Evanston’s Public Library Board is demanding more power to tax residents, but a library district in California has come up with a new way to generate revenue from its users.

The library in Hayward, Calif., a San Francisco suburb of 144,000 people, has chosen to offer residents the option of paying to borrow material from the library the way subscribers to the movie rental service Netflix do — with a fixed monthly fee. In return, they’re never charged a fine for overdue books.

In its recent study of sustainable funding, an Evanston library task force discussed just four choices — three tax schemes plus charitable fundraising. None involved generating more revenue from library services.

But while that report was being written, Hayward was launching — to considerable publicity in the library world — its plan, believed to be the first in the nation.

Hayward’s library director, Sean Reinhart, says the program is designed to appeal most to the 20 percent of the library’s users who have been blocked from further borrowing because of unpaid library fines.

In a podcast interview in late April with Sarah Ann Long, then executive director of the Chicago area’s North Suburban Library System, Reinhart said he runs into a lot of people who don’t use the libary any more because of unpleasantness around fines. Getting dinged for keeping a book out too long doesn’t fit with the consumer experience today, Reinhart says.

So instead he developed the fines-free program. It lets users borrow three items at a time for $2.99 per month, five for $4.99, or 10 for $8.99 a month. They can keep items out as long as they want for no extra charge.

The recurring payments are charged to the user’s credit card by a third-party processing service that Reinhart says charges the library about 35 cents to process a $4.99 payment.

By contrast, he says, processing a similar payment by hand through the library’s own staff would cost almost as much as the total revenue generated.

And the library uses the revenue from the fines-free program to buy more books, DVDs and other materials for its collection.

The library program’s rates are much cheaper than the $8.99 a month that Netflix charges to rent just one item at a time. But then Netflix now offers the ability to watch movies online as well as get them in the mail.

In Hayward you still have to go to the library to pickup and drop off your rental items. (The library system in Orange County, Fla., has picked up on the home-delivery part of the Netflix model.)

Reinhart says he has fairly modest goals for the program, which came out of a beta test phase into general deployment early this summer.

He hopes to sign up 2 percent of the library’s card holders — or about 2,000 people — over the next two years.

If he meets the goal, and the average participant goes for the $4.99 a month plan, that would be nearly $120,000 a year in new revenue for the library.

In an interview with a local paper, Reinhart said he plans to track how circulation rates compare under the traditional and new plans, and he suspects fines-free users may end up bringing back material sooner so they can get the most for their money.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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10 Comments

  1. Interesting post–here we see

    Interesting post–here we see an example of a public servant thinking creatively in response to changing technologies and limited resources.

    In the case of Evanston we see an unaccountable board exploit a loophole in the law to raise taxes without any public engagement and no significant thought about modifying operations.

    One point to add about the library board’s "Sustainable Funding Report"–another key omission was looking into cutting services.  The fact that they didn’t even consider fiscal responsibility suggests a lack of seriousness on their part.  It is another reason why the board should be sacked ASAP by the mayor. 

  2. I don’t think our Library Board is bright enough….

    to think of new ideas. They are typical tax and spend liberals that Evanston seems to breed: throw money at everything and mismanage the entire process. The ‘satellite’ library facilities are beyond pathetic; I would love to see how much they cost the city. For the Board to consider a special library tax is irresponsible. Enough already.

  3. Several problems with this idea

    Netflix owns very many copies of each disk.  The purpose of due dates and fines is to encourage patrons to return books so that other people may use them.  If the library allowed people to hold onto books as long as they wished, it would need to acquire additional copies of popular books.  Currently, books may be kept out for four weeks if there is a hold on them.  Suppose everyone kept books as long as they wanted.  To maintain current levels of availability, every time someone kept a book more than a month, the library would need to purchase a new hardcover for around $24 + shipping and processing costs.  Since under this proposal, patrons pay $1/book/month, it would take at least three years of payments to recoup the cost of lost book availability.

    "Hayward’s library director, Sean Reinhart, says the program is designed to appeal most to the 20 percent of the library’s users who have been blocked from further borrowing because of unpaid library fines."  Most likely the 20% of users who are not paying fines are not paying them because they do not wish to check out further books.  These people would not want the subscription anyway.

    Finally, I think it takes less effort to renew or return your books on time than it would to maintain a subscription to a service.

    1. Multiple copies

      Thanks for your comments.

      The Hayward librarian says if they need more copies of a book they will buy additional copies. That’s part of their plan. My understanding is that many libraries have done the same thing for years when they have high demand for popular new books.

      The plan in part is premised on the belief of the librarian there that people become annoyed by fines — and choose to drop out as library patrons for that reason. Only time will tell whether he’s right about that.

      Since the payments for the service are automatically deducted from a credit card — same as with Netflix — there’s no effort required. Some people, of course, may oppose on principle any automatic debit program.

      — Bill

  4. Library board

     Your first sentence is very biased. The Evanston library board is not "demanding more power to tax residents."

    Instead, the library board voted to maintain a separate budget outside of the city budget. This simply means that the budget for the library will be more transparent. People will be able to determine more readily how much revenue the library generates through fines, etc., as well as how much money the library spends. 

    Please try to be accurate. You are misinforming your readers.

    1. Truth hurts

      Au contraire, my first sentence is quite accurate.

      The library board is demanding the power to set its own budget and escape from the financial control of the City Council.

      Like the idea or hate it, you can’t escape the facts.

      The current library budget looks "transparent" to me. See it here on the city website. You can find all the revenue and expense numbers right there. You’ve been fooled if you think "transparency" is the issue in this controversy.

      The issues are how much we’ll be taxed for library services and whether the elected City Council or an unelected library board will make that decision.

      — Bill

  5. Lots of Support for Library Services

    As an Evanston resident, I am proud to pay for the services provided by the city.  I also encourage the city and the library board to sustain and carefully expand our first-class library.  This costs money and residents will support the effort if value and strong management are consistently delivered.

    There are always a vocal few who don’t wish to pay for anything.  Please ignore their antisocial rhetoric.  They aren’t really part of our Community anyway.  To be a part of a Community requires investing (money, time, effort).

    Please have faith that those engaged in the Community of Evanston support well managed, valuable Community services.

    1. Curious?

      Hi Peter,

      I’m not sure what you mean by your comment. Are you proud to pay for library services through your taxes … but unwilling to pay for them on a fee-for-service basis?

      If so, how do you feel about paying for water service, garbage service or fees for recreation programs? Do you favor placing all those costs on your property tax bill as well?

      — Bill

  6. Few?

    Interesting that in any disagreement in Evanston lately, someone is accused of being "a vocal minority."

    In this case, it doesn’t matter whether the people who disagree with the library board are the minority or not: library access in Evanston isn’t equitably distributed, but library taxes affect every resident, whether they are served well or not.  This is an issue that deserves more consideration than it is getting from the library board.  Tiny "outposts" notwithstanding, some get served better than others.

    Frankly, it’s insulting to the people who are affected by high taxes and aren’t served by the branch libraries to be dismissed by the library supporters in such a manner.  How do you answer to the people in my neighborhood who can’t get to the library?  

    At the very least, you could thank them for paying your way.

  7. Evanston Business—Video

     With the closing of Davis Video last year and this month After Hours Video, I hope someone else will open a store closer to the downtown area [doubtful] or we get some more Redbox machines in Evanston—at least one downtown.

      Aside from the two Video Adventures we now only have the public library [which I assume won’t be able to substantially increase the budget for DVDs, and NU which only those associated with the university can use.   Redbox is not ideal since the number of titles is limited and the length they are carried is probably no more than a few month, but better than nothing.

      Yes there is Netflix but probably most people don’t watch enough to justify the fixed price portion.

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