Dispatches | August 24, 2010

There has been talk, elsewhere in the literary hemisphere of the blogosphere, of what the consequences would be if libraries started charging their patrons a subscription fee in order to access their collections.  The talk I heard/read was prompted by an article in the Guardian this summer that addressed the London Library’s speculation that it might have to raise its patrons’ subscription rates.  As far as I know, subscriptions are mostly unheard of at public libraries in the United States, though I admit I’m no librarian and my knowledge is limited.

Over at Survival of the Book, it was speculated that this subscription model for libraries could potentially save America’s libraries, which are in peril, as a quick Google News search for “libraries” will attest.  Libraries are cutting hours and closing branches – because, of course, they don’t have enough money.

To offer an anecdotal description of the effects of this, when I dwelt in Cleveland in 2006-2007 I lived downtown and commuted to work in the suburbs – for some reason – and by the time I returned home from my long drive, every evening just before six, the library was already locking its doors.  I would have been glad to pay a small fee in order to help keep the building open later than that.  I would have spent my evenings patronizing the table where they displayed their collection of recently published poetry collections – or at least I would have watched television at home with the knowledge that I had the option to go read those poetry collections.

One of the obvious objections to the concept of the subscription library is that it flies in the face of the egalitarian principles we like to uphold, or at least talk about upholding, in America.  But rather than announce that I am all in favor of free libraries and access to them for everyone, whatever the consequences, I should emulate Orwell for a moment, and admit complicating facts.  Here is one:  I am someone who spends much of his time at a library that I pay to use – my university library.  Not only is it funded by my student fees, other students’ tuitions, and money from inevitable other sources; I am willing to shell out tens of dollars a year so that I can have access to my own personal study carrel, buried in the stacks near the literature on handling livestock.  Perhaps the library has resources set aside for community members that I don’t know about, but as far as I can tell a library card costs a non-student, non-faculty, non-staff user $35.  So we do have what amount to subscription libraries, after all.

At least, for now, we have free alternatives to them.  I have to wonder, finally, what a non-university subscription library would look like.  Would it be dramatically different from what we now expect a library to be?  Would it carry only the books that its subscribers requested?  Would it do the important work of archiving our culture’s printed material, which we entrust it with now?  Would it subscribe to the New York Times or USA Today, if it could afford only one, and how would its librarians make that decision?  Would it subscribe to a literary journal?

Robert Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor