Cash Cow: User Fees in Alberta Public Libraries

Article excerpt

Abstract

Alberta is the wealthiest province in Canada. It is also the only jurisdiction in North America where the majority of local library boards charge patrons to use their public libraries.

There are many reasons why these fees came into being in the 1980s and continue to exist today. Library trustees see them as an easy source of funds for their cashstrapped libraries, some librarians feel that they help instill a sense of value in library materials and services, library patrons realise the fees are often less than the cost of a single paperback book and don't mind paying them.

But the main reason the fees still exist is because of the unique form of conservatism espoused by the popular Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who favoured big business, lower taxes, and privatization of public services while leading the province from 1992 to 2006. Klein's policies included a focus on user-pay models for all manner of services. Paying for library cards is something that Alberta's citizens have accepted for the most part. But because of Alberta's strong support for user-pay models, this isn't just an issue for the librarians, patrons, and politicians of that province. The possibility also exists that libraries in other provinces could be opened up to a GATS challenge by for-profit corporations outside of Canada because of Alberta's current user fee policies.

How this unique user fee arrangement developed, the current situation, and what the future may bring will be the subject of this paper.

Keywords: library and information studies, library policy

Grabbing The Bull By The Horns

If there had been user fees when I was growing up in Bowness, my mother could likely not have afforded a library card for us kids, never mind school expenses, and I would like not be writing this today. But because back then, people believed in the public good, for example, in a truly public library, I had access to books - and a better life.

- Jackie Flanagan, Publisher, AlbertaViews Magazine

Alberta is the wealthiest province in Canada. It is also the only jurisdiction in North America where the majority of local library boards charge patrons to use their public libraries. The only other region that charges for library cards is Quebec, which charges fees in approximately half of its public libraries. (Palvadeau, 1997).

Alberta's library user fees, originally brought in to replace funds lost due to government cutbacks in the 1980's, have not been reversed even as Alberta gained a position as not only Canada's wealthiest but also as its only debt-free province in the past few years. There are many reasons why these fees continue to exist today: library trustees see them as an easy source of funds for their cash-strapped libraries, some librarians feel that they help instil a sense of value in library materials and services, library patrons realise the fees are often less than the cost of a single paperback book and don't mind paying them.

But, in this author's opinion, the main reason the fees still exist is because of the unique form of conservatism espoused by the popular Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who favoured big business, lower taxes, and privatization of public services while leading the province from 1992 to 2006 (Lisac, 2005). Klein's policies included a focus on user-pay models for all manner of services from healthcare premiums (Taft & Stewart, 2000) to privatized car insurance (Alberta NDP, undated) to building new schools and roadways using so-called P3's - public-private partnerships (Ferguson, 2003).

Paying for library cards is something that Alberta's citizens have, for the most part, accepted. However, because of Alberta's strong support for user-pay models, this isn't just an issue for the librarians, patrons, and politicians of that province. The possibility also exists that libraries in other provinces could be opened up to a GATS challenge by for-profit corporations outside Canada because of Alberta's current user fee policies. …