American Libraries Ė August 1997, pages. 49-52
PUBLIC LIBRARIANS STEVE COFFMAN (LEFT) AND
MAURICE FREEDMAN DUKE IT OUT OVER THE WISDOM
OF CHARGING FEES FOR PUBLIC SERVICE
Libraries are a public good, supported by tax dollars because they are essential to democracy, not because they turn a profit. But the ongoing debate over charging fees for certain services in libraries continues to grow muddier as the cost of information delivery rises along with the mandate to deliver it.
††††††††††† Nowhere is disagreement more evident than in the draft statement of fee‑based service philosophy developed last year by ALA's Public Library Association. The statement contradicts the position of greater ALA adopted in 1977 as Policy 50.3, Free Access to Information.
††††††††††† Maurice (Mitch) J. Freedman, director of the Westchester Library System, headquartered in Ardsley, New York, debated the issue of service for a fee with Steve Coffman, director of FYI, the fee-based information service of the County of Los Angeles Public Library, in a Conference Call on June 24 with American Libraries Editor Leonard Kniffel moderating.† The transcript has been edited by AL for clarity and length.
††††††††††† AL: One of the fundamental principles of public library service in the United States is that it is free. ALA policy asserts that "charging fees and levies for information services, including those services utilizing the latest information technology, is discriminatory in publicly supported institutions providing library and information services." Do you agree with this principle? And are there fee‑based services that do not violate it?
††††††††††† COFFMAN: My feeling is that ALA is just dead wrong about this. In the first place, there's nothing inherently discriminatory about a fee by itself, given that fees don't discriminate. They're simply a method of exchanging value.
††††††††††† If you argue that all fees at publicly supported institutions discriminate, you have to say low‑cost housing discriminates against the poor because they have to pay rent. In point of fact, low‑cost subsidized rent actually makes housing available to the poor who otherwise might not have it. Likewise, fee-based services offered by libraries allow us to provide information and services to our patrons which would otherwise not be available.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Someone with a great deal of money could go into any library and say "I want you to do all these things for me and I'm going to pay you." And that will deflect the staff from what they ordinarily do. If it's big enough money, hell, let's set up a department to take care of the person! I really think that the public library's a public institution that's there to serve everybody. And as soon as you put fees between the user and the services, in principle, people are denied those services.
††††††††††† AL: If libraries can't afford to offer an extended service, is it really better not to offer it at all than to charge for it?
††††††††††† COFFMAN: Actually that's the crux of where we're at right now. Our sense at the county library is that it's our business to provide for our patrons' information needs, no matter what they are. And wherever we can, we're going to try to provide them for free. But if we can't provide them for free, then it's duty to our patrons to provide them the best information possible at the best price possible. We think ifs much better to be able to provide the information and provide the service than it is not to provide it.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: It's a Hobson's choice: We're not going to give it if you don't pay, and we're not going to give it because we can't afford it. I think the public library has its mission, to meet the people's information needs.
††††††††††† The public library does a terrific job at meeting the information needs of its people, serving them in terms of the democracy, helping the small businesses, economic developmentóall these things do go on. But all the taxpayers are paying for the institution to be there. And when you start allowing for segmented services that special populations are going to be able to pay for because the institution isn't otherwise going to make them available, I also think thereís some detraction from what the overall services of the library are going to be.† Itís going to take up space, it's going to take up staff, all the rest of it.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: Just because a service is public, I'm not sure why then libraries seem to have such a problem with the concept of extended services. Certainly there are plenty of other public institutions that have no problem with it whatsoever. If libraries are important in supporting democracy, then even more important in that regard are the public schools. And yet the public schools have extended services where they charge a fee. I'll point to summer school for example, where my daughter is right now and paying an additional fee to have classroom instruction during the summer period.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Yeah, but Steve, you're stuck with Proposition 13 and how it destroyed the school systems out there. My kid is going to summer school ó and when I went to summer school back here ó it is paid for.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: But there are other kinds of services where there are no fees attached to it. And my school district also provides daycare, which is over and above what their educational mission is; but I'm happy they provide it and we're happy to pay them for it. And it's the same kind of thing with libraries, if you can provide a broad variety of services‑not just for some rich fat cats, but for people who actually need the information. No institution is in a position where it can provide all the information that its customers want. So you do use your public money, you spend it where it provides the most good for the most people. But where you can't provide it for free, then I think it's your obligation to try and make the best information available at the best price.
††††††††††† AL: Why isn't it better for the private sector to take over?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: I think that's just not relevant. I don't know how Steve feels about it, but by making books available for free, we're competing with the bookstores, videos with the Blockbusters, and I don't see any difference between making videos available and making books available.
††††††††††† AL: But you're talking about being able to underprice by virtue of tax dollars.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Underpricing? They get the video for free.
††††††††††† AL: Often videos are not free.
Itís your obligation to try and
make the best information
available at the best price.
†††††††††††††††††† ††††††††† ††††††††† Steve† Coffman
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: But the libraries that charge, I think they're wrong and I oppose it.† I don't see it as an enhanced service. Information, education, recreation, come in all media.
††††††††††† AL: But isn't there a difference between offering it free and offering it at competitive prices?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Well yeah, you're paying for it one way and it's free the other. Charlie Robinson wants to charge for his videotapes, but this is a person taking the position, "I charge for whatever I can get people to pay for." And that's certainly inimical to my point of view and probably to Steve's.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: Actually this is an area where Mitch and I agree. Information provision is the library's business, period. And it always has been, always will be. The fact of the matter is that if some of the private sector cares to compete with us in that industry, that's fine.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: The public library has its historic role. The fundamental difference between Steve and me is that he feels that there are services that the public library can't afford to give, and therefore if people want them, let them pay for them.† Libraries should chart out what they're going to do, how they're going to serve their communities and go about doing it as best they can and not create a segmented market of people who can pay. I'm not real happy about charging for printed pages off of the Internet. I'm not happy about charging to copy pages of books that are in the library, but this is a reality.† We've delivered the information, and if someone wants it one step beyond the way we've delivered it, the machines and the stuff are there and it's not a hassle. And it may be an inherent contradiction to what I'm saying, but I can live with that.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: What you're really saying is that the information is there, so if a person wants to make a photocopy, then that's fine and we can charge them for it. But let's carry this the next step further. Now suppose that person calls in on the telephone and wants to have it faxed out. Why don't we go ahead and charge them for that service as well? After all, they have the option of coming in to the library. Or why not set up a research service ‑ same concept here ‑ which can come in and do their work for them? That actually is a lot of the theory behind FYI. They can come in and do their work, or they can
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: I wouldn't set up a special public that is rich enough to pay for the books by mail, so they're going to get them. They can get to the library just as easily or with just as much difficulty as the poor person. But because I've got the money, I'm going to have it mailed to me? Itís a terrible mistake to segment the public into those who can pay for services and those who can't.
††††††††††† AL: Are library services ever really free? Isn't it really a question of who pays and when?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Nothing is free, the air isn't free, but a public library is paid for by taxpayers, and that's everybody in the community.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: That's one way it's paid for. I think there are many other ways that they can pay, just like in other institutions. You can have multiple ways of paying for services still provide it.
††††††††††† AL: Haven't library fees such as overdue fines been with us for a long, long time?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Overdues are a penalty for not doing your job right; everybody can avoid overdues if they return the books on time.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: In the first place, the county calls them "extended-use fees." And if you're really adamant about the fee-based deal, it definitely discriminates. The rich can afford to keep their books longer.
††††††††††† AL: But that's always been the case, hasn't it?
††††††††††† COFFMAN: Of course. And anybody that's in support of fees would consider what the alternatives are. Maybe the books don't get returned, period, without some kind of incentive to bring them back. And let's take a look at the photocopy fees. What's the alternative to that? Photocopy fees also criminate because the poor, if they're really poor, are going to have to scribble down their information by hand while the rich can go for it to make their copies. So the fact of the matter is that everybody is in there scribbling notes, and if you've got an institution that can't provide any kind of services over and above the basic, then you've got an institution that intentionally hobbles itself for the lowest common denominator. And I don't think that's a place where the library wants to be.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: There are some good institutions out there that charge minimal or no overdue fines, and I don't know how hobbled they are. I just think it's a reality of modem librarianship. When I went to work at New York Public Library, I suggested eliminating fines and the director came right back with, well it's going to cut your paycheck because part of your pay comes from the over $1 million in fines we collect every year.
So in my perfect world, there wouldn't be any charges for the photocopying machine unless the person is doing something from outside the library. I wouldn't charge fines, and I would try to find some way to make the lost books work without fines, but I don' t know a board of trustees that would support that.
††††††††††† AL: I want to ask you both to comment quickly on how you feel ó justified or not justified ó about the following charges: printer paper?
††††††††††† COFFMAN: I would say it's justified in the same way the photocopying is justified.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: I'd prefer not to do it, but I'm a head of a cooperative system where half or more of the libraries charge.
††††††††††† AL: Reserves?
††††††††††† COFFMAN: Reserves are a class of fees similar to fines.† They're really there to regulate user behavior. And I think that they're perfectly justified. When you don't have some kind of fees, some kind of incentive, then people make alo acnds of reserves and never pick up the books. I think if you want to make that fee fair, or at least less discriminatory, what you might do is allow a certain number of free reserves per month and then charge over and above that.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: I never thought of that, Steve. Thatís a wonderful idea. I donít like charging for reserves. I once suggested that we charge five bucks for each person as an incentive to show up and the people who would be paying the five bucks thought it was a dreadful idea. So we're not charging for reserves.
††††††††††† AL: Interlibrary loan?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: I'm deeply opposed to fees for that because this is a service the library is there for. If they can meet the person's information needs by going outside the walls with the Internet and with database services, they can go outside the walls to bring a book to the person that needs it. Regulating that in any reasonable way so the person is not ILL‑ing 2,000 books is not unreasonable. I would hope that we can see the library as not†††† just the four walls surrounding the user, but as whatever information that person needs from wherever it has to be gotten.††††††††††† COFFMAN: I think that the libraries should be charging each other for that.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: That's a different story.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: What we've got right now is theoretically a service that's more or less free. But the fact of the matter is that itís terribly hobbled because the institution really has no incentive in many cases to actually provide that service. So you're talking about deliveries that might take four weeks or six weeks or when they get around to it.
Itís a terrible mistake to segment
the public into those who can pay
for services and those who canít
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Steve, we also have a base university not that many miles from where I'm sitting that charges 30 bucks to take interlibrary loan requests, whether it fills them or not.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: Which gets pretty obscene. But with the Internet and with a lot of the technology that we have around, were going to be able to provide our users with a lot greater access to information. My sense is you do a good local collection, you spend your money where it does the most good for the most people, and then you make sure that everybody has access to information thatís outside of that at the best price possible. That's the way that will provide the best, the most information to the most people.
††††††††††† AL: How about nonresident borrowing cards?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Nonresident borrowing cards, I have no problem at
††††††††††† COFFMAN: And actually neither do 1. The library exists to serve the people who support it.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: When we have a national library system that will put money into public libraries in this country so that such a system could be supported, thatís fine with me. But we don't have that. Steve has FYI and things are fabulous, but I still don' think there should be fee-based public library services on that kind of level. I'll acquiesce to the copying machines and the printers, even though it doesn't make me happy.
††††††††††† AL: Do publicly supported libraries have patrons, clients, or customers?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Well it's a difference in perception, but people walk through the door.
††††††††††† AL: What do you call them?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Gary Strong at Queens [Borough Public Library], without charging them money, considers them customers. The people who call what we do "marketing our services" are usually calling them customers. But it doesn't imply fee-based service as far as I'm concerned.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: I don't like any of them. "Patron" always implies the idle rich, "patron of the arts." "Client" implies psychotherapy, and "customer" actually-even though thatís the preferred term in the county here-actually implies somebody who's there perhaps to be made a profit out of. I think a better word might be "member" because a library, in its most fundamental way, is like an association of people who get together to ensure each other the best access to information possible-like the automobile club where a group of people get together to provide themselves with services and some of those services are free. And on other occasions, the club exists to provide them with bargains on things that would otherwise cost them a lot more money. And I think that's an example of how the library can effectively combine free and fee services.
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: Well, I'm not looking for that combination, but I'm an old man. I grew up when library people were called ďpatrons.Ē But people have membership cards for whatever they do, and a library card in effect is a membership card.† Only the public library goes one step beyond. You don't have to have a card, you donít have to have anything to walk in the doors and be given access to the services there. They just can't take any materials out without a card.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: All I'm saying is that with fees you can provide a more extensive service than what you're able to provide without them and still benefit your members.† Thatís the business at work.
††††††††††† AL: Is the entrepreneurial spirit in libraries in any way a threat to intellectual freedom?
††††††††††† FREEDMAN: To the extent that people can get information because they can pay for it and others are going to be denied it because they can't pay for it, I certainly would think it would be a threat.
††††††††††† COFFMAN: The most important thing for intellectual freedom is to make sure that people have the broadest access to information possible. Thatís the library's business-to make anything available for free wherever they can. But there's always a line and if you don't have a fee-based service and you don't have the ability to charge, you don't have the abilit provide the information thatís on the other side of that line.