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by Jessie Bach
Across most of the world, use of public libraries is free. The UNESCO Public Library Manifesto even states that “the public library shall in principle be free of charge.” New Alberta library patrons in several communities are often surprised, then, to learn that their local library charges a membership fee.
How is it that Alberta became one of the only jurisdictions in North America to allow libraries to charge membership fees? It comes down to politics, and ultimately money. Alberta libraries are governed by legislation called the Libraries Act, which details when libraries can and cannot require payment from their patrons. The Libraries Act prohibits libraries from charging a fee for entering the library, using library resources in the library, borrowing library resources in traditional formats, ordering materials via interlibrary loan or consulting with library staff. However, it does provide a loophole that allows libraries to charge for “the issuance of library cards.” Some libraries in Alberta took advantage of this loophole for decades, but membership fees became ubiquitous in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, as libraries scrambled for sources of revenue due to Klein-era government cutbacks and the rise of user-pay models for a number of public services.
More recently, the elimination of these membership fees has emerged as a major trend among Alberta public libraries. The movement, however, has been slow to gather much momentum as libraries struggle to replace the lost revenue. The first library in the province to remove their fee was the Banff Public Library, in 2000. Whitecourt, Drayton Valley, and Leduc followed in 2005, removing their membership fees as a way to celebrate Alberta’s Centennial. As of February 2016, the most recent year statistics are available, eighty-six Alberta libraries offered free cards. That number is higher today as more and more libraries have made the move to go fee-free.
I asked Andrea Johnston, Acting Director at the Cochrane Public Library – where an adult card is twenty dollars annually, student and senior cards fifteen dollars, and child and youth cards are free – why their library continues to charge a membership fee. Unsurprisingly, it comes down to money. Johnston told me that “currently, membership fees act as a revenue source for our library and with looming budget cuts and the uncertainty of the world post-COVID, these fees have continued to be a necessity for library operations.”
Johnston notes that at the Cochrane Public Library, “we have a lot of patrons express surprise at having to pay for a library card. Many of them come from out-of-province where library cards are free, so they’re always surprised when we ask for money. But when we talk about how the funding is structured and because we have no PST here, they usually get on board and are happy to pay for it. Especially when they see how much they can get with their cards!” It’s true that the return-on-investment for a library membership is a great deal. In 2016, for example, the average library patron in Alberta borrowed 9.5 items each. Assuming a cost of eighteen dollars per item, a twenty-dollar library membership will save you $151 each year in items borrowed rather than purchased.
The materials that are loaned out to patrons are just one of the valuable services provided by libraries, and Johnston stressed that the cost of a library membership brings a lot of bang for your buck. “Along with all the great access to books, movies, video games, and a wonderful host of eResources, the Cochrane Public Library hosts a large Library of Things that patrons can check out for free with their cards! We have power tools, gardening tools, wellness items including indoor exercise equipment and games, traditional picnic games, outdoor equipment including hiking and camping gear, a ghost hunting kit, telescopes, microscopes, board games, puzzles, ukuleles, LEGO Mindstorm robots, Cricut cutters, laptops, eReaders, and Book Clubs in a Bag! Further, a library card is the ticket to all our amazing programs where we have everything from book clubs to technology programs to STEAM sessions for kids! There’s so much to do with a Cochrane Public Library card and we love to keep making it better and better!”
One of the basic principles of library service is that it should be barrier-free and available to all. A membership fee, however small, is at odds with this principle. At Cochrane Public Library, staff have been trained to waive the fee to anyone who is unable to afford it. This is a common practice among most Alberta public libraries that continue to charge membership fees. For example, a note on the Strathmore Municipal Library website FAQ page states “if you are experiencing financial difficulty, we will gladly waive your membership fee.” No matter how willing libraries are to waive the fees for those in need, their existence still presents a barrier to universal access. The practices like those described above still require prospective patrons to self-disclose their financial hardship, which many people may not be willing to do – especially in person, as most libraries outside the large urban centres do not offer the option to purchase a membership online. As well, if the option to waive the fees is not clearly advertised on library websites or promotional material – and a small, personal survey of library websites shows that it is not – many patrons will see that there is a fee and choose to forego a membership without exploring further options.
Indeed, in nearly every article I could find about an Alberta library that recently eliminated membership fees, they reported an explosion of new members. Banff Public Library, the first to eliminate fees, saw three times as many new members sign up in January 2000, over the same month the previous year. Similarly, Calgary Public Library eliminated their membership fees in late 2014, and within a year membership had increased by 132,000. When Canmore Public Library removed their membership fee on May 1, 2019, they were rewarded with a 132% increase in new memberships year over year for the month of May. These are huge increases in new patrons, and a stark indication that membership fees were a deterrent to many who then jumped on the chance to get one when they became free.
Back at the Cochrane Public Library, Andrea Johnston is aware that until they can abolish their membership fee altogether, the library will not be truly barrier free. She states that “if we could cancel the fee and offer our town free library cards tomorrow, we would jump all over that opportunity. For now, unfortunately, we are still charging for memberships, but we hope to secure the funding to be able to allow for free cards in the Town of Cochrane.” My impression is that most other public libraries in the province feel the same.
If you would like to support your library in reducing barriers to access by going membership-fee-free, the municipal elections this fall provide a great opportunity. Libraries are funded in part by their local municipality, and municipal councils must approve local library budgets. When you’re deciding where to cast your vote, make sure to choose a candidate that supports libraries and understands the importance of equitable library service to their community.
Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.
Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.
Feature image photo credit: Photo Pink piggy bank on books, wooden table and green background created by AntonMatyukha