How Much is a Free Public Library Worth in Cash?


The Chelmsford (MA) Library has an interesting marketing tool on their website...they ask readers to estimate how much money they would spend on services that the library offers completely free, such as Interlibrary Loan, computer hours, programs, etc. and ties a monetary value to each.

The library encourages librarians & webmasters to add the calculator to their own websites.


Lots of libraries are using similar tools for marketing the cost-effectiveness of their services. I saw a similar service from Vermont Library Association and the State of Maine a while back.

I Googled it for kicks.

A while ago I compiled a list of the libraries I could find using this tool. It is available from the Maine State Library's website, but let me know if you need help installing it on your own website.

Palm Harbor Library (where I once was the information services libraian- whatever that was) has recently put it on their website at

"First developed by Massachusetts Library Association in spreadsheet form, then adapted for the web by Chelmsford Public Library and mounted by Maine State Library (another WebJunction partner), it's been adopted and adapted by a number of libraries. It's an interesting way for community members to calculate the value of their own library use."

That's what I said about the Library Value Calculator in one of my "Storied Library" pieces for WebJunction last spring, just confirming what another comment said. It's a nice piece of work that almost any public library could adapt to local circumstances.

The libraries' services are not free. We pay for them through our taxes.

Why do they feel the need to lie? To suggest that borrowing a book has a value of $12.50 is absurd. As an example the last public library book I read - a mystery by Ralph McInerney is for sale on Amazon for 94¢. Borrowing a magazine, two dollars. I get a year of Popular Mechanics at home for twelve bucks.

That is not to say a library does not have value. I can get a journal article in a few weeks through ILL or a book I want to read a chapter or two in a week from a distant city, but to suggest that 12 dollars an hour for using a computer is a reasonable rate is absurd. You don't even pay that in Manhattan.

If I were to tally up the true cost of services I get from the library annually and compare that with the taxes I pay for the library I would certainly come out ahead - but I am a librarian and I know what is available. Perhaps this is a simplistic tool to explain the economies of scale, but does inflating the value of servies truly serve libraries well.

If a patron thinks it does cost $12.50 for the library to circulate the DaVinci Code once will they truly see that as a good value for their tax dollar when they can get it deliverd to their house by UPS for three-fiftyone and never have to return it?

Do we want to treat patrons like fools?

To suggest that borrowing a book has a value of $12.50 is absurd. As an example the last public library book I read - a mystery by Ralph McInerney is for sale on Amazon for 94¢.

And does your library buy from or does it buy from the publisher?

And what are the issues raised from buying from For instance, can or does Amzn guarantee the copy it will send you will be in mint or even just good condition? And what about the author's cut of the proceeds? One of the beefs we have with second-hand book sales is that we don't get any royalties from them. The same would hold true if we marketed our books ourselves through Print On Demand.

. . . will they truly see that as a good value for their tax dollar when they can get it deliverd to their house by UPS for three-fiftyone and never have to return it?

That's not borrowing, that purchasing. You're comparing apples and oranges, here.

To address the issue, however, I don't think your concerns on that score are valid. I would think that the people more likely to borrow a work of popular fiction are the people who don't read a great deal and therefore do not buy all that many books. I would surmise that someone who does read a great deal is more likely to buy his or her own copy once they hear by word of mouth that the book is a good read.

Save the easily offended: ban everything.

I generally buy my books from Inkwood books in Tampa, Florida. They are one of the local independent bookstores and fairly close to my office. I also use Haslams bookstore in St. Petersburg a larger independent book store. I do use Amazon from time to time, primarily becuase my bank gives gift certificates to Amazon as rebates for using your credit/debit card. I get about $100/ quarter in those rebates because I use my debit card for almost all expenses.
I occasionally buy from publishers - well O'Reilly or a University Press if it is something I want quickly and they are the source.

As for the library when I worked there I did occasionally buy from Amazon, however most of my purchases were from Baker and Taylor. I did use other smaller jobbers for specialty lines such as large print or video.

Actually authors don't get any remuneration when a book is borrowed from the library so comparing sales of used books at Amazon - or anywhere else, with borrowing a book from the library has the same financial benefit for the author.

Indeed buying a used paperback from Amazon is purchasing, but the site does not make it clear where they obtained their figures and as I cannot borrow a book from any place other than I library I felt it was a fairly valid point to make.

The PL at which I worked Palm Harbor Library has the calculator now and they have a link explaining how they arrived at the values. It was the cost of purchasing a book.

However I find a library - all libraries - to be remarkably valuable and much more useful than a bookstore in many ways. This is readily apparent when I see people studying in Barnes & Noble or Borders as I walk by. The added value of a library is that you can not only use the references sources which are certainly more diverse than that of a bookstore, but that you can take many of them home and photocopy pertinent sections of the remainder. Even if we don't consider the librarians and online databases and special collections and ILL, and all the other wonderful things libraries have to offer we are still far ahead with just the ability to use the materials in ways bookstores will not allow.

So I think this tool is an overly simplified, but still valuable for those who are already sold on the library.

I think a tool that compares real world values of common tasks small businesss do - preparing a mailing list and sending a mailing online using USPS tools and MS Office on a public computer, generating leads using fee based dbs, basic patent searching, conducting demographic research using census and similar dataserouces.... those sort of things would be valid comparisons for fee based vs. public library value.