Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fee or free: Public library services in the face of economic hardship

Another essay for MIS. I think the economic section would be rather different if I had more space to bring in an anarchist critique of economics... maybe next time. Image by Mary Tremonte (


As neo-liberal economics and the downward cycles of the capitalist system deepen, social institutions such as public libraries are beginning to come under the increasing scrutiny of those in power. Questions around free library services have crescendoed in parts of the developed world, and are beginning to reverberate throughout the offices of policy makers in New Zealand. In April 2010, the Tauranga City Council announced that it was exploring the introduction of user-charges for general issue books. Green MP, Gareth Hughes, quickly pointed out the irony of such an announcement coming during the United Nation’s Literacy Decade (Hughes, 2010, par.4). But irony doesn’t concern the powers that be in their quest for profits. So what arguments can be made for free public libraries the face of increasing economic hardship?

Advocates of user-charges often draw upon economic perspectives to justify their position. Yet the services and benefits of a public library cannot always be measured in purely economic terms. In response, the defenders of free public libraries often talk about its benefits in terms of their impact on society. Far from abstract or philosophical ideals without any bearing on everyday life, the social benefits of a free public library include equal access to information, and the building of community, social inclusion and social capital through a free public space. These benefits also have economic ramifications, as advocates of free public libraries are increasingly trying to illustrate.

The negative impact user-charges would have on society at large—or more specifically, the access to information, democratic participation, social wellbeing and economic activity—makes a strong social and economic case against the introduction of user-charges.


‘Free’ in New Zealand means “free access to the collections and information held by the library, free membership to LTA residents who already fund the library through rates, and the right to borrow library materials free of charge, except when those materials are due” (Chamberlain & Chamberlain, 2007, p.69). For most libraries, this is still the case. However over a quarter of New Zealand libraries have fees beyond the traditional costs of membership (usually the cost of the plastic membership card): “in Matamata, borrowers have to pay $1 a week to rent ordinary non-bestseller books” (Campbell, 2010, par.1). Advocates of user-charges would like to see this trend extended to most, if not all, public library services.

The introduction of user-charges can partly be explained by the prevailing values of Neo-liberalism: “policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. This includes the management and provision of social services” (McChesney, 1999, par.1).

As a result, advocates of user-charges often view library services and their benefits in a strictly economic sense—a supply and demand model where a customer (user) should be able to choose the information commodities and services they deem valuable, at a cost set by the market. Following this, “advocates of a ‘user pays’ philosophy believe that charges will indicate true levels of demand” (Chamberlain & Chamberlain, 2007, p.69), and that price is a measure of value (Casper, 1979, p.304).

However the business world of returns and maximum profits conflict with the social values of a free public library. Creativity, freedom, altruism and equality—although often imprecise and hard to measure— are “no less valid” (Smith, 1981, p.2). In contrast to the library as a place to purchase information commodities, advocates of the free public library hold that:

the publicly funded library… despite some current tendencies which have identified it as a purely recreational service… is the collective memory of our society and is part and parcel of the complex organization which feeds the culture through service to the individual. (Smith, 1981, p.7).

Yet modern libraries do more than just feed culture. Public libraries of today “engage, inspire and inform citizens and help build strong communities” by incorporating “community gathering places with cafés, associated council services, learning centres, lounge areas, community meeting rooms and parenting rooms” (Local Government of New Zealand, Library and Information Association of New Zealand, National Library of New Zealand [LGNZ, LIANZ, NLNZ], 2006, p.8). These are services unique to libraries not often found elsewhere.

Advocates of user-charges argue people should not pay for something they do not use—that libraries are for the benefit of the few (Casper, 1979). However the services provided by libraries are being used more frequently and by more people than ever before. In a New Zealand survey of cultural activities and spending, “public libraries were the second most popular cultural activity,” behind the purchasing of books (LGNZ, LIANZ, NLNZ, 2006, p.9). In times of economic hardship, use has increased even more. 81% of economically impacted Americans have a library card, are 50% more likely to visit their library at least weekly, and are nearly a third more likely to visit at least once a month (OCLC, 2010). During economic hardship, belief in the value of the public library to the community also increased by over 31% (OCLC, 2010, p.45).

When charges have been introduced, “the use of the library has declined so dramatically that some charges have been withdrawn or reduced” (Chamberlain & Chamberlain, 2007, p.70). In Ashburton user-charges were cancelled due a drop in patronage of around 40% (Campbell, 2010, par.16). User-charges directly affect access, which in turn, affects the use of library services and their social and economic benefits.


The neo-liberal paradigm ignores the benefits of modern (and future) libraries that cannot be measured in monetary terms, and threatens the values on which libraries were founded: equal access to information. The ability to freely access information is the cornerstone of a healthy and just society. “People, communities, and organizations need, for their physical, mental, democratic, and economic wellbeing, free access to information…” (LGNZ, LIANZ, NLNZ, 2006, p.7). Public libraries fulfil this need, and are a key part of ‘information democracy’ (LGNZ, LIANZ, NLNZ, 2006).

User-charges erode the fundamental right to participation in democratic life, by limiting the information needed for participation to those who can afford it. Dressed up in the rhetoric of choice, charges as a level of demand and price as a measure of value masks the fact that there are major socio-economic differences between the users (and non-users) of libraries. Two-thirds of New Zealanders earn less than two-thirds of the average wage, while the gap between rich and poor is the sixth biggest in the developed world (Oosterman, 2010).

A person’s income has an overwhelming impact on the access and use of library services. Mathews confirmed, “…the socio-economic status of the surrounding population is the most important factor in determining how much use will be made of the public library” (2001, p.3). Users with higher levels of income frequented the library more than others with lower incomes.

Income is also the major contributing factor to the digital divide—the gap between those with access to computers, the Internet, and online information and those who lack it (Warschauer, 2010, p.1551). A US study found that only 55% of those with household incomes under $30,000 used the Internet, compared to 93% of those over $75,000 (Warshauer, 2010, p.1551). In New Zealand, “lower-income households remain less likely than higher income households to use the Internet” (Bell et al, 2009, p.3).

The availability of information addresses these disadvantages, “by ensuring free and equitable access to collections for all community members” (NSW Public Library Network [NSWPLN], 2009, p.8). Through the Aotearoa People’s Network Kakaroa (APNK), libraries in New Zealand have successfully filled this role—facilitating participation in the democratic process, increasing library usage, and combating the digital divide by providing free access to computers and the Internet. A 2011 APNK Impact Evaluation found that 39% of those surveyed had visited their local council’s website at the library, people using the libraries increased by over 80%, and for 42% of the respondents, the public library was their only means of accessing the Internet (Brocklesby & Simpson-Edwards, 2011, pp.4, 5, 34).

It is clear that if user-charges were introduced, not everyone could afford to access information. Monetary barricades in the form of user-charges affects those already marginalised, and continues the physical and digital division of society along socio-economic lines. It would silence the voice of the ‘have-nots’ in the participation of democracy, and compromise the valuable role libraries play as the providers of information—both on site and online.


As public spaces are increasingly privatised the need for a free public space is more pressing than ever before, especially for those excluded from social participation. Libraries provide a warm, inviting—and most importantly—non-commercial space that fosters social inclusion and community development, regardless of socio-economic status. The library as a ‘third’ space is a crucial factor for such development.

A survey of users in New South Wales found “the library’s value as a place that is a safe, harmonious, welcoming and inclusive environment was the most quoted contribution [to social wellbeing]” (NSWPLN, 2009, p.8). By acting as a neutral meeting space accessible to all, libraries promote acceptance and understanding of others not often found elsewhere.

Even in the digital age, the “online library has not become a substitute for visiting the library in person” (OCLC, 2010, p.97). This is because “the library building—the way it is designed, located, configured and maintained—has real significance in creating a welcoming and stimulating environment” (LGNZ, LIANZ, NLNZ, 2006, p.40).

The physical space of the library creates “social interaction among people with common interests who may never otherwise meet” (NSWPLN, 2009, p.8). This is of special value for immigrants and ethnic groups for aiding community participation and integration. Multicultural programs, reading and parent groups, literacy courses, literary events and exhibitions encourage interaction and wellbeing by creating social capital—the connections between people that improve quality of life and provide ‘life-chances’. Social capital also has economic benefits: “hhealthier lifestyles, and higher levels of educational attainment… in turn helps promote economic development” (Horton, 2006, p.504).

The uniqueness of the library as a free public space is illustrated by what happens when that space is no longer available. “One study in England that examined the impact of the closing of public libraries due to a strike determined that although nine out of ten users missed the library, only 9 percent replaced their library use with nonlibrary-oriented activities (Mathews, 2001, p.69). The library was missed because it was “a meeting point… a place to participate in social events [and] to meet or chat to people” (Proctor, Sobczyk, & Usherwood, 1996, p.27). For many, the library as a free social space is simply non-replaceable.

If “the overall social health of a society reflects the strength of voluntary and community associations within it” (Horton, 2006, as cited in Selwood, 2002, p.30), the libraries role in creating social capital should not be hindered by user-charges. They would alienate and eliminate a large number of users, especially new migrants or economically impacted individuals with a real need for such a space.


Social institutions are constantly under the neo-liberal axe, especially in times of economic hardship. Funding is cut and libraries are closed, because in neo-liberal terms, they are financially unviable. However, evidence of a positive return on investment and the creation of economic activity illustrate that libraries are indeed economically sound.

Studies have shown that patronage of a public library significant aids the surrounding retail economy. One retailer noted a 10% increase in turnover after a library was established nearby, while another estimated library users spent $50 in their store per library visit (Brown & Morris, 2004, p.132). Library closures also have economic consequences. During the Sheffield Libraries strike, nearly a quarter of all users surveyed visited their local centre less often because of the library closure (Proctor, Sobczyk, & Usherwood, 1996, p.37).

A 2008 summary of Wisconsin Public libraries found they contributed $753,699,545 to the Wisconsin economy (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction [WDPI], 2008). This figure does not include the range of economic benefits that arise from social interaction at a library due to the difficulty of measuring such benefits. The surrounding retail economy is also not included. If they had, the libraries economic contribution would be considerably larger. Far from a liability, the summary also found that return on investment was $4.06 for each dollar of taxpayer spent on libraries (WDPI, 2008),

A 2009 survey of New South Wales users found public libraries generated $810.2 million of economic activity—the equivalent of $2.82 for every dollar expended (NSWPLN, 2009). Benefits included supporting local businesses through access to information, increased tourism via library events, and employment for both library staff and those seeking it: the “survey found that 8.1% of respondents credited the public library as helping them obtain a new job or promotion and that 14% credited the public library as making them more productive in their jobs” (NSWPLN, p.10). Like Wisconsin libraries, these benefits equate to a return of investment of $4.24 per dollar spent (NSWPLN, 2009).

Free libraries stimulate and support the economic development needed in times of economic hardship. A decline in patronage due to user-charges would have significant economic effects, both directly (the surrounding retail economy) and less-directly (the wider economy). Libraries also save the taxpayer money: “in the event that public libraries did not exist, it was estimated that annual expenditure on government school libraries would increase by $24.4 million” (NSWPLN, 2009, p.10).


Neo-liberal attempts to control and profit from social institutions conflict with the social values of the free public library and the benefits of its unique services. As a result, the introduction of user-charges in times of economic hardship would have a number of dire consequences—both socially and economically.

The access and use of library services currently enjoyed by those with lower incomes would be severely curtailed, minimizing democratic participation and fostering socio-economic divisions already prevalent in society. The privileging of monetary transactions and the move towards libraries as a commercial space also compromises the free and neutral public meeting space needed for social wellbeing. Introducing user-charges would also diminish the economic benefits of the library due to lower patronage.

Libraries are a core social service with wider benefits than monetary returns. Instead of a business model concerned with increased profit margins:

measurement of social institutions should encompass the extent to which they deliver superior performance, make a distinctive impact, and achieve lasting endurance. These measures are ones that rely little on how much or how often or who owns what, and rely not at all on becoming “more like a business” (Wilson, 2007, as cited in Collins, 2005).

It is clear free public libraries make a distinctive impact—on those who use them, and the communities who have them. It is also clear user-charges would have a distinctive impact—for all the wrong reasons.

—Jared Davidson


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