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Recently, a director of a public library wrote to the Calix listserv asking for information about charging non-residents for library cards.  Below is my response to her.

Dear N.,

Since reading your questions I’ve been reflecting on the ramifications of charging for public library cards. Today, I read a blog entry by Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, about the problem with public/private enterprises and decided to post it here, with a few comments, in case it helps to clarify the potential repercussions of charging for library cards.

Reich writes:

What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions — public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who are better off (and who, presumably, have benefited from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.

“Privatize” means pay-for-it-yourself. The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than any time in 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

Much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.
…………

Charging non-residents for a public library card is in effect privatizing the library for non-residents. It will “make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.” An argument could be made that people who can afford to travel to a library in a town where they are not a resident can also afford a library card. However, often the closest library is not in the town of residence. Or the closest library is not open during hours when people can get to it. This is especially true of people working several jobs to make ends meet.

By charging for library cards, in the short term, you may generate a little extra revenue for your library. In the long term though, this will make even more resources available to people who already have more resources, which results in further concentrating wealth. If you think that further concentrating of wealth and resources is what your community and this country needs, then maybe charging for library cards is a good idea. If not, then maybe it isn’t such a good idea. Personally, I think it’s a bad idea.

That’s my opinion. I hope it’s helpful.

Best regards,
Ethan
P.S. Robert Reich’s entire blog post, posted January 4, 2012, can be seen here.

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