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Are Library Rental Fees Undemocratic?

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.



  1. The root of this dilemma is the same for everything discussed here in the past few months: pornography, programming, professional stature & development, etc.

    We need a national dialogue about what we want our libraries to be and do. Absent that, libraries will do what they think best … which is “anything to keep people coming thru the doors” and “what our patrons want”. What follows is a plethora of seemingly innocuous decisions like focusing on entertainment or well-intentioned but arguably misguided services (from an institutional perspective) like using libraries as social service agencies. This accrues to the slow loss of institutional identity, with public libraries increasingly coming to resemble coffee houses, workout clubs, unemployment offices … and in rare cases, arcades & peep show venues.

    The dialogue also needs to include how to provide organizational supports to help libraries more effectively access contemporary resources and meet contemporary needs. Having each community allocate 1% of its tax dollar to fund an operation largely (or totally) disconnected from the one next door was the only option 100 years ago. It’s not sustainable today. A better option, I think, is to create a National Public Library Corporation modeled after public broadcasting. This voluntary system will enable libraries to centralize services & leverage resources where it makes sense while maintaining local autonomy and authenticity.

    • Steve Benson says:

      I would strongly disagree. Nothing wrong with a national dialog but my community wants to define our library at the local level.

  2. Jennifer says:

    We have both rental movies and books. You can pay $1 and get a bestseller for two weeks or a new movie for three days (I tell people we’re a better deal than Red Box). It doesn’t always make back the cost of the extra items, so it’s not necessarily saving money. It’s more a convenience for people who aren’t regular library users and just dropped by to pick up a book they heard about on tv or something. It’s also nice for the library so it doesn’t look like we never have anything new! Also, we’re part of a consortium and one of the mid-sized libraries so often our new things disappear out to the bigger libraries and are NEVER SEEN AGAIN. A few people have whined about it, but they’re usually the folks who complain about things in general. If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. (and we also charge for copies, plastic I love my library bags, earbuds, thumb drives, and replacement cards, not to mention overdue fines)

    • In a
      widely distributed 2010 marketing piece
      , OCLC set the unfortunate example of equating libraries with services/organizations like RedBox & Starbucks.

      This demonstrates the lack of sophistication I referred to in a recent post about the alliances ALA forms with commercial firms like Dollar General.

      It’s a huge strategic mistake. Our libraries can be valuable institutions nurturing some of the most important human and societal needs (including entertainment, in moderation). In this information age, librarians can be among our most highly-skilled and respected professionals. Why purposely equate both with inanimate red steel boxes and common cookie-cutter retail chains?

    • Oops … didn’t mean to yell in the last paragraph; simply forgot to close my tag after the word mistake.

    • Cut Both Ways says:

      Jean, the link from your last post about Dollar General does not lead anywhere. It is underlined and colored in blue as if it links somewhere, but does not link to anything. The HTML for the post shows anchor tags but no URLs.

      What’s the problem with Dollar General, again? They want to award grants for summer reading programs and that’s bad?

    • Hey – sorry ’bout the crappy HTML. Have been swamped at work, commenting quickly and making a mess of it.

      My concerns about the Dollar General deal and a few others I’ve reviewed are two-fold.
      1) The first is from a brand management perspective. Brand image is a key library asset. Despite a myriad of contemporary challenges, for most of us libraries still evoke notions of trust, higher aspirations, opportunity, freedom, fairness. It’s been well-documented that people who fund libraries often don’t even use them (sadly, I’ve fallen into this category). We continue to financially support them because of the many positive things we believe they stand for. This “brand equity” is something to be protected and nurtured. Dollar General is a low-end retailer that Hoover’s described as “at ease with living off the crumbs of Wal-Mart” (see footnote on this blog post). It’s stores are known to be dirty and poorly managed and the company is known for exploitive employee practices of the type we hear about WalMart. I’d argue that the DG/library collaboration elevates their brand and denigrates the library brand.

      2) Secondarily, if you look at the terms of the ALA/Dollar General grant I analyzed, library staff were required to use the money in ways specified by DG, instead of letting the libraries determine how to most effectively extend literacy in their communities. They were required to attend training on DG, prominently display the DG logo, etc. Seems to me the library staff were essentially co-opted into doing commercial work (namely marketing and promotion for Dollar General). If you add up everything library staff were required to do for a measly $2,500, it sure does look like DG got more out of it than the participating libraries or patrons.

      Libraries have an incredible brand, exposure (at national, state and local levels) and, when considered collectively, significant spending power. The fragmented structure of the ecosystem mitigates against library managers and staff appreciating these assets. They’re mostly trying to deliver the most service they can to their patrons with tight budgets. And they often get snookered by commercial interests more savvy to the ways of capitalizing on brand, co-opted labor, etc.

      I provide perspectives like these not to blame or criticize libraries, but to increase awareness that may help them “get more of their due”. Truly hope it has helped someone, somewhere.

    • Cut Both Ways says:

      Jean, after looking at your report on Dollar General micro grants, I feel grateful that my application for a summer reading grant was denied. Time and effort were better spent elsewhere. Thanks for reporting.

  3. AL, I know how city managers and city councils think. Implement any fee (no matter how reasonable) and the powers that be will want to put the entire library on a pay for play basis. Beware the slippery slope!

  4. I cannot believe this says:

    Customer: “I’m looking for 50 Shades of Grey.”
    US: “We have 250 holds on 50 Shades of Grey, but if you want to pay a dollar for one week (even less than that listed $.25 per day), and not wait until your hair matches the book title, we have two rental copies available.”

    Our rental copies may or may not get checked out enough times to initially pay for the cost of the book, but guess what, it goes to the friends of the library after a few months, and is sold and re-sold numerous times. It is a wonderful system, and we wouldn’t be able to maintain the collection if it was not beneficial.

  5. What would Ben Franklin say? I beleive these are lending libraries not rental libraries. When I was a kid the library charged a nickel a day for being late returning your books, which seemed fair to me. In my small town library I recently found out there is no late fee – the explanation from the librarian – we are on the honor system here! My faith in small towns was refreshed with that comment.

    This is absurd on its face. And typical of our immediate demand culture. How about everyone just patiently wait their turn and read another book.

  6. The Librarian With No Name says:

    This entire debate could have been kept under the radar if they hadn’t put the commercial exchange aspect right on front street. Instead, they should have created a special section of bestsellers with a one day checkout period and no renewals. That way, they could still put a daily charge on hot items, but they would be able to base their defensive position on the late fee system, which throws all sorts of long-held library policies into the mix to confuse the issue.

    I think this is a promising development, actually. If we tweak it correctly, we can create a library system that loans out informative and improving books for free, charges a nominal fee to check out mindless bestsellers, and slaps a punitive $5.00 charge on anyone who wants to check out the books that tell people that vaccines are killing their children.

  7. Baxtyre says:

    Contrary to what many people may believe, no service a library provides is “free”. It all gets paid for in some way, whether it’s through fines, donations, taxes, or, as in this case, fees. I’m not sure why paying for a service in this manner is so terrible, when the alternatives are: a)not have extra copies of the books at all, or b)take your money in another way.

    Sadly there isn’t a money tree growing outside of each library.

    • I cannot believe this says:

      Exactly. It is about our customers. In many cases, the rentals aren’t available either, and then they go and buy the book or check another library system. Yes patience is a virtue, and I can see that argument, but we also need to meet the informational needs of our community be it through, in this case, rental fiction or nonfiction.

  8. Randal Powell says:

    I agree with AL on this. Charging small fees for certain services is totally OK. To have the option of spending $1 to read a book sounds more democratic than having to buy it for $30. When I want to read a book, I want to read it now, not wait two weeks, three weeks, or heaven forbid longer.

    By the way, I think subscription libraries could still do well in some areas. You could provide a high-end user experience with a cafe, good computers, good books, and some other services depending on the community. It would be like a country club, but more of a library/workspace than a game/recreation center. Does anyone know of any recent ones?

    • Re-forming subscription libraries is an intriguing idea Randal. It would be interesting to see if folks with a bit of disposable income would participate or whether they’d prefer to use their individual knowledge resources (devices, internet connections, friends & colleagues).

    • Michelle Sellars says:

      I work at a subscription library in Charleston, SC (established 1748!) that’s still going. We do lots of events (music, lunches with speakers, book signings, etc.) and have a lot of rare and historical books, as well as recent books. A conservation lab is also in the works. I’d imagine most of the subscription libraries around are like us, historical. As far as paying for a library, people can also pay to use local college and university libraries.

    • Cool Michelle – looks like “The Charleston Library Society” is the third oldest subscription library in the U.S. and the only one in operation. Congrats! It will be interesting to compare subscription and “free public” libraries across a range of criteria.

    • Joneser says:

      Then you aren’t talking about a public library, supported with taxpayer money. You’re talking about a membership, subscription library.

  9. pt frawley says:

    So far with ordering ILL stuff the lending “institutions” have never charged me for the privilege but they could – there’s a place for it on the request form I fill out.
    I just got a $30 book from another branch library in our system. Never would I have bought that book on my own.
    I conclude there are lots of ways to look at the issue.

    Years ago my library experimented with sending all branches extra copies of new fiction forecast to be popular. The result was a glut of unread copies. Now they’re doing “floating collections” – which is an interesting idea because it seems to offer possibilities for statistical study of neighborhood reading habits and of neighborhoods themselves.

  10. The Newport Public Library has had rental books since I lived there, which was in 1987. I never bothered with them, since I was never in a super-duper hurry to read anything in particular. But I knew others who did. It seemed like a good way to offer high-demand books faster to those who were willing to pay a fee to get quicker access to them. It also kept people from leaving a book in high demand sitting around their house for the full check-out period — people return rental books a lot sooner than they return free ones, which means more patrons have access to them.

    The public library in Salem, OR charges a fee just to put a book on HOLD, by the way. Libraries struggling for public funding gotta come up with money somehow, right?

  11. pt frawley says:

    Hi Jean – charging for ILL’s could be another facet but I have never yet been charged and when I did ILL’s myself for a few months I only saw a lender ask for payment once. Libraries might charge a fee to lend but would risk a reciprocal charge when asking for stuff which might be one reason they don’t do it. But then people expect it to be free because it’s the library. City administrators, not the libraries,are the meanies, as Will says… then you get into politics.

  12. Jennifer says:

    I have used quite a few small libraries that charged for ILL’s – usually $2-3. These were all in Texas, where I grew up. I don’t know if they still do. I was always told it was to cover postage costs.

    The Austin Public Library was charging $1 to people who didn’t pick their holds up after a week. I don’t know if they still do that though…

  13. pt frawley says:

    Hi Jennifer-
    I live in Philly and all branch library ILL requests go through a central system at the “Main” branch. One item I requested they got from a college library way out in California – no charge for postage. Another thing they do here is if you request a photocopy they get it from where-ever and then mail it directly to your home – no charge.
    I can see fines and charges levied as a way to “encourage” patrons to be more considerate but not as payment for the service. If the service is expensive, then increase taxes to pay for it – but I think what happens in this state is they don’t raise taxes but stint on librarians’ salaries and other things that would provide better service instead.

  14. Jennifer says:

    We offer free inter-library loan services at the mid-sized Wisconsin library where I work – and we generally shell out anywhere from $5 to $20 a week to ship back materials that came from out of state or from an in-state library that’s not connected to our van delivery.

    They may not have charged you for that item from CA (most bigger systems limit ILLs but don’t charge), but somewhere along the line postage was paid!

    We’ve talked on and off about charging an ILL fee and will probably have to do so at some point in the future to offset the postage charges.

  15. At the library I go to in Michigan they have a “lucky day” collection for popular books. You rent it for about 2 weeks with no renewals allowed. Other than that there is no charge. I have waited for a long time for a book. I see nothing wrong with waiting. It might help our national character of wanting immediate gratification.

    • Joneser says:

      We just started one, but the titles are bought by the Friends and there is no rental fee involved. No holds, no renewals (2 week checkout). We can’t buy enough copies of popular titles so these LD books, once the demand is down, will be integrated into the collection (condition warranting).

  16. Joneser says:

    A fundamental question is whether rental programs recoup the costs, or is any financial support coming out of the library’s materials budget.

  17. elena schneider says:

    I hate those people in the airport security line who jump the queue, because they have extra cash (but are also giving away a lot of private information). Book rentals are definitely undemocratic, but seriously, is this country democratic? I think not.

  18. I’m torn on this idea. As a patron, it would be great to pay a dollar and have ready access to a book rather than paying $25 to buy it myself. But as a MLIS student, rental collections seem potentially troublesome.

    Having visited a subscription library here in Melbourne as part of my course, it seems that public libraries would have to be careful to remain truly public or potentially face ire from their patrons.

    Still, considering my local library charges 35c per overdue item per day, 25c per day for popular new items seems like a pretty good deal!

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