Information isn’t Free

Information isn’t free.  Someone is being paid, at some point between creation and delivery.  This is a substantial problem for libraries, who are perceived as a free resource.  Just because you don’t pay an entrance or use fee when you access a library’s space or resource doesn’t mean you haven’t paid for it.  This Twitter post was a good reminder:

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It’s a real tension.  On the one hand, we want to encourage people to use libraries that are free to access.  At the same time, however, removing the friction of cost also hides the fact that there is a substantial cost to running most libraries.  Public libraries are paid for with taxes and university libraries are paid for with tuition and student fees.  Public law libraries are paid for with court filing fees (or stamps as they’re called in some Canadian jurisdictions) and supplemented with membership dues.

When your funding is hidden, you can be perceived as a charity.  In the past, when my law library ran educational seminars, we found a greater participation rate when we added a small ($5) registration fee.  When lawyers felt they had a bit of skin in the activity, they were more likely to participate.  This is anecdotal; I don’t have data that shows this is a common occurrence.  But if people feel as though they are not paying for a service or resource – even when they are – are they less likely to speak up when the resource is threatened?

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This exchange is a really good example of this.  These two gentlemen are both lawyers in Ontario.  Let’s assume they both pay the full freight in lawyer dues and that, therefore, they contribute to the library levy that is assessed against Ontario lawyers.  That currently totals nearly $14 million dollars, or just over 10% of the Law Society’s annual budget.

What does that buy you?  Lawyers in Ontario have access to 49 law libraries around the province, a central library staffed more than 55 hours a week with phone and chat services, as well as commercial database access in all the libraries.  It’s a print collection and professional staff and much more.  It’s CanLII.  [It doesn’t cover the Ontario Reports, the subject of that tweet’s interaction.]

How do libraries move from information is free to information is free to you?

Unfortunately, I think the discussion sometimes only happens after the resource or service disappears.  There are many instances of courthouse law libraries closing.   Montana’s state library just cancelled a significant set of databases, which has the trickle down effect that high school students (not paying for them directly or indirectly) lose access to them.  In some cases, when the decision to cut comes, it leads to unstaffed libraries.  There are lots of things library staff can do, and a key one is to act as a reminder that there is a financial cost to access information.  They can’t do that if the library is reduced to a physical container with an unsupported collection.

Corporate (including law firm) libraries can bill back to their researchers, where the chargebacks may not have actual financial impact but create a dollar value for the activity.  Public libraries struggle with this, because, while many libraries offer a public library calculator, this is a pale approximation of the value of the library as a whole.  Do we end up only putting a price on the content (“you saved $X by borrowing Y paperbacks” or “you saved $Q by searching R database”)?  Are we further submerging the cost and value of putting books on the shelf (and back on the shelf), of federating access to databases, of being on hand (or chat or phone) to assist when the researcher is stuck?

There’s no question in my mind that libraries are perceived as being a free resource except, perhaps, to the people who are paying the bills.  Governments and library funding sources are aware of the staggering costs of libraries, public or special.  They will continue to cut back on these information services and resources because the downside to cutting libraries is generally smaller than the downside to cutting other things.  As we simultaneously dilute the types of services we provide – creating new buildings or expenses – we can create funding burdens that are unsustainable.