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 our duty to our patrons to provide them the best information possible at the best price possible. We think it's 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 development - all 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 there's some detraction from what the overall services of the library are going to be. …