Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A free public library?

I recently posted a message on JISC LIS-Pub-Libs in reply to a query about policy on handling requests for items not in stock in an authority. Several libraries had indicated that they have a two-tier charging policy: a basic fee for making a reservation for an item and an additional fee for obtaining an item on inter-library loan. This is my message:

Here is a little cat among the ILL request pigeons! Under the Public Library Act 1964 , the local authority is obliged to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service Authorities can fulfil this obligation by "the keeping of adequate stocks, by arrangements with other library authorities, and by any other appropriate means" ILLs are presumably an "other appropriate means". 2a The act says that "Except as provided by this section, no charge shall be made by a library authority (otherwise than to another library authority) for library facilities made available by the authority". 8(1) An exemption is given i.e. "but this subsection shall not prevent any regulations under this section from authorising the making of charges in respect of the use of any facility for the reservation of written materials" 8 (3d). However, it is clear that many library authorities not only make a "charge in respect of the use of any facility for the reservation of written materials" but also make a separate charge as a contribution to the cost of obtaining an ILL loan. Is this later charge justified under the 1964 act? Could it not be argued that the charge for reservation should be a single flat charge and that there is nothing in the act to allow a variable charge related to the cost of obtaining that reservation? In other words you can charge for a reservation, but the provision of written materials has to be free irrespective of the means you use to provide that material. I don't pretend that this is helpful!! I just wondered if it had been considered.

The point I am making is that public libraries are rightly proud of providing a "free" service but in many instances the service is not free. If the wanted item is on the shelves (assuming it is written material and not another format) then it is free. If it is in stock but not on the shelves there is a small reservation fee which is reasonable. However if the item has to be obtained on ILL there can be a considerable charge. The JISC correspondence on this issue mentioned charges from £2 to £5 per item. This is significant because of the nature of the material that is likely to be in stock. Public libraries inevitably will stock material that will be in demand i.e. "popular" and not stock more "specialized" material. I don't want to get into the argument here about if libraries are dumbing down (see my previous postings on Excellence and equity) but the fact is that a library user in, say, Rotherham would be able to read the works of Jeremy Clarkson or Dan Brown free of charge but might have to pay £4 to read The Savage Mind by Claude Lévi-Strauss. (To be fair, Rotherham libraries does stock some titles by Claude Lévi-Strauss and could probably borrow a copy from Sheffield Libraries free of charge via the SINTO ILL scheme).

I am not particularly concerned as to whether the Public Libraries Act of 1964 does or does not permit charging for ILLs (as opposed to charging for reservations in general). I am sure that if you paid some lawyers enough money they could make a very convincing case either way. I accept that it would be very difficult for public libraries to take on the costs of providing ILLs free of charge. Even the current charges seldom cover the cost of obtaining a book from the British Library for example. I am concerned that public libraries seem to accept this two tier charging without question especially as the dividing line between free and charged for can be presented as an issue of quality.

The recent CILIP guidelines "What makes a good library service" makes a strong case for the value of public libraries without talking about a free service. Should we not be a bit more honest with ourselves that the library service is not completely free at point of use and that the dividing line between free and paid for can be arbitrary and possible unfair?


Hazel said...

Northamptonshire libraries charges £1 to reserve an item. The most recent one I requested came from a Derbyshire library so presumably was obtained on ILL.

Carl said...

See Tom Roper's blog on this http://www.roper.org.uk/tr/2009/11/a-free-public-library.html