro Richmond) has reciprocal agreements with surrounding rural counties. Even if you’re outside these surrounding rural counties or the non-resident price for a card is pretty moderate; around $15-$30 per year. Moreover, in some libraries in the third major metro area, Hampton Roads, cards are available to all Virginians whether they live there or not. (That’s the case for Newport News and Norfolk; admittedly Virginia Beach charges $35 per year, but with two other cities in the metropolitan area free, one on the Peninsula and one on Southside that’s not too bad.)

    All of the major metropolitan area library systems have pretty decent libraries by the way, and with the vast majority of Virginians having access to them,
    Powell is just plain wrong. So “most people in Virginia” already DO pay higher taxes and do have “stellar libraries accessible to anyone”. (Well, not literally “anyone” but to almost any Virginia who can get to them; also you can debate what’s “stellar” too, but major city VA libraries are pretty good.)

    None of this is to minimize the difficulty that the several million rural Virginias with less-than-ideal libraries face. If you want to make a point about that plight, however, how about doing with a statement based on fact? Powell, your attempt to rely on some platitude that is COMPLETELY FACTUALLY WRONG could make one wonder whether it originated not from facts you actually know but maybe assumptions you might hold that all Southerners are ignorant, don’t value intellectually-oriented institutions like libraries, etc? I don’t suppose you might be a New Englander? AL and her ilk have been known for their (usually unsubstantiated) snide remarks about the American south before. Perhaps that’s not what you’re doing, Powell, but one has to wonder why you would make some vague general statement that has NO BASIS IN DEMOGRAPHIC FACT as an explanation for what’s going on here.

    Incidentally, Richmond has reciprocal agreements with New Kent, Charles City, and Prince George Counties. Given that Newport News libraries are free to all with a major branch 20-25 minutes down the interstate from Williamsburg (except in traffic, I know, I know), is this really about mainly James City County residents, and not “rural Virginians” in general?

  20. Granby at Vellinghausen says:

    “Virginias” above should read “Virginians”. Sorry for the typos.

  21. Randal Powell says:


    Actually, I’m a southerner, but I don’t think that matters one way or another.

    I’m sure there are good public libraries in Virginia and every other state, but objectively speaking, if there are people in Virginia who need library services and do not have them available, as seems to be the case here, then it reflects the community.

  22. Granby at Vellinghausen says:

    Then that’s what you should have said Powell. Instead, you said it reflected on the whole state. It doesn’t. If you want to say that the majority of the population of some particular rural county evidently doesn’t want to pay for libraries and that decision reflects on that particular community, then say that. Don’t generalize about “Virginians” when you not only have no evidence to do so, but when the most basic facts of the state’s demography contradict you. You were so ready to “wonder” about Susan Wise Bauer and her supposed preference for a public library over an academic library. Shouldn’t we be ready to “wonder” about someone who evidently does not care to differentiate between careful judgments and nonsensiscal generalizations? AL and the Library Journal people are pretty free about letting commentors say what they want here, so have at it – but if you’re going to call people out then be ready for others to do so.

  23. Randal Powell says:


    I was referring to the larger community, not just the community of a given town or county. There are vast discrepancies of wealth among towns and counties. That’s why I feel that it is a state issue. If a poor area cannot afford good libraries, schools, and fire departments then the state as a whole should provide them. There are states that do that and states that don’t. And yes, that does reflect the community of the state. At some point people have to stop passing the buck.

  24. Granby at Vellinghausen says:


    Once again you apparently have little to no idea what you’re talking about but insist still on levying your unsubstantiated criticism. You say “If a poor area cannot afford good libraries … then the state as a whole should provide them. There are states that do that and states that don’t.”

    Well, Virginia is one that does, or at least helps provide them, so again your criticism has little basis. You can find extensive documentation with figures county-by-county/city-by-city on the “State Aid to Virginia Public Libraries” page on the Library of Virginia website.

    So, at some point people have to stop passing the buck do they? Well, at some point people also have to stop spouting off criticism centered on vague generalizations completely at odds with easily verifiable basic fact. You’ve done this twice now and twice I have refuted you. Why are you so focused on levying criticism at a whole state’s attitude towards libraries to the point that you’ll do it even in such contravention to fact? One might wonder if your motive is not something other than discussing the issue at hand. Perhaps not, but one wonders.

    Say what you want and express any opinion you want, but if you’re going to criticize others then get your stuff straight.

  25. Granby, normally I’d be inclined to agree with you. I’m the sort of person who would love to see citations on everything – blog postings, news articles, etc. And I understand that generalizations are dangerous territory. But I have to take Mr. Powell’s side here.

    Even one lousy library reflects poorly on the state. And that isn’t just a swipe at Virginia – Pennsylvania has some poor libraries, too. And the budget problems with the big library systems – the Carnegie Library in the Pittsburgh area and the Free Library in the Philadelphia area – also reflect badly on those cities and the state as a whole.

    For an example, check out the web page for the Saltsburg Free Library:

    Their page was last updated in 2005. There’s no dedicated library building. Their e-mail address goes through a local internet service provider. There’s no OPAC and they have shockingly short hours of operation.

  26. Granby at Vellinghausen says:

    I had my say and stand by it. So if you, Powell and whoever want to slam Virginians’ committment to intellectual pursuits on the basis of unsubstantiated generalizations, you’re free to do that I suppose. And Spekkio if you want to say “even one lousy library reflects poorly on the state” then Virginia is no differen than any other state in the U.S. I mean is there any state in the country that doesn’t have at least one “lousy” (however defined) library? So when AL writes some blurb on some problem elsewhere I can count on you to apply the same standard to that state, right? I wouldn’t make a big deal of all this if this blog and many of its commentors didn’t make a habit of South-bashing. Oh, and I realize Powell said he was from the South too. (By the way, I like Virginia and the U.S. South, but, in case you’re wondering, I’m not some neo-Confederate type and hate all that damn rebel flag they go on and on about.) So, think what you want, enjoy making your comments if it makes you happy, but I backed up my responses.

  27. cheapirish says:

    Laura said: “At the Williamsburg library, you must have a library card to use their computers.” Not true, Laura.

    Laura also says: “Williamsburg gets a significant amount of funding from the state” About 4% is state aid – a number that has been decreasing across the state for years.

    The point is, if people from these other counties are able to check out items, then one of the existing partners in this regional library system could pull out – and some of their politicians have made exactly that threat repeatedly over the years. And the loss of their contribution couldn’t be made up through paid cards – the cost would be way north of $100.

  28. Randal Powell says:

    One can feel free to replace “Virginia” in my comments with any state they feel applies. And I wish everyone in all 50 states a Happy Holidays.

  29. librarEwoman says:

    Randall Powell: Most public libraries actually do have interlibrary loan, at least to some extent. The public library at which I work requests and fulfills many interlibrary loans every day. I’m not sure how you are under the impression that while academic libraries have interlibrary loan, most public libraries do not. That’s totally opposite of my experiences.

  30. cheapirish says:

    Jen has it exactly right: “So if Williamsburg would start charging some counties on a single user basis, York would probably pull county level funding and require its residents to individually pay as well.”

    This has been pointed out to SWB and others on her blog and other sites. They want to hear it directly from the mouth of the library board members or director, but they won’t – it’s just not politically possible for them to be that public with it. Don’t believe me – read about it here directly from the York Board of Supervisors –

  31. williamsburg business owner says:

    When my son was 6 my husband and I opened a store in Williamsburg. At the time we lived in WV and would drive 2 hours to Williamsburg every week or 2.

    We soon discovered the Williamsburg Regional Library and it wonderful collection of children’s books, which far surpassed our home library
    Each visit we would go to the Williamsburg library and my son would borrow books to read on the trips between WV and Williamsburg. We did this for 3 years till we finally decided to move to Williamsburg.

    It is wrong to deny a library to people who do not pay taxes in a particular municipality.

    The right thing to do it come up with a plan that makes books accessible to everyone and figure out what are reasonable fees for non-residents. To deny this service goes against the core of the library’s mission.

  32. Corrctions:
    York County Public Library has two libraries and the County of York did not reduce its per capita contribution to the Williamsburg Regional Library.

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