Over the past few months, an image has been making its way around social media to underscore the value of libraries. It's a checkout receipt from "your local library" that lists various borrowed items--three DVDs, five books, one ebook, six CDs--and the cost to the borrower for each, all of which are $0. Below the grand total of zero at the bottom of the receipt is the image's take-home message: "Having a library card? Priceless."
It's one of several recent examples I've noticed in which libraries are characterized as being available at no cost to their users. Library marketing campaigns promote materials and services as "Free @ your library." Freegal, a popular subscription download service available through some libraries, presents itself through its very name (free + legal) as a lawful no-cost source for digital music files. The American Library Association's State of America's Libraries Report 2012 repeatedly extols the importance of free library services, particularly during this time of economic downturn. As it states, "Americans are becoming ever more keenly aware that libraries are prime sources for free access to books, magazines, ebooks, DVDs, the internet, and professional assistance."
Of course, the concept is not new. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the term "free libraries" differentiated libraries that were fully open to the public from the subscription libraries of the day, which were available exclusively to paying members. The "free library" model is the cornerstone of modern libraries, no matter how they are funded, so long as they are committed to assisting anyone who wishes to use materials or seeks an answer to a question. (Unrestricted access was so central to the founding mission of Philadelphia's public library system that it remains prominently reflected in its name: Free Library of Philadelphia.)
But libraries, as we know, do not exist for free. They cost their communities--whether composed of taxpayers, tuition-payers, donors, or a combination--a substantial amount of money. …