So, this is one of those kind of long, somewhat philisophical, almost political posts that connects two random thoughts knocking about in my brain. You've been warned!
A few months ago, I read this article on the American Library Association web site by D.J. Hoek and it really struck a chord with me. In it, the author makes the point that when it comes to public library advocacy and education people tend to really emphasize the fact that services and materials at the library are FREE. When in fact....those services and materials and databases and tools are NOT free. They're paid for by taxes or grants or fund raising or tuition and fees. Now, libraries are free in the sense that there is some level of easy/open access, and most goods and services do not cost anything out of pocket. But the most true statement is that libraries offer their community and customers a good VALUE. In our county library system, for example, an out-of-county library card costs $30 per year, because that's what finance has estimated as the amount per year per taxpayer that goes to the library budget. $30. Dollars. Per. Year. What a value! Access to high speed internet (okay, so "high" is maybe a stretch some days), hundreds of thousands of books, expensive academic databases, genealogy databases, educational and entertainment programs, author events, a job seeking lab, and expert research or reader's advisory assistance -- all for $30 per year. And you know that out-of-print book that the library doesn't own? Or the $200 academic door-stopper that you don't want to buy? Even if the library doesn't carry it, we can request it from out-of-system libraries through Interlibrary Loan. That does cost $2 out-of-pocket for shipping costs...but still, $2 is a lot cheaper that what you can buy it for.
The thing is -- and the Hoek makes this point as well -- by telling people over and over that the library is free, we are actually DEVALUING the library. If it's free, it must not be worth anything, right? I've used examples of tangible, physical library services, but the value of a library goes so far beyond just books and movies and internet access. You can read this article for examples of some of the more intangible benefits of a public library (now, I will say that as my political views lean more libertarian these days, I have some unique opinions on how a public library could and should be funded/run, but that's a discussion for a different post! It still doesn't diminish my passion for the vaule of public libraries). And librarians for the most part really GET the value of the library, and work very hard to make sure that each dollar is used to its full potential. We take care of our resources because they are limited (it's why we want those books back!) and because we are, in essence, stewards of a small bit of your hard-earned money.
The other day, I was thinking about other "free" things: free healthcare, free childcare, free schooling, free food. And the thing is, none of these things are actually free. Someone is paying for them. Sure, they may cost nothing to the customer/user. But those doctors/nurses/teachers/farmers/ranchers/shop owners are getting payed. Who is paying them? Obviously, government subsidised services are payed for through taxes. But even when those free services that are offered through non-government organizations, they still cost something. The doctor in Guatamala offering free care to poor families is giving of his own time and money. The non-profit food bank got that free food using monetary donations and funds. The school in Haiti run by an NGO is paying its staff with some kind of donation system. My point is not whether or not any of those things should be offered at no direct cost to the user. Again, that's a whole other debate. My point, is that by calling any no-direct-user-cost goods or service free we are devaluing those goods and services, regardless of who is subsidizing the program (public or private). If it's free, it must not be worth anything, right? It's subtle, and it's subconscious. And honestly, at times it's fake and disingenuous and sometimes condescending. I will admit, that there are times and places when the value of free goods and services is fully realized by everyone involved. And it's great. What would happen, if everyone started to recognize the value of "free" goods and services. Not in a way that divides the giver and receiver (because at some point, we are all a giver or receiver). But in a way that allows gratitude to grow and seep into our subconcious and become who we are. Just simply recognizing that all things come at a cost.
Think about that for a minute: all things come at a cost.
Food, water, shelter, education, medical care, toilet paper, indoor plumbing, art.
Because when something costs SOMEONE SOMETHING, it is infinitely more valuable.