Chapter Report: What Does "Free" Mean Anyway?

Article excerpt

Fee-versus-free issues regarding library services seem to get muddier in direct proportion to how close you are to the mud. In other words, the clarity of policies set at the national level sometimes gets a bit murky in state-level property-tax debates or universal-access questions. These same issues can be even more troublesome in the hands-on wrangling between local library directors and city council members.

This is not to say that state and local libraries and library organizations are on one side of this issue, while national organizations are on another. Nor does it suggest that there is a difference in national and local perspectives - only that broad policy guidelines are scrutinized at the local level in a way that has less to do with fundamental disagreement than the need for specific implementation.

ALA's official policy 50.3 on Free Access to Information "seek(s) to make it possible" for libraries to provide free services. This relatively mild - and realistic - language acknowledges ALA's role as advocate, exhorter, and promoter of access and usage free of charge. It recognizes the limits of that role in the face of local governance.

But it also lives up to the responsibilities of a professional Organization as an influencer of government policy. The ALA position tries to anticipate those areas of "wiggle" where intentions get circumvented. It specifies, for example, that services include those "utilizing the latest information technology."

It's just a copier

Services to which the debate might apply range from the mundane to the exotic. No one seems very alarmed about coin-operated copying machines, but there's much greater concern about online-access charges.

The copy-machine issue is often put to rest by saying it's simply a convenience - the saint information is still available to all. But if you don't happen to have the required number of pennies per page, you might regard the role of medieval copyist more than inconvenient. You might even consider it discriminatory.

Though it's true that some information may be available only electronically, it would seem the "convenience" argument could be applied here as well, with the same rejoinder.

Libraries seem to be fairly successful in justifying charging for high-end research services most often used by businesses or others willing to trade money for time. These services often go beyond access charges to include the services of a researcher and fast or faxed delivery. The main issue here is whether libraries are in some way competing unfairly with private research services that don't receive public support.

Somewhere in between copy machines and custom research lies a shopping list of library services - fees for video rentals, reserves, and interlibrary loans. Sometimes charges for these special services apply to all patrons, sometimes only to those outside the library's primary service population. But defining service populations can be almost as tricky as defining the services themselves.

For public libraries, the notion of "free" services is tied to the fact that local taxpayers have essentially prepaid for their library services. People outside the service area are often extended library privileges either for a fee or on a reciprocal basis.

This can get complicated by such situations as students who attend public schools being ineligible for library cards because, though they live in the school district they are outside the library district.

The spirit of the thing

Official pronouncements at the state level endorse the principles of free access. …