Library Story

Libraries Should Be Funded by User Fees, Not Taxpayer Dollars

The universe is full of mysteries; like when does the phone company collect the coins in pay telephones? (Have you ever seen a guy in a phone company uniform lugging a satchel full of quarters out of the airport phone booths?) Why is it that your driver’s-side windshield wiper is always the faulty one? and why do we southerners say “lyberry” instead of “library”?

This puzzle leads me to the greatest conundrum of all time. Why are municipalities in the book-lending business?

Law enforcement and road maintenance as municipal monopolies I can almost understand. These are common, basic functions with a long history of municipal management. Maybe it’s an irrational history but at least it’s traditional; and maybe they are assigned to the public sector because they are essential to municipal life.

Sure, if law enforcement crumbles, violent guys without paychecks or scruples will explore my mattress at midnight looking for my cache. And if the roads collapse, I’m as immobile as Homopithicanthrupus, who thought a vine ride between two trees was a great public transportation system.

But no library? Am I intellectually marooned? No. There’s the Internet, the bookstores, the newspapers, my wife bursting with news, and the neighbor next door who’s dying to show me slides of his trip to Brazil. Where’s the showstopper?

Let no one say (before reading at least two or three basic economics texts from the public library) that the municipally owned library system is free. We pay with our taxes, which is the worst form of compensation from a consumer point of view, since it attenuates the relationship between supplier and consumer. The guy who cuts my yard loves that $40 weekly check. He loves me. I stand out in his vision as the man with the pen who writes the check. The relationship between his work and the $40 that buys his gas and pizzas and T-shirts is as clear as the big red rounds of pepperoni on his five- topping pizza. When I ask for a better trim around my pecan tree, the responsive smile and the roar of his weedwacker is instantaneous.

And I’m still somebody special when I hand over $2.49 at the Krystal counter for three burgers, a small order of fries, and a large Coke. True, the server’s smile is a microsecond slower than the yard man when I ask for extra onion and pickle. I’m not quite so grand since she doesn’t get to keep the entire $2.49, only the minuscule fraction that makes up her paycheck. But she still grasps the dependency between her and me.

This relationship is cloudier between book-borrower and librarian since there’s no money transaction in exchange for her services. I’m not her pizza provider. I’m only one of a couple hundred thousand citizen-employers who stream through the library. And this dim, invisible host of consumers stands far behind the bureaucracy that writes her paycheck. Her smile, when I get it, and her search for the requested bio of Frédéric Bastiat comes from her heart–not her pocketbook. Her inherent goodness is her only motivation.

But sometimes, when she has a toothache or her husband forgets to come home the night before, her goodness is not sufficient. I get no smile and the search for Bastiat is halfhearted. My yard man has toothaches, too, and maybe the night before his Alicia danced home at 2 a.m. smelling of merlot and infidelity. But he tries a little bit harder than my remuneratively remote librarian. He vividly associates the two twenty-dollar bills from my wallet with a six-pack, two fried chicken dinners, and Alicia’s romantic remorse after supper.

My librarian has yet to learn the lesson my daughter learned on entering the world of waitressing. Early in life she had heard rumors that there was a relationship between performance and reward. In fact, she had studied it in her college economics courses. All the professors knew about it and even tested her understanding in the final exam via a heavily weighted question: “True or False: out there beyond these ivied halls those who work harder and smarter make more money.” She got it right, too. But somehow three single dollar bills beside a plate of leftover chicken alfredo spoke louder than any economics professor she had ever heard. Sleeping or waking. It was an economic epiphany. Giddy with delight, she was energized by the discovery that prompt delivery of food–warmed with a smile–allowed her eventually to purchase a serviceable used car. She smiled and moved briskly and responsively for the duration of her career as a server. So, why not apply this concept to the book-borrowing business?

User Fees

If somewhere in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights there’s a mandate that Hometown, USA, must be in the book business, let’s at least change the funding concept. No municipal budget. A user fee instead. Whatever the market will bear. Charge a fee to all users except for the walletless, the homeless, the bookless who realize that they can’t live on bread alone. Give it to them free–absolutely free. To each according to his intellectual needs. We’d still have a more responsive, efficient library system. That fee, forked over by the reader, would validate Jane T. Bookborrower as the “customer” and light up the mind of the library employee with the knowledge that the customer is the virtual writer of her paycheck.

Sooner or later some librarian on a slow day at the desk will dream a dream. Why not, she would think, run this business the way it should be run, without the mayor and six city commissioners and five departmental supervisors politically manipulating our budget, priorities, inventories, and locations? Maybe the marketplace of readers could mold our services better than the Politburo downtown.

And maybe after a few years, the library folks would engineer an employee buyout and set up the operation on a profit basis. My daughter would immediately understand the advantages to consumers. Why doesn’t our mayor? Maybe he never collected a $3 tip on a platter of chicken alfredo.

Ted Roberts is a writer in Huntsville, Alabama.

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