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Feeding the Meter

Libraries and checkout hogs

Illinois Times

December 16, 1993

A solution to a common problem faced by Illinois public libraries—the minority of patrons who abuse the system. It raises a fundamental question: Are library buildings places to store books, or places to find books?


Library books are like street parking spaces. Parking spaces are metered to insure high turnover, so that one curbside spot may serve potentially dozens of parkers each day. When one parker hogs it—say, someone with a job in a nearby office—that high-value space serves only one person.


According to officials of Lincoln Library, a "large number of people" have been, in effect, feeding the meter. They have checked out in their name as many as 100 items at any one time, leaving certain library collections looking like a wheat field after the locusts have lunched. Many of these people repeatedly renew the three-week borrowing period on these books. The result, explained one library official to me, is that at any one time a large part of the library's collection is in the hands of a very small number of borrowers.


Two classes of borrowers stand out. One is the book hog, people who lay in a supply of library books the way Depression survivors might lay in a supply of canned goods. The difference of course is that there are plenty of canned goods left on the supermarket shelf for the next hungry person—something that is not true in the library which seldom has more than one or two copies of a given book.


The second class of hoarding is done by school teachers who check out material for their students on their own library card. Lincoln Library is used increasingly as branch library by schools, public and private, whose own libraries are ill- equipped, ill-staffed, or don't exist. Many of these are small, newish religious schools who have concluded that while the taxpayers make lousy teachers they make dandy librarians.


What to do? The classic deterrent to the hoarding of books has been the overdue fine, but most book hogs are quite conscientious about renewing books before they become overdue. A frustrated patron wishing to check out a missing book may put a "hold" on it that requires the borrower to surrender it when he brings it in to be renewed. But not all people know about the service, or have the time to fill out the required forms. Often their need for the book will have vanished by the time it is returned, which in any event requires a return trip to the library.


One way to reduce excessive borrowing is to charge borrowers the real costs of the service. The wholesale abuse of the borrowing privilege is the abuse of medical care, played out with books instead of bed pans. Library costs are hidden in the local property tax, just as the costs of health care are hidden in company-paid insurance premiums, and any good whose costs are hidden will be overused by a public.


Better to substantially abandon the general library tax and instead collect the costs of the service at the point of consumption—the checkout desk. A crude comparison of Lincoln Library's budget to total-items-circulated yields a cost-per-item-borrowed of three dollars. It is easy to imagine a library card that works like a credit card: check out a book and those three dollars would be charged to the borrower's account and billed each month. To protect against deadbeats, a library .card could function instead like the pass cards of the newer subway systems. Using one of these versions of the bank debit card, the patron would pay in advance, establishing a line of credit that is recorded on the card and from which each withdrawal would be debited.


Teachers who now charge the private costs of doing business on the public would presumably pass on those costs to their employers, thus redirecting the subsidy flows in the proper direction. The costs of the system would be proportional to the use each citizen makes of it, which brings a welcome economic equity to these transactions. As for social equity, every citizen might be given a minimum book borrowing account that would allow him or her to borrow, free, up to a book per week.


Paying a fee to borrow a library book is not a new idea. The so-called subscription library became the rage in England and the eastern U.S. in the 1700s. These were in effect book clubs, run on the fees paid by members. Often they were set up by associations of learned gentlemen for some specialized pur­pose, but also open to interested public. By the 1800s the subscrip­tion libraries purchased such a pro­portion of the runs of popular fiction titles that they exercised the same sway over commercial publishers that mall book retailers do today.


 According to Paul Angle in Here I Have Lived, Springfield citizens formed a subscription library association as early as 1856. A number of reading associations followed, each buying books for members. (The Germans had one; so did the Catholics.) What became Lincoln Library was formed in 1866 as a subscription library and operated thus for the next nineteen years, accumulating more than 7,000 volumes. As literacy rates rose so did the cost of books, and in 1885 the directors offered their library to the city on the condition that it be run as a free public library.

Subscription libraries exist in several forms today. Most familiar is the commercial video rental store. Some public libraries run subscription book libraries within their larger operations, renting copies of hit bestsellers to readers to defray the costs of buying extra copies of such books.

Just as the big-city botanic garden and arboretum function as private parks and the art museum functions as a private ladies club, so the Barnes & Noble-style book superstore has been embraced as a model for the 1990s subscription library. Here is a library that works—one with up-to-date titles, one whose magazines have not been ripped to shreds, and one where you don't have to sit next to someone who smells so bad that he bleaches your tweeds.

Back at Lincoln Library, alas, it will be regulation rather than the market that will continue to balance supply and demand. Library staff have recommended imposing a limit of seventy-five books and twenty-five audiovisual items that may be checked out to any one person at any one time. Such a policy will irk speed-reading shut-ins, some of whom no doubt know aldermen on a first-name basis, but the vast majority of library patrons will not be inconvenienced. By putting hack on the shelves books that now languish for weeks elsewhere, such a change will not restrict circulation, but expand it. ■




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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