Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Devolution of Public Libraries

Given the breakdown of belief in public goods we see erupting around the country, it seems possible the public libraries will face severe funding crises in the next decade or two, possibly so severe that they will become less public if they manage to survive. Would this necessarily be a bad thing?

In some places, they have already become slightly less public. Several systems are outsourcing their operations to LSSI, which now runs about 65 public libraries in the country. While there’s always an uproar from librarians about LSSI, community reaction seems to be mixed. Regardless, the libraries run by LSSI are still publicly funded, if not publicly operated.

Outsourcing is only a viable option if there’s still a belief that the service being outsourced is a public good. Cities outsource garbage collection, because garbage collection is a public good, or at least the lack of it is a VERY obvious public bad.

But what of public libraries? Their disappearance would immediately harm many people, indirectly harm others. Unfortunately, once a society gives up believing in public goods, rather than merely the avoidance of public bads, the harm isn’t immediate or universal.

What would happen if we had a future in which, say, the Tea Partiers were actually the small government movement dedicated to the Constitution they claim to be, and that the movement won so many elections at so many levels that they could just eliminate most government services that weren’t absolutely necessary for social survival?

Admittedly, this is a long shot, because there’s a big difference between holding up signs at rallies reading “Obama, Read the Consitution!” or “Say NO to Socilism” and actually governing, and the Tea Party movement itself seems little different from the incoherent amalgam of libertarians and conservative Christians that formed Reagan’s base, only without a charismatic leader to make it work.

But let’s say that or something like it happens. The vast majority of the country decides that only absolutely minimum government is acceptable. All but the total loonies will probably vote to fund police, fire, and sanitation services, but much else will go. Or maybe cities just run out of money and close their libraries. That might be the death of public libraries, but not necessarily the death of libraries available to the public.

Rather than disappear, it seems more likely that if they’re really needed public libraries will devolve into various pre-20th century forms, probably some variety of subscription library. Subscription libraries were 18th and 19th century predecessors to public libraries where citizens who wanted to read would pay a fee to a library or buy shares in order to access their books and magazines.

The difference between exclusive subscription libraries and public libraries is obvious. With public libraries, most people pay for the libraries somehow, but they don’t necessarily pay in proportion to their library use. Billionaire Bob pays property high taxes but probably doesn’t use the library, whereas Penurious Pete pays little, but might spend every afternoon there.

Eventually, public libraries replaced other library models because important and influential citizens decided the benefits of libraries outweighed the burdens of taxation, but that might not be the case now. A lot of influential citizens aren’t exactly what we’d consider public minded.

Subscription libraries couldn’t afford to be as open as public libraries are now, which doesn’t mean they would be closed to the public. The kind of people who would pay for a library would also realize it’s benefit to all. Maybe there would just be different levels of service.

For example, these libraries might still offer bestselling fiction, DVDs, and other frivolities. These could be restricted to subscribers only. Educational material, children’s books and programs, and such might be offered to everyone out of a sense of charity.

On the other hand, these libraries really would be privatized, and thus could do what they like, so they might offer their services for free, or free to children, or on a sliding fee scale depending on income or neighborhood, not on usage.

Without taxes supporting libraries, there’s no reason not to ask everyone to contribute something if they want to use the library. Whatever the fee, it would still be significantly less than individually purchasing all the books and computers and whatever else the library supplied.

This regression would be the end of the public library movement as we’ve known it for over a century, but there could be advantages. Libraries that managed to stay open would know that everyone who helped support the library actually wanted to support the library.

They would be immune from funding cuts by politicians. They would be protected from book challenges, since the response could be, if you don’t like the book, don’t subscribe to the library.

Eventually, they would come to serve exactly the needs of the community members that funded them, whatever those needs might be. The library users would have a greater sense of owning their library, because they would. Libraries wouldn’t have to advocate to an uncaring public, because such libraries would inarguably be necessary and useful.

Some new thing might emerge that would be less ambitious perhaps, but acutely focused on what the actual users wanted from their library, instead of trying to woo everyone with every service.

Would this be such a bad thing?



  1. AL…yes subscription libraries will definitely replace the traditional library. These subscription libraries will be created by on-line entrepreneurs. Think of these subscription libraries as the library equivalent of Netflix. This is already happening and its evolution will speed up with the increasing popularity of e-books. The library as a tax supported building is fading.

  2. Robin Henry says:

    I would tend to agree with AL. Subsscription libraries would offer many advantages to public libraries. They could actually serve a true educational mission rather than spending all their time (and money) on trying to advocate and woo people who really don’t care. People who supported the library would have a vested interest, due to the money they pay. If you look at the few remaining subscription libraries–the Charleston Library Society, the Boston Atheneum, and The New York Society Library among them, nonmemebrs can attend programs and use the facilities during certain times, or for a small fee, etc. It would cost less than most people currently pay in taxes to join the library, and the library would be free to pursue the common good it was intended for–not a substitute for Blockbuster or a place for free Internet. I have to say I am all for it.

  3. SpongeBob Librarypants says:

    Spread on the jam and slather on the butter, because we’re toast.

    At best the future of the public library will be to serve as the government provided information and entertainment center for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. The wealthy, who will be able to afford broadband internet connections, Netflix subscriptions, and downloads for Kindles, will go their own ways. Those who cannot afford such things will continue to use the public library.

    The alternative possibility is that a combination of reduced funding, increased technology, and public apathy cause public libraries to become even more irrelevant and to just fade away or become, for all intents and purposes, useless monuments to a long-gone past.

    To quote Metallica, Sad But True.

  4. Library Who? says:

    Will and SpongeBob, you are both right, the public library system as it is now requires considerable “rethinking” if it will survive at all into the next decade. I think online entrepreneurs will begin to offer subscription services as described in AL article, however I think they will also offer, a “sell” feature integrated with Amazon, etc., so that subscribers can acquire material and then re-sell when done. That way the user can re-cover a considerable portion of their money spent on subscriptions.

  5. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Academic libraries shouldn’t sit back and look smug at the fate of public libraries.

    Who do you think those politicians are going to go after next? Publicly funded community colleges and universities will be seeing funds dry up fast. Any endowments better be well protected because some of the new governors would love to lay their hands on them to balance their budgets and to give more tax cuts. Also, say goodbye to any government funded research grants.

    Who needs an ejukashun when you got that great job as a Wal-Mart greeter?

  6. Fat and Grumpy says:

    Yes, it would be a bad thing. Brick and mortar buildings may die off before I retire, but the loss of a public good, any public good, is a bad thing. (That should be obvious… ya know, good versus bad) AL makes an important point that with public libraries, Billionaire Bob pays for Penurious Pete’s use of the library. That’s because, left his own devices, as with a subscription library, Penurious Pete couldn’t pay his own way. The person who may be in greatest would get no access to information. The more ill-informed and ignorant our population the worse our society. Shall we all recite Madison now? You know the one,”A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” The job of the public library should be creating good democrats, good citizens. Those who would join subscription libraries have that end within their power already. Those who cannot join will drag the rest down to their level, or serve as the willing slaves of the rich and educated.

  7. Walt Lessun says:

    And, redistricting will ensure the situation will not change for the next decade (unless the recall thingies and a few referenda actually work). A new red [state] scare.

  8. The responses here reflect what has been going on for decades. Libraries are seen as archaic but also needed. This is the time to find the new “niche” for libraries and librarians, if that means fewer public libraries and more private libraries, then that’s where it is at. Libraries too often have been at the mercy of the budget ax and public opinion. It seems we’ve learned much from our past, but now it’s time to move on.

  9. It is sad that the idea of public or community resources has taken a drubbing from “common sense”-claiming conservative types in recent years who get a lot of “megadittoes” from Tea Party bandwagon jumpers. Just like with other public services, though, people only claim they don’t want their tax money to pay for such services, but in reality still want to have them for free (akin to the whole “Government Hands Off My Medicare” meme.) They have Ayn Rand dreams but want Obamacare realities.
    BTW, this notion that public libraries are largely paid for by “Billionaire Bobs” for the benefit of “Penurious Petes” is not just a gross oversimplification, it’s simply a false one. More accurately, they’re paid for by property-tax paying Middle Class Mikes and Michelles, with some help from charitable organizations set up by the few Billionaire Bobs in a community for the tax writeoffs. Atlas indeed shrugs.

  10. stealthisbook says:

    Yech. Libraries along the lines of charter schools except without the minimal quality control. The worst part is not the inevitable horror stories about narrowed viewpoints or the non-dues paying people that are simply excluded-
    “I’m sorry, we only carry biblically correct books here” or “You don’t like Michael Moore? I’ll have to ask you to leave, redneck”

    The worst part is the same trial that faces rural and blighted areas in so many things. Without a strong government support, it would be impossible to put together a large enough community of interest to make a subscription library workable for much the same reason as rural telephone service would be non-existent without government mandated support from phone companies.
    That same disinterest in losing money in the sparsely populated hinterlands has left many rural areas bereft of broadband or cellular internet service. Without libraries, those that aren’t in school or can’t afford expensive satellite service would even be excluded from the shoddy digital equivalent to libraries that urban dwellers will be offered.
    Places that are barely getting by on *just enough* tax funding from everybody are not going to be able to make even a token effort with the funds available from even a sizable majority of well-wishers.

  11. It’s tough being a futurist. I can’t think of many people who have had great luck predicting the future and I don’t know any library Nostradamus. It’s pretty unlikely that public libraries will disappear or even change much in the next 10 or 20 years. Name one government institution in America that has disappeared in the past 200 years. OK, maybe the Confederate States of America, but only crackpots and racists shed any tears about that. UPS and Federal Express haven’t killed off the Post Office yet. I’m more interested in what the next dominant narrative form will be. The novel overtook poetry in about 1850, the motion picture supplanted the novel somewhere back in the 20th century, and something will take over from that (and perhaps already has) such as the video game. Good god I hope it isn’t the blog. Thankfully, since librarians have discovered them, they are probably long over. I’m also curious about the future of academic libraries and how disciplines will advance themselves in the future. I’d love to hear AL’s take on that. In the future we won’t be riding around in hovercrafts. More likely, we’ll be walking to the public library.

  12. Randal Powell says:

    I think one of the best deals, from an information consumer standpoint, is to pay to use an academic library. Of course, this option isn’t available at all academic libraries, and not everyone lives reasonably close to an academic library. Also, online subscription services will continue to grow in popularity I’m sure – when you think about it, Netflix is a specialized subscription library. O’Reilly Media has a nice subscription service of technical books, but the pricing is steep for just casual use.

    I do think that there is a strong argument for the public library as-a-place. Walmart is already the de facto town commons in many “communities” — it is a trend that is not encouraging. I think that the public library could and should be the town commons (instead), perhaps it once was. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone sits in front of a screen all day long, where face-to-face communication becomes odd, where people go to Walmart five times a week to get their social stimulation.

  13. HA! Public libraries going down is just a symptom of the deterioration of the whole of the society. It’s the US that’s going away, not just libraries. Welcome to the beginnings of the new “Endarkenment” (which is a term I just recently heard, but apparently comes from a science book somewhere or other) where magic and superstition rule the day and newspapers only have pictures.

  14. Hippieman says:

    The corporatists are going to privatize everything, even air, if they have their druthers. Cannibalistic capitalism is a society and earth killer. Jesus had it right about the rich.

  15. Either these “entrepreneuers” running subscription libraries will come up with a sliding scale plan or we’re just going to say “f you” to the people who will not be able to afford to pay for their information.

    All of you seem tickled to see a great public commodity turned over to for profit — profiteers. Shame on you all.

    I don’t see the e-book cathing on with everyone. People would like to think e-books are the greatest thing since sliced bread but the jury is still out.

    A very wealthy lady I know who has purchase three kindles said she came back to the library because she got tired of paying for ebooks. She has the money to do so, but is finally over the “this is so easy and convenient” stage of her kindle.

    All those idiots that want to read and “do” their whole life on a 2 inch cell phone screen — well let’s just see how things turn out in the long run for that.

  16. Exactly right, me too. Those who think that some sort of Netflix model for books is going to take the place of brick and mortar libraries in the next decade hasn’t spent much time around actual public library patrons, a significant amount for whom email is a new and scary thing. Get out out of your techno-isolating bubbles, folks. The level of economic and technological classism encountered on this blog is staggering.

  17. +1 Fat Guy

  18. Elena1980 says:

    I have talked to people who have used libraries overseas, Europe in particular, where subscription libraries are more commonplace than the public ones. They tell me that our public library system here are far superior, having predictable hours and staff that are customer service oriented. The academic libraries over there too suffer from closed stack mentalities, banker hours and staff either unwilling to help or not qualified enough to help. We have such a mighty and great resource; too bad only librarians and a few international travelers realize it. :(

  19. Fat Guy, I’m right there with you! The patrons you get exposed to depend on where you work, and one assumes that most patrons of the AL’s academic library are fairly tech-savvy creatures. My patrons aren’t. They don’t have computers at home; they don’t have iPhones, iPads, or the latest tech toys. I think I can safely say that they will not e-circulate books. While my patrons are not poor, neither are they necessarily wealthy enough to be able to purchase subscription fees for a library. (I am assuming that the fees must be enough to cover all library operations, and my area is not densely-populated, which means I will have fewer patrons and higher fees.) So the idea of changing over into a subscription model does not thrill me.

  20. Here’s an example of a library who operates on the subscription model: Buffalo, NY has been in tough financial shape for ages and there have been a bunch of branch closures in recent years. This branch was slated to close but the community rallied, formed a non-profit corporation and, with the help of volunteers and fund-raising efforts, managed to keep the place going. They use a subscription model now and along with continued fund-raisers have stayed afloat since 2005. It’s always tenuous, but they figure it out.

  21. The article again reminds me of something going that I just cannot get my head around. AL makes the point that tea baggers and the like are vocal and motivated to decrease the size of the current gov’t though the elimination of services considered standard by most ppl and through the legislating of rules dictating less revenues being brought under gov’t control…but we know that the tea baggers are mostly middle class ppl who are not wealthy and who can not just stop working now and beok. so why do they, the “average” person (by financial standards), seems to be so fervently standing up for the demands, wants and desires of those ppl who are so much better off than them financially? why is a guy/girl who makes 40G’s extremely passionate about enacting policies that come from the brain of a millionaire and are specifically designed to benefit them under the guise of benefitting all? do they just not seem the bait and switch? are they so insecure that they feel by vocalizing in step with the wealthy that they somehow will be wealthy too? are they so passionate about small gov’t that finances are not in the equation? i just do not see how ppl who need support and safety nets the most are the same ppl who are so deadset on getting rid of them.

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