Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Dallas Library Lets Patrons Jump the Queue for Five Dollars

The Dallas Public Library system has come up with a plan that will make the system a few bucks richer while placing bestselling books and movies into the hands of patrons quicker than ever. The plan sets up a two-tiered system for acquiring access to the most popular, most heavily demanded, books and movies. Under that plan, patrons have a choice: pay $5 to get a copy now or get a copy for free by waiting in line with everyone else, a wait that usually runs between six and eight weeks.

According to the Dallas Morning News:
Library officials say the program is designed to eliminate or shorten wait times for people who want to borrow popular titles rather than pay hefty retail costs. Not every best seller or top-selling movie is part of the program, but many of the hottest titles ­ 28 books and 40 DVDs ­ are now available at all branches the same day they hit bookstores.
In Dallas, the StreetSmart program doubled in size from its launch in October through December. In total, consumers spent $10,405 on 2,081 items during those three months. Hill said revenues have covered the costs of buying extra copies of popular titles.
What do you think? Good idea or bad idea?


  1. Free public libraries are one of the best things the U.S. has going for it, have been for a very long time. Five dollars doesn't sound like much, but there was a time in my life when I would not have been able to pay it. I don't think that made me less of a citizen; it made me just the sort of person who needed a library. But, I'm sure it will raise lots of money.

  2. I'm not sure whether it's a good idea or not but my initial reaction to the idea is discomfort.

    While it might be a good thing to raise funds for the library, it doesn't strike me as very egalitarian to allow people to pay to jump the queue. There are undoubtedly many public library users who are not going to be able to spend $5 whenever they would really like to read a particular book. Would this mean that if someone was unwilling or unable to pay the $5 and they were the first person in the queue, and say the library has 12 copies of the book, that the 13th person could simply pay the $5 dollars and get the book before them? What if the 14th person also decides to pay the $5 and so on?

  3. So the program is popular now, but I wonder how many patrons will continue to be willing to pay. Since the books are popular ones, they're probably the ones that get the best discounts at grocery and book stores. Will people continue to be willing to pay $5 when, for not all that much more, they'd be able to own the book (especially if they get it used)? If I were a patron there, I'd probably either wait along with everyone else or just pony up the cash for my own copy.

    And, of course, none of what I just wrote even touches on the whole issue of individuals who can afford it getting to pay for faster (better?) access to materials. Libraries, especially public libraries, are often strapped for cash, and I can understand the need to find new and creative ways to get more, but the idea of being able to get a better spot on the holds queue with money feels wrong somehow.

  4. That's crazy. If I wanted to read it so much, I'd just go buy my own copy.

  5. The article doesn't seem to describe the program very well - I looked it up on the Dallas Public Library webpage, because it sounded similar to something I've seen elsewhere.

    People can't actually pay five dollars to jump to the head of the line in the reservation system. Rather, you have the ordinary circulation stacks with the ordinary circulation rules, and then you have another shelf with a selection of highly in demand titles (constantly changing) which are available, effectively, for rental. If the book is on the rental shelf, anybody can rent it for $5, regardless of whether there's a waiting list for the general circulation copies.

    So it does help the library balance out demand - people inclined to pay to get the book when they want it will do so, and when they do, they don't have to reserve the book in the normal way, which makes those lines one name shorter. And if it pays for itself, it shouldn't (in theory) deflect any dollars from the regular collection.

    One of my libraries in Massachusetts had a system almost exactly like that, starting in 2004, I think. I never used it or heard much about it either way, but I did see people using it fairly often.

  6. Fabulous idea! I don't mind waiting a few months for new movies (I am #86 of 131 on the list for one movie at my library), but if I really, really wanted to read or watch something, I might pay. I have no interest in owning books -- I don't like having a lot of stuff and I have had to move myself way too many times to value something heavy and bulky -- so I wouldn't spend $5 to buy one. I am in favor of anything that raises revenue for the library so they can either have better hours or get more books.

  7. Thanks for all the interesting comments, y'all.

    To be fair, I probably should have said "avoid the queue" in my post title rather than "jump the queue" because the library has effectively set up two separate queues. From the sound of things, all the books and movies in the "pay queue" are bought separately, at least largely, from the proceeds of those willing to pay the premium.

    I have to admit that it does make me feel a bit uncomfortable because of the "two-tiered" system that results, though. If the system weren't so funded by taxpayers, that thought wouldn't have crossed my mind.

    Too, I wonder if this will really result in a profit for the libraries or not - the amounts of money quoted in the article don't seem all that much in a library budget the size of the one Dallas runs.

    Thanks again -

  8. I'm very uncomfortable with this type of rich step ahead program. I'm a first come, first serve type of gal.

  9. Terrible idea. Free access is the cornerstone of a public library system.

  10. I don't have much of a problem with it - as long as there are still free books available, what do I care if someone wants to pay to read one of those free books?

    I question the timing of it, though, since people are currently looking for ways to save money, not spend more.

    I also don't think it will be used enough to financially help the library very much.

  11. If the library pays $20 for the extra book and lends it four times, they break even. After that, it's all profit. They have the same variable cost to lend as they do with the free books, but now they are making money doing it.

    What's wrong with that? It just means more books and services for the rest of us. (In theory -- the library budget might be part of the general city budget and it might not get to keep any of its revenues.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I'd pay. Means no major purchase for me and no need to find shelf space at home for a book I'd not be reading again. With the cost of hardcover books these days $5.00 is a bargain.
    6-8 weeks is not a long time to wait on a list.

    At one time our library had a system where you could "rent" a new best seller for $1.00 a day. I remember driving to different branches to take advantage of the system.

    Now we have a 7 day rapid read section that features a good mix of the newest novels. New movies can be taken out for 3 days. Fines are higher when overdue.

    For someone like me it's a great system. I can get my hands on a book sooner if I don't feel I want to wait and without major expense.

    Our library rents extra copies of books (don't know the ins and outs) so there always a good number of copies when the reserve list gets long.

  14. I love the debate - you guys argue very persuasively, that's for sure.

    I'm right on the line on this one because I can see such good arguments in both directions. Maybe, though, I've been brainwashed so much about staying politically correct that I'm feeling uncomfortable about the concept for no good reason.

  15. I used a system like this in Dublin, California, back in 1995. They had a huge, modern, new library. I loved the book rental system because it charged $1 per day, and I'm a fast reader. The daily rental rate meant people turned the books around quickly, and if I was too impatient to wait four months, I could pay $2 and rent it myself.

    We have to remember that the original circulating libraries were private institutions. Free libraries are a relatively modern idea - though a pretty good one!

  16. I used to work in a library, and we had one local bigwig who donated money to the library call in to request books. He would demand to be placed at the top of the list because he donated money to the library. As this was not our policy we had to tell him we could not do so and he would get very obnoxious. Something tells me he would really like this policy.

  17. Good points,Jessica. A buck a day for fast readers would be great as long as the library were close by. I generally finish a book every 2 1/2 days so that would be a bargain for me.

    As long as there are enough copies in the regular queue, I'm OK with this idea. It's only if the freebie queue were to get short-changed that I would be unhappy with this, I think.

  18. He sounds like a real winner, Alissa. It's a shame that some people donate only to get special privileges. I wonder sometimes about those folks who have five or six stickers on their cars saying they've donated $100 each year to the police fund - do they expect to get a free pass when pulled over? And do they get one?