No Such Thing as a Free Library?

November 15, 1992

Charles M. Robinson, director of the Baltimore County Publi Library (BCPL), says he may propose to his board that it start charging out-of-county residents $10 a year for the right to check out books. He anticipates a budget cut next year and believes this would make up for it.

All local government budgets for all services are tight and will NTC probably stay that way or get worse in the years ahead. Nearly 20 percent of the patrons who check books out of the BCPL reside elsewhere -- most of them in Baltimore City. And $10 is not much. So there is a surface logic to Mr. Robinson's proposal.

But it is a bad idea. Maryland has been a pioneer in providing free library service to all state residents in all local systems on a reciprocal basis. This is done not by law but by voluntary agreement among the 24 local systems. Statewide reciprocity in the use of library cards and the resultant cooperation in planning and implementation of public library services combine to be "an asset not found in many states," as the BCPL's Blue Ribbon Committee said in a recent study of library management. In part because of this asset, Maryland ranks high in all important measurements of library quality and performance. It is, for example, second in the nation in per capita circulation.

If the BCPL imposes a non-resident library fee, other jurisdictions will certainly retaliate. Or "reciprocate," as one library board officer put it. Baltimore County may or may not be a net dollar gainer in this bookish version of a trade war. Many county residents use Howard, Harford and Carroll libraries -- and, of course, the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library, especially for research.

We take the Robinson suggestion to be a trial balloon. It is one that we expect will face strong prevailing winds in the other direction. Librarians and, we believe, politicians and ordinary citizens throughout the state would like the tradition of library cooperation kept or made even more secure.

A committee of the Maryland Library Association meets this coming Friday to consider getting the Maryland Code changed to require all local library systems to provide free service to all state residents. This makes sense in a state in which it is not unusual for a citizen to reside in one locality, and work, shop and play in several others on a daily basis.

This is an information age. Public libraries even more than public schools can make access to information accessible in truly democratic fashion to all.

In the past 30 years, Charles Robinson more than any librarian in America has attracted new patrons into libraries with innovative ideas. He has done so by going against the prevailing winds at times. Perhaps he is right that users as well as taxpayers now will have to support public libraries if they are to be excellent in tomorrow's environment. We hope not. We think not. But if he is correct, this needs to be worked out in the same spirit of cooperation that has guided Maryland's public libraries to the eminent position they occupy today.

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