Libraries Are Funny Things

Libraries are a funny thing in my small-government world. I support libraries. I utilize the services of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library all the time. I even have a book checked out from the library right now. I think the world would be a better place if libraries actually had more patrons, as we’d all be a little more educated at the end of the day.

But, there’s a problem with libraries. They’re expensive. Budgets are failing and libraries are being forced to close or dwindle the number of services they offer.

To be fair, some services just seem silly, like movie rentals. Have you ever taken a hard look at movie rentals from a library? The wait list is huge, and even though it’s free, most people prefer to get Netflix to get them sooner, despite it costing $10 a month. Why? Even before Netflix, people still supported Blockbuster more than libraries for movie rentals. Why?

It may have something to do with that evil profit motive. Blockbuster, and now Netflix, negotiate deals with movie studios that call for the studios to supply a bunch of DVDs to the rental companies for nothing, and then Netflix and Blockbuster pay a small portion of the rental fee back to the studio on each rental. You pay $10 a month to Netflix and $4 of it goes to the studios, $2 goes to postage and the rest goes to Netflix (or some formula like that). It encourages the studios to produce more disks so they can get to more customers, faster. Thus, no huge backlogs and it’s all for a cheap price that virtually everybody can afford.

Libraries, on the other hand, buy a movie at a price of $80 or more for “public licenses”. They buy it once and rent it out forever and ever for free. This means that it’s cost-prohibitive for libraries to buy a whole bunch of the latest movie and they can only “break even” on their purchase after it’s rented by a hundred or more people. Plus, they never get any incentive to make sure it is rented or any revenue streams.

The same goes for books. In Indianapolis, the library charges $75 in some cases for a lost or stolen book. Why $75 for a $9.99 book? Because the library paid $75 to get the rights to distribute it for free and that’s why they have at most, only a handful of any given book. I’ve been on waiting lists for books at the library as long as 5 or 6 weeks.

That’s horribly inefficient and so inconvenient that most people don’t bother with the library. The business model could be so vastly superior, even if they charged a small usage fee for book rentals. They’re some websites that mail books like Netflix mails movies, like and, but their selection is still small. I hope they can get to a point where the price drops and the selection improves. I’m sure it will. If it does, it’s another problem for libraries’ relevancy.

They’re other services the library provides, like access to copy machines and computers. However, copy machines can be found all over the place. My local grocery stores have them and fax machines for 25 cents a copy – the same price as the library. Internet access is a plus, but only because the library has the computers, too. To be honest, I don’t have an answer to where people can go for the use of a computer free or not. Although, I’m sure something could be developed.

I like libraries, but frankly, only because so few people use them. Libraries have nothing to gain from increased usage and in fact are harmed by increased usage. “More money” isn’t necessarily the solution there, as you’d still be buying books and media for insanely high prices. A sliding scale for library patron fees may be a solution. And, ideally, a more central or regional approach may be in order, too. A sort of “national library”, if you will, whereby one or two competing organizations strike deals with publishers on behalf of libraries across the country or a state, similar to how Netflix strikes deals for the entire US.

Libraries need not fight for more money so much as they need to be fighting to innovate by securing deals and agreements and making better use of increasingly popular eBook readers. Innovation in a business model that hasn’t changed much since the founding of our nation is a solution that everyone can agree to get behind for the sake of our wallets and our minds.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

5 thoughts on “Libraries Are Funny Things”

  1. Actually, it’s not true that libraries pay a “public license” fee for books or feature films. They cost the same to the library as they do to an average consumer. The reason replacement fees are so high is to cover the cost of processing them (acquiring, cataloging, labeling, adding anti-theft devices, and in some cases, shipping to branch libraries). The high cost is almost meant to be a deterrent to people who might decide to just keep a book they like, rather than return it.

    In fact, most of your speculation here about libraries being so great because they are largely unused isn’t really true. Libraries are very widely used, and usage only increases when the economy is troubled.

    Libraries are great because they offer equal access to resources for all people, regardless of ability to pay. Libraries are not intended just to get copies of bestsellers into readers’ hands for free, but to preserve the products of human knowledge. We collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to information for all people.

    If you couldn’t tell, I’m a librarian. If you’d like more information about the mission and purpose of libraries, and about library usage in times of economic crisis, check out the American Library Association’s @your library website:

  2. Laura, I stand corrected on the matter of how much libraries pay for materials. I had spoken to library staffers at the Irvington Branch and the Central Library before that indicated they paid many times the face value of the book (or whatever material) for public license use. Perhaps it varies by library systems?

    Like I said, I’m a supporter of libraries. I even helped facilitate the development of a website for free earlier this year for the Sustainable Library Coalition, (

    My overall hope is that libraries can continue to innovate on ways to deliver their services, particularly in the budding eBook field. I’m consistently agitated at not being able to read library books on my Kindle that I keep hoping libraries can get in on that. I recognize the barriers in doing so. And IMCPL does offer books for download, but they can’t be read outside a computer, which is practically useless for actual reading.

  3. Justin, thank you for your support of IMCPL and your work with the Sustainable Library Coalition. I work for the library and I’m sorry about the misinformation you received.

    DVDs are extremely popular and account for 20% of our circulation. Our cost for a new feature film from a distributor averages $22. We do not pay a “public license” fee for DVDs we loan. We typically purchase 50-75 copies of new movies. More of our DVD budget goes into older titles, classics, independent and foreign films, series, documentaries, and educational films than first run titles. Like retail sellers, we purchase books at a discount from the list price; there are no added charges for rights. Economy of scale works to our advantage as a large system.

    Many patrons borrow our freely available materials rather than rent. Because the library is supported by tax dollars materials and information are provided free of charge to citizens. This distinguishes us from paid subscription services. If a patron loses a book, they are charged only the price the library paid for it. To use your example, if we paid $9.99 for a book, the patron would be charged $9.99 to replace it.

    As for wait lists on popular items, our goal is a ratio of five requests per copy. So, if there are 75 copies of a new novel and 150 patron requests there are actually only two requests per copy. Due to funding constraints we’ve reduced our materials budget so the waiting list for popular material is longer than we want it to be but with some grant funds & the work of the Indy Library Coalition we hope to restore funds to increase titles and copies and reduce the wait time.

    Free Internet access is in great demand. 1.2 million session hours were logged in 2009. We can only expect demand to increase. Statistics on a variety of library usage measures can be found on our website, Select “About the Library” and then “Annual Report” to view these. In 2009, IMCPL circulated 17.1 million items and the public made 5.9 million visits to our locations.

    We share your enthusiasm for the ebook format and are working with library cooperatives and vendors to expand access to a wide selection of downloads for a large menu of devices. You can access OverDrive on our website and download to devices including BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, Barnes & Nobles NOOK, Kobo, and Sony Reader in addition to pcs.

  4. I currently have 42 items checked out and 7 items on hold. I am sure my wife has a similar amount out. My wife uses many of her books to teach her art classes.

    I only pay $90 a year for the library, but I am sure that I save hundreds of dollars using it. I’m in no great hurry to see new releases and tend not to watch popular DVDs. Many of the books and lectures we check out tend not to be popular, so we can hold onto them for months if we want to. I am always surprised by the number of people looking at the DVDs when I visit my library.

    Justin do you know many families with small children? Have you seen the hefty bags of children’s books that some mothers carry into the library?

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