The user pay system

Should access to information be free or paid?

There is a debate brewing among various professional librarians around the world as to whether access to information in public library institutions should be free or subject to the user-pay system.

Why pay for information access?

We have reached the moment in the history of humankind where population levels are high and resources are low combined with a deeply-engrained commercial interest by businesses and most people in western society to make as much money as possible. For governments and library managers to survive under these harsh conditions, it seems the way to solve this dilemma are:

Economic rationalism the heart of the user-pay system

The user-pay system goes hand-in-hand with the ideas of economic rationalism.

Economic rationalism may be defined in the words of Michael Pusey as, "the doctrine that markets and money are the only reliable way to set a value on anything." (1)

Even management experts in private industry are expecting the same business rules to apply in the public sector. As Peter F. Drucker writes in his 1985 book, Innovation and entrepreneurship: practices and principles:

"Public service institutions will have to learn to be innovators, to manage themselves entrepreneurially. To achieve this, public sector institutions will have to learn to look upon social, technological, economic, and demographic shifts as opportunities in a period of rapid change in all these areas.

'The knowledge is there. The need to innovate is clear.

'To build entrepreneurial management into the existing public-sector institutions may thus be the foremost political task of this generation."

The people who believe in the user-pay system

Therefore we have one group of people who believe in the view that "there is no such thing as a free lunch". Everyone must eventually pay for everything they use. Even if the total cost of the service in information access at the end of the day may turn out to be worth only one cent per person each day with the help of modern technology, this group of people still expect everyone to pay for what they use (probably at a rate of $2.50 per hour for a service they or the customers think they need to have using any clever marketing technique) because they prefer to see it as a privilege rather than a right.

And how do these people intend to get the rest of society to pay for the information? As Howard Paul, General Manager of Standards Australia Publishing, said:

"...one solution is to simply open up our Treasury [ie. online information web site] to everyone, forget about only selling ingots [ie. CDs and books], and sell as much or as little knowledge as the user needs. It's a user-pay approach to on-line intellectual property. The customers can go wherever they want within the Treasury, use what data they need, in any sequence they prefer. But they are charged by-the-byte and debited electronically at the time of purchase. Our costs are reduced, and the customer gets a better deal both financially and operationally.

'An even more radical solution that offers the best outcome for [our] clients...is a model where our basic service is a low-cost flat-rate annual subscription to our full on-line Treasury. If we were starting our business now, this model would be best, with the benefit of low internal cost-structure and high end-user value." (2)

Unfortunately, the exact pricing model has yet to be determined because it will challenge the fundamental pricing model approach taken by traditional businesses. As Paul agrees:

"But unravelling 80 years of tradition, and implementing an untested distribution model, while at the same time maintaining revenue in the transitional period, is the sort of challenge which, for Consensua, the ancient Greek God of standardization, would be proof indeed that those whom the Gods destroy, they first make mad." (3)

The people who believe in 'free' information access

Then there is another group of people who believe access to information should be free or so cheap using appropriately low-cost technology that it can be easily paid for by society. Why? Because of altruistic and noble reasons. If it will help people to grow into independent and socially-responsible citizens (perhaps through the development of new ideas or ways of doing things, or helping people get themselves out of poverty), then the information should be free access.

This 'free library' movement began in the 1930s. It came about at a time when population levels were manageable, resources were seen as unlimited, and the idea of making huge profits using any clever marketing technique was not the highest priority for businesses and government (rather it was a question of making sure the customer is happy). Consequently there was an opportunity to have equitable distribution of a wide variety of library services to everyone.

It probably also helped if there was a strong social conscious in the policies of the government of the day, which seemed to be the case in the 1930s.

Whatever the situation, this resulted in the case for free access to information for the 'public good' being sufficiently persuasive to entice the state government to fund the services.

Today, we have public libraries being at least partially funded by local government with some free services being made available such as borrowing books thanks to the efforts of the "free-library" movement group all those many years ago.

The dilemma—should the user pay or should the user have free access?

So here is the crux of the argument. On the one hand, people argue that there is no longer the opportunity to provide equitable distribution of services. There simply isn't enough resources to go around. People must now pay for all the remaining services.

On the other hand, one can argue that as soon as you introduce a user-pay system, you are enhancing the unequitable distribution of resources based on economic reasons and hence the proverbial gap between rich and poor starts to widen. Only free access to information combined with a compassionate heart among the people of society will provide a much better opportunity for everyone to achieve their full potential for the benefit of society.

How would we resolve this dilemma?

The key word here is balance.

If the people of any well-developed society discover some of the information and/or services in libraries as not serving any real benefit to the individual and society as a whole, or if the services offered by libraries are clearly too expensive to fund through the tax system, then it is reasonable to expect individuals to pay for the access.

However, if access to information is not that expensive and the information itself can be shown to be of benefit or potential benefit to everyone, then efforts should be made to make that information freely accessible to everyone.

And if, for any reason, society should discover borderline cases in the information where it cannot be determined whether it should be free or paid for, then it is better to listen to the needs of every individual on a person-by-person basis and then decide what would be appropriate for each case. This ensures that there are no economic or social disadvantages taking place for any specific individual or group or even the businesspeople whose job is to create information for society for profit, when using either the "free-for-all" or the "user-pay" system.

Work smarter, not harder!

If resources are low and/or population levels are high, we must all consider some kind of user-pay system until new technologies become available to solve the problem. As Georgina Cane, former Executive Director of ASCIS, said:

"The move towards payment for services is inevitable given the financial climate in which we all live." (4)

While this is the way it should be for now, it is up to the librarians of today and in the future to learn to work smarter, not harder. If librarians want to return to the days when access to information was free, they have to be a whole lot cleverer in how they acquire and deliver information services than ever before.

Otherwise the State and Federal governments, whose role is presumably to bring equity in a society, will have to come up with new "balanced" and clever social and economic policies such as the idea of providing core library services for free and to get users to pay for value-added services beyond the core standard.

To minimise costs over the long term, we have to invest in new, low-cost technology for delivering information services today. That is why a large amount of money—in fact, $1 billion—is being spent by the Singapore government between 1996 and 2004 on upgrading libraries for its people. But even in this country, the heavy investment in the library system still requires some services to have a fee attached to them while core services remained free.

If we are to make all library services free, libraries must concentrate on selecting free, high-quality information. And that will probably mean the information may have to be in the digital format.

Or perhaps governments and librarians should provide more sex education books (and even information to teach people the difference between 'needs' and 'wants') in the library to help every user control their innate desire to have three or more babies and to make as much money as they want so they can have everything they like.

In that way, we could make everything a whole lot more affordable or free to everyone in a couple of decades from now!