Feeding the Meter
Libraries and checkout hogs
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. ■