Fee or Free? Printing from Public Workstations in the Library

By Vidmar, Dale J.; Berger, Marshall A. et al. | Computers in Libraries, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Fee or Free? Printing from Public Workstations in the Library


Vidmar, Dale J., Berger, Marshall A., Anderson, Connie J., Computers in Libraries


Should you charge patrons to print from library computers? If so, what systems are available for implementation?

Over the past few years, libraries have witnessed a proliferation of printing, especially from full-text databases and Web sites. At the same time, databases have moved from DOS to Windows client and Internet environments. Ink-jet and dot-matrix printers, once a staple in reference areas, are now seen as slow, noisy contraptions incapable of printing images and materials from the Internet and Windows-based programs. To meet these demands, laser printers have become more a necessity than a luxury. But satisfying necessity comes at a cost.

The cost of offering free and unlimited laser-generated documents has caused libraries to examine whether or not they can subsidize printing. Faced with a fee or free decision, many libraries are choosing to implement charging. But charging for printing is a serious and quite slippery issue. If a library can reach a consensus to charge for printing--no small feat in itself--then it must figure out how to implement a system.

Can Libraries Afford to Subsidize Printing?

Do libraries need to provide free and unlimited printing, or does charging for printing constitute a barrier to information? According to Economic Barriers to Information Access--An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, Principles Governing Fines, Fees, and User Charges, "All library policies and procedures, particularly those involving fines, fees, or other user charges, should be scrutinized for potential barriers to access. Charging fees for the use of library collections, services, programs, or facilities that were purchased with public funds raises barriers to access. Such fees effectively abridge or deny access for some members of the community because they reinforce distinctions among users based on their ability and willingness to pay."

Libraries were founded on the idea of making access available equally to everyone. Charging for printing raises an important ethical dilemma. Does it create an economic barrier to information? Not all individuals have the luxury of reaching into their pocket to pay for necessary materials. But this is an age when materials from databases are reproduced, not borrowed. If charging for a photocopy does not present a barrier, then why would charging for a printout of a full-text article or a Web site constitute a barrier? With budgets shrinking, libraries may not have the option to offer free and unlimited printing.

Although the issue of charging for printing can be argued endlessly without resolution, thinking of the issue of charging as "cost recovery" rather than as a new fee can help. The crux of the matter is that libraries cannot provide the same degree of services and resources if printing continues to be fully subsidized. Something must be sacrificed so funds will be available. Expressed another way, what services could libraries enhance if charging for printing were instituted? Could libraries provide better access to materials by initiating fees for printing from public workstations? If so, how?

Charging for printing generates additional resources in two ways: It brings in funds collected directly from printing charges, and it creates savings from no longer subsidizing free printing. Funds collected directly from printing defray printing costs. These costs include paper, toner cartridges, and maintenance of the printers. Also factored in are future replacement printers--approximately every 3 to 5 years for a large laser printer--based on an estimate of 500,000 pages before a major overhaul or a replacement is necessary. Debit-card readers or coin-ops also need to be serviced or replaced, and print software must be purchased or updated.

Additionally, the savings generated from no longer subsidizing free printing translates into potential funds for enhancing services. Consortium agreements and competition between vendors are making access to full-text databases more affordable to both small and large institutions. …

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