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Who can use a library? A public library director’s comments

I was chatting on Facebook with my former college roommate Shirley who is a library director in Iowa and I asked her to comment on the recent posts on the Dominic Phillips/Colbert video and access to libraries. She provided such interesting information that I asked permission to share with you. These are Shirley’s comments:

Not sure if you want me to post. Over the years, we have become very strict about who can use our library – and it is very hard to turn people away.

The issue is that people who pay taxes are paying for the service that is presented as "free". But when your funding body looks at you serving everyone the same, they wonder why they should contribute money / allocate a budget that provides a service for those outside.

There are a lot of ways to look at this. Our situation is somewhat unique because we are part of a county wide agency. There are communities in the county who have chosen NOT to provide library service for their citizens. 

It took me a long time to get to the point where this doesn’t bother me.  Libraries should be available to everyone and equal for everyone, but libraries are not equal.

The amount a city budgets for a library directly effects what kind of services, collection, etc. that library can offer. Through a state program, if they provide library service – through a contract or directly to a library – they are eligible to use any library in the state.  But when they choose not to dedicate tax dollars to support library service, they aren’t.

Cities cannot afford to subsidize use by nonresidents unless there is some "payback". In some cases this is economic – they come to town and shop so using the library is a fair exchange. It took me a long time to get to the point where this doesn’t bother me.

If a resident of a city that pays $10.00 for service doesn’t think that is enough, he needs to advocate for better budgets so his city library can provide better service, not go to the library down the road where the tax payers are paying $100.00 so that they have exemplary service.

It is a tough argument but until libraries are state funded or federally funded – or supported by something other than property taxes, it is hard for me to argue that nonresidents should receive the same services as residents.

In our situation, we allow anyone to use the library – look at things, attend programs, etc. If they are eligible for the state program, they can also check out materials the same as residents. If they want "full services" they can purchase a prorated membership card for $24.00 per year for an individual and $48 for a family. If not, they have to pay $1.00 to place holds, $1.00 per half hour to use the computers are are not eligible for ILL services. Residents of communities that are not eligible for this state access program (don’t support libraries in any way) are not able to purchase a card either.

It hurts to turn them away (especially the children who don’t understand) but doing otherwise undervalues the services libraries offer.

Shirley Vonderhaar
Library Director, James Kennedy Public Library – Dyersville, Iowa

What do you think, readers?


  1. I think Shirley is right when she says that libraries aren’t free. They are funded to provided free services to a specific group.

  2. Mainly this just makes me feel very, very sad.