Why public libraries can't charge a user fee

Citizens of Jackson County have been helpful and creative in offering a variety of funding solutions since the Jackson County Budget Committee announced cuts and possible future closure of the public libraries in all of our communities.

One suggestion that continues to surface is the possibility of charging a user fee. That idea is one that is not practical for many reasons.

Philosophically, the basic premise of a public library is that it is free for all, open to the public, maintained for public use and is supported with public funds. Of course, we know it is not really free; it is supported with our tax dollars but for the common good, which means everyone. So financially, for purposes of the discussion here, citizens of Jackson County need to understand what the public library stands to lose if it charges a simple user fee.

Jackson County Library Services cannot charge a user fee, subscription fee, membership fee or any other fee for usage of the public library as a whole or it ceases, by definition, to be a public library. Once a library card is obtained there can be, and are, charges for overdue materials and special services such as interlibrary loans, but they represent only a small percentage of funds collected by the library. To maintain status as a public library there cannot be an initial user fee.

Today Jackson County Library Services receives assistance from state and federal funds because the libraries are public. The Babies and Wobblers program, early literacy programming and part of summer reading is funded by per-capita funding in the form of the Ready2Read grant administered by the Oregon State Library. Federal grants, including funding from the Library Services and Technology Act, which are also administered by the Oregon State Library, provide resources to fund over 30 online library databases from www.jcls.org, available 24/7 if you have a library card and computer. Reduced e-rate helps provide free wi-fi in all 15 branches of Jackson County Libraries. Public library status also makes JCLS eligible to join consortiums such as the Oregon Digital Library Consortium that offers access to over 41,000 downloadable eBooks and audiobooks through its membership in Library2Go. Jackson County Library Services would be disqualified from receiving these and other funds if the library charged a user fee.

In my 30 years with Jackson County Library Services, I have it seen it evolve into more than "books and mortar" buildings. The public libraries are busier and more relevant than ever as they provide the public with computers, community meeting rooms, skill building workshops, programs for all ages, services for those who cannot get to the library on their own and, of course, books and information. The staff of Jackson County Library Services has always had the awareness that they are using tax dollars from Jackson County citizens to provide the best service possible and to use those tax dollars wisely.

Now it is time to figure out how to fund our libraries independent from general fund dollars, but charging a user fee is not an option.

Anne Guevara worked for Jackson County Library Services from 1985 until her retirement in 2010. She was a children's librarian, reference librarian, coordinator of young adult services and head of branches. She now volunteers as a board member of The Friends of the Medford Library.


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