Cash Cow: User Fees in Alberta Public Libraries

Cash Cow: User Fees in Alberta Public Libraries

Jason Hammond
Branch Supervisor
Southeast Regional Library
Weyburn, SK


Alberta is the wealthiest province in Canada. It is also the only jurisdiction in North America where the majority of local library boards charge patrons to use their public libraries.

There are many reasons why these fees came into being in the 1980s and continue to exist today. Library trustees see them as an easy source of funds for their cash-strapped libraries, some librarians feel that they help instill a sense of value in library materials and services, library patrons realise the fees are often less than the cost of a single paperback book and don’t mind paying them.

But the main reason the fees still exist is because of the unique form of conservatism espoused by the popular Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who favoured big business, lower taxes, and privatization of public services while leading the province from 1992 to 2006. Klein’s policies included a focus on user-pay models for all manner of services. Paying for library cards is something that Alberta’s citizens have accepted for the most part. But because of Alberta’s strong support for user-pay models, this isn’t just an issue for the librarians, patrons, and politicians of that province. The possibility also exists that libraries in other provinces could be opened up to a GATS challenge by for-profit corporations outside of Canada because of Alberta’s current user fee policies.

How this unique user fee arrangement developed, the current situation, and what the future may bring will be the subject of this paper.

Keywords: library and information studies, library policy

Grabbing The Bull By The Horns

If there had been user fees when I was growing up in Bowness, my mother could likely not have afforded a library card for us kids, never mind school expenses, and I would like not be writing this today.  But because back then, people believed in the public good, for example, in a truly public library, I had access to books – and a better life.

– Jackie Flanagan, Publisher, AlbertaViews Magazine

Alberta is the wealthiest province in Canada.  It is also the only jurisdiction in North America where the majority of local library boards charge patrons to use their public libraries. The only other region that charges for library cards is Quebec, which charges fees in approximately half of its public libraries.  (Palvadeau, 1997).

Alberta’s library user fees, originally brought in to replace funds lost due to government cutbacks in the 1980’s, have not been reversed even as Alberta gained a position as not only Canada’s wealthiest but also as its only debt-free province in the past few years.  There are many reasons why these fees continue to exist today: library trustees see them as an easy source of funds for their cash-strapped libraries, some librarians feel that they help instil a sense of value in library materials and services, library patrons realise the fees are often less than the cost of a single paperback book and don’t mind paying them. 

But, in this author’s opinion, the main reason the fees still exist is because of the unique form of conservatism espoused by the popular Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who favoured big business, lower taxes, and privatization of public services while leading the province from 1992 to 2006 (Lisac, 2005).  Klein’s policies included a focus on user-pay models for all manner of services from healthcare premiums (Taft & Stewart, 2000) to privatized car insurance (Alberta NDP, undated) to building new schools and roadways using so-called P3’s - public-private partnerships (Ferguson, 2003). 

Paying for library cards is something that Alberta’s citizens have, for the most part, accepted.  However, because of Alberta’s strong support for user-pay models, this isn’t just an issue for the librarians, patrons, and politicians of that province.  The possibility also exists that libraries in other provinces could be opened up to a GATS challenge by for-profit corporations outside Canada because of Alberta’s current user fee policies. 

How this unique user fee arrangement developed, the current situation, and what the future may bring will be the subject of this paper. 

Where Seldom Is Heard, A Discouraging Word

Before we look specifically at how Alberta’s history, politics and culture created a situation where user fees have become an accepted part of Alberta life, it is useful to note that Alberta’s immediate neighbours, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, are the only provinces that have “specifically and unambiguously” enacted their citizens’ rights to free universal public library access in their provincial legislation.  (Saskatchewan Public Libraries Act 1996; Mardiros, 2001.)

But at least one of these regions has struggled with the issue as well:

Until the current Library Act was passed in B.C [in 1996], some libraries, Cranbrook Public Library for example, did charge user fees and recovery from the loss of them, under threat of losing the provincial library operating grant, was gradual. For several years after the legislation was passed, the issue arose as a resolution at meetings of the Association of Boundary Municipalities and the Union of British Columbia Municipalities. (Anonymous Partnership Reviewer, 2006)

Although there was a struggle in B.C., the issue was eventually resolved with user fees being rejected province-wide.  So the question remains: while the two other western provinces have some of the most inclusive library policies in Canada, why does the province between them allows its libraries to be Canada’s most restrictive in terms of providing barrier-free, equitable access for all of its citizens? 

In fact, Alberta too would seem to have legislation guaranteeing free and equal access to public libraries.  Alberta’s very first Public Libraries Act was passed in 1907. That act clearly stated: ‘All libraries and reading rooms established under this Act shall be open to the public free of all charges.’” (Government of Alberta Hansard, 2005, p, 187.)  The current version of Alberta’s library legislation appears to continue defending the public’s right to borrow materials for free.  In fact, where the 1907 Act only specified that libraries be open to the public but did not mention borrowing materials for free, the current version does exactly that, stating that: “libraries are required to provide access at no charge to…library resources in any format.” (Government of Alberta Library Bylaws, 2002.)

This author sent an e-mail to the main librarians’ Jerome-L mailing list in Alberta requesting feedback on this subject (see Appendix One).  Eighteen replies were received representing people who were both in favour of and opposed to user fees.  Many of the respondents provided enlightening background information and personal anecdotes as well. 

One of these was from Alison Faid, a former chair of the Edmonton Public Library Board who explained her interpretation of how the Alberta government massages language to allow for the charging of user fees:

Officially, libraries aren't charging for use of the library, because even the Libraries Act disallows that. They are charging an "administration" fee for a library card. When I first became involved in public libraries and read the Libraries Act I couldn't believe how slippery this seemed.  Even now, the Community Development website says:

In Alberta, public library service includes the following services at no charge [emphasis hers]:

  • access to library facilities;
  • use of library resources in the library;
  • borrowing library resources, in any format;
  • acquiring library resources through interlibrary loan;
  • consultation by library staff and/or;
  • basic information service.

But, somehow most libraries in the province charge a fee - and not just a one-time fee for issuing the library card, but an annual fee.  Go figure. (Faid, 2006)

As Ms. Faid says, the Alberta government uses disingenuous language to get around this requirement to provide free access.  In that same government document which lists “borrowing library resources in any format” as a service to be provided at no charge, it goes on to state that: “libraries may charge for the issuance of a library card.”  (Government of Alberta Public Library Service Policy, 2006) 

Government officials defend this doublespeak:

Pat McNamee, library consultant at Alberta Community Development [the government department in charge of public libraries], chooses her words carefully when describing the government position on fees. "Libraries are not permitted to charge a membership fee. All members of the public are library members, with free access to the five or six basic services that the Act mandates. But library boards are permitted, at their option, to charge for the issuance of a library card, for use in tracking borrowed materials.  (Mardiros, 2001)

The Library Association of Alberta also avoids taking a position on this controversial subject.  Instead, they choose to defer to local library boards, similar to how the Alberta government frames this policy in terms of the “increased flexibility” it gives municipal governments.  LAA Executive Director, Christine Sheppard, explained her organization’s position in response to an e-mail inquiry in March 2006:

LAA does not have an official position on this issue. Although no one would argue that library card fees are a great thing, public libraries and regional libraries are not at all unanimous that this initiative [removing user fees] is the way to go, and would rather support an increase in per capita funding. While it’s in LAA’s mandate to support in general increased funding to public libraries, this kind of thing fits more within the mandate of public library trustees who are also not unanimous in wanting to pursue this issue. (Sheppard, 2006)

Indeed, although “no one would argue that library card fees are a great thing”, Alberta’s library trustees were left with little choice but to do exactly that and begin charging user fees due to government cutbacks in the 1980’s that flowed through from the provincial to municipal governments. 

Why did Albertans accept this new policy of charging for a service (library borrowing) that has traditionally been free in public libraries?  Why do they continue to accept the fees now that Alberta is the country’s richest province?  There are a number of reasons including Alberta’s general cultural and political climate, the easy boost they give to a library’s bottom line, the relatively low cost of the fees for most (although not all) users, and the fact that many believe that paying for libraries makes users value them more.  

Of these factors, the strongest in this author’s opinion is the hegemonic mentality that has created (and sustains) the particular version of conservatism that Ralph Klein brought to Alberta in the early 1990’s.

Bull Market

Alberta has always been a conservative province.  Socially and fiscally conservative parties have dominated Alberta’s politics and culture since the earliest days of the province in a way that is unique in Canadian politics.  Currently, the Progressive Conservative party is enjoying an unbroken streak of leadership in the Alberta government that stretches back to the government of Peter Lougheed in 1971.  Before that, the Social Credit party, another social and fiscally conservative party, dominated Alberta politics from 1935 to 1971.

Although Alberta’s historical roots are agrarian, populist and isolationist (Van Herk, 2001, p. 394.), a massive oil strike in Leduc, Alberta in 1947 changed the destiny of the province, moving it from an agriculture-based economy with an underlying faith in small “c” conservatism which existed to the mid-point of the 20th century to a resource-based one with a strong belief in a more urban conservatism that is supportive of big business, low taxes and the government’s lack of a role in funding various types of public institutions.  This shift in the conservative climate of Alberta has grown since the mid-point of the century, reaching a peak in the government of Ralph Klein which came to power in 1992. 

Although it might be argued that any political party would be able to successfully govern a province as wealthy as Alberta, the fact that Alberta has a strong conservative tradition means that many citizens in Alberta believe that it was conservatism that led to their prosperity rather than the fact that their conservatism was only reinforced by this prosperity.  (Lisac, 2005.)

The depth of belief in user fees in Alberta, even for a public service such as libraries, was shown in the e-mail responses this author received from many Alberta librarians.  Some responded along the lines of “It was an adjustment at first but we’ve accepted the user fees now” or “it’s not much more than the cost of a paperback book.” 

Even for those who oppose library fees, it is an enormous struggle to advocate against a dominant culture that accepts user fees across a variety of sectors.  The number of librarians who requested anonymity as a condition of using their comments in this paper reveals how hard it is to speak out publicly against the majority viewpoint.

At the same time, many librarians are not immune to the “You use it, you pay for it” attitude that permeates Alberta.  As stated earlier, user fees for Alberta library cards were implemented in the late 1980’s to replace funding lost due to government cutbacks (Alberta Government Hansard, 2005, p. 187.)  These fees now make up 10-15% of the average library’s budget (and, it should be noted, are on top of any municipal taxes the patron already pays.)   

In Alberta libraries are largely funded through tax dollars, with more than 85 per cent of library board revenue coming from local and provincial governments. But Albertans aren't automatically entitled to borrow materials from the libraries that their tax dollars fund. Libraries in Alberta charge local ratepayers an annual fee of up to $20 for the privilege of a library card, a form of double taxation that disproportionately burdens lower-income families -- and which may exclude them altogether. (Mardiros, 2001)

The fee charged is determined at the municipal level.  It ranges from $5/year in Medicine Hat to $20/year in Airdrie for a single adult card.  Cards for children are usually provided for free but the definition of child varies from system to system – some define it as “under 12”, some as “under 18”. 

Most library systems are explicit that this card is for a single user and cannot be shared (for example, between spouses or even between parents and children.)  This is fairly standard policy in public libraries across Canada.  But library clerks in other provinces often turn a blind eye, for example when a husband signs out books for his wife or a mother for her child.  But in the Alberta system where each user card has a fee attached, it is harder to do so.  Should a clerk question the female patron signing out Tom Clancy thrillers she just saw the patron’s husband hand to her before getting to the circulation desk?  How about the child who is apparently taking out Danielle Steele novels on her (less expensive) card while her unemployed mother clutches the child’s hand tightly? 

Most systems in Alberta clearly state that no one will be denied a library card due to an inability to pay but some libraries, such as Calgary’s make this less than obvious:

If you are receiving Supports for Independence, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped [AISH], Guaranteed Income Supplement, or if you have a Medical Services Card, the yearly registration fee for a Library Card may [emphasis added] be waived. Please talk to staff at your branch. (Calgary Public Library, 2006)

The potential access problems caused by these policies are obvious.  People with low incomes are unfairly burdened by this policy, forced to choose between a library card and other expenses.  Although most people would not see ten or twenty dollars per year as onerous, for someone receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped ($1000/month) and living in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, it is exactly that.  Any library fines are accrued on top of this fee which is another restrictive barrier for marginalized users. Therefore, the easiest choice is often to do without a library card. 

Disadvantaged, handicapped or low income people who want a library card but cannot afford the fee can always ask for an exemption (although that only means that the fee may be waived as the CPL policy states.)  In a public space supposedly dedicated to fair and equitable access, certain groups of people being forced the indignity of differentiating themselves by providing documentation to show their “other” (read: “lower”) status is embarrassing at best, discriminatory at worst. 

Calgary’s librarians often work within the limitations of this policy as best they can:

Anyone who receives social benefits can ask to have their fee waived, and we actively promote this option to folks who work in social agencies so that they can share the information with their clients.  We have also established a limited borrowing privilege for Calgary's homeless. One of the challenges they face is that they can get a card and borrow material, but if they are sleeping in shelters and are generally on the move, their books can be stolen or they lose them a little more we have a card with limited privileges (only 3 items) to limit their risk (and ours of course).  (Anonymous #1, 2006)

But an Edmonton librarian who requested anonymity suggests why waiving fees doesn’t work and is unfair to poorer patrons:

Like most staff who work at [my branch], I waive the charge for anyone who refuses to pay on principle, who is on AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped), unemployed, or otherwise on a low income.  The main difficulty here, of course, is that the “policy” in regard to waiving the fee is likely not applied uniformly across the system — or even consistently by me from one week to the next. Also, as someone who grew up in a poor family, I feel that asking people for proof of their poverty humiliates them.  (Surely being poor is humiliation enough without having to identify yourself as such to get “special treatment” in what I feel is our most democratic institution—the public library.) (Anonymous #2, 2006)

Another Alberta librarian, who also requested anonymity, speculated on what may actually be the darker truth of Alberta’s user fee policies:

I suspect that many thought that the addition of front-end payment instils value in library services [but] some may have thought that such fees keep out the ”riff-raff”. (Anonymous #3, 2006)

Although this is a serious charge, the infamous incident where an inebriated Ralph Klein made an unscheduled late night stop at a homeless shelter and told residents to “get a job” while throwing money at them graphically captures the attitude of the Klein government towards its most marginalized citizens. (Lisac, 2004)  It is not much of a stretch to believe that an attitude expressed by the extremely popular former premier of the province could consciously or subconsciously extend to the decision makers who implement policies that will affect disadvantaged library users as well.

A Cock and Bull Story

Due to severe cuts to social services by the dominant Tory party of Ralph Klein along with another oil boom over the last decade, the economy recovered from its 1980’s depression and Alberta went on to become the first debt-free province in Canada in 2004.  But the library user fees have never been removed and instead, remain to this day in the vast majority of Alberta libraries, even as the government continues to post enormous multi-billion dollar surpluses (Reuters, 2006), even as they send out $400 prosperity cheques to every citizen in 2006, and even as they were presented with the perfect opportunity to replace this funding during the province’s Centennial celebrations in 2005. 

User fees have been proven over and over again to be ineffective (and even harmful) when applied to services that have been traditionally delivered using a more effective public model.  Some examples include healthcare (Taft & Stewart, 2000), education (New York Times, 2006) and even charity (Rose-Ackerman, 1987.)  To expand on just one of these points, the issue of charging for healthcare services under a private-model rather than a public-model has proven over and over, most notably in the United States, to be extremely inefficient.  The New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2003 that the US spends $1059 per capita on healthcare services versus $307 in Canada.  After exclusions, administration accounted for 31% of healthcare expenditures in the US but only 17% in Canada.  (NEJM, 2003.)

Libraries are no exception, being at their most cost-effective, democratic and inclusive when funded completely by public money.  On the other hand, Alberta’s mixed public-private funding policies stifle the province’s libraries rather than allowing them to thrive.  When Edmonton introduced a $10 library user fee in 1994, enrolment, circulation and patron visits immediately dropped significantly and a decade later, had not recovered.  (Alberta Government Hansard, 2005, p.187.) 

Alison Faid summed up her observations on this situation along with an explanation for why the membership rates may not have recovered: 

Edmonton Public doesn't charge anyone under 18 and will waive the fee for anyone who says they can't afford it, or even won't afford it on principle.  I know they work really hard to have front line staff be very sensitive to this issue and to find tactful ways to make sure no one is turned away.  Also, they have various collaborations with community service organisations to encourage public library use among young mums, recent immigrants, people struggling with literacy issues, etc.  We know many households get by on their kid's free library card, or certainly have one designated library cardholder for the family, rather than all taking out individual memberships.  That means our circulation continues to rise, even though our membership may not reflect heavier usage. (Faid, 2006)

Like A Bull In A China Shop

If the decision to charge user fees was accepted by, and only affected, the majority of Albertans that would be one thing.  But another extremely important point, perhaps the most important around this issue, is that by allowing its public libraries to charge user fees, Alberta is potentially opening up provinces in the rest of Canada to challenges under various international trade agreements (Trosow, 2006.  CLA 1999.) 

Dr. Samuel Trosow, who holds a joint appointment to the Faculties of Law and Information & Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario summarizes this concern in his 2006 book, Constraining Public Libraries: The World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade In Services:

While on its face, GATS purports to protect public services by providing an exemption for services offered under the auspices of a governmental authority, we have seen that the exemption is extremely limited and may not be effective in the case of public library services.  That the interrelationships and overlaps between services provided by the public and private sectors is constantly in flux only adds to the uncertainty. (Trosow, 2006, p. 150)

Having soda pop machines or even a coffee shop on site likely won’t open public libraries to GATS challenges.  But a system-wide policy of charging user fees very well could.  Private companies are able to make a challenge if they can show that an institution is being run like a business rather than a public institution and should therefore be subject to competition. For example, UPS has brought a challenge against Canada Post to obtain access to the post office’s most profitable business operations (but which, if successful, would likely lead to UPS ignoring the other services that these profitable ones allow Canada Post to subsidize – inexpensive rural and northern mail delivery for example.)  (CBC, 2001.)

For this reason, charging a fee for a library card could be a very obvious “in” for a challenge from private corporations wishing to move into the Canadian public library market.  As Professor Trosow succinctly puts it: “Do fees for library cards imply commercialization?  Yes.  [That] means that a library is operating on a commercial basis and therefore opening itself to a potential GATS challenge.” 

There are already corporations running some aspects of public libraries in the United States, most notably in Riverside County California, where the entire operation of the public library system’s twenty-four branches was outsourced to a private company, Library Systems and Services, Inc.  (Autman, 1999.)  This corporation also manages the operations of over fifty libraries across the United States to varying degrees (Library Systems and Services, 2006).  Having already expanded nationwide, it is not unthinkable to imagine them setting their sights on Canada, especially if a challenge under GATS makes it much easier to break into the Canadian public library market.

But while public libraries face potential threats from private corporations abroad, the signs are positive that the tide is turning against library user fees in Alberta at the local level, if ever so slowly. 

Slaying The Sacred Cow

In recent years, four Alberta cities have chosen to remove their library fees.  In January 2000, Banff was the first municipality to remove them, a move that was made with the full support of their town council. 

On January 1st, 2000, Banff Public Library became the first library in Alberta to remove the membership fee for local residents -- thus reversing a trend toward a curious form of "privatizing" libraries that has swept Alberta in recent years. In Banff, the effect of eliminating the fee was immediate and dramatic. In January 2000, three times as many new members joined the library as had joined the previous January. (Mardiros, 2001)

The Banff Town Council voted a significant increase to the library grant, covering the loss of membership fee revenue.  The upswing in new memberships continued for the rest of the year with the Banff library seeing a 40 per cent membership increase in 2000. (Mardiros, 2001)

The next three municipalities to drop the fees were Whitecourt, a bedroom community outside Edmonton; Drayton Valley in the heart of rural, conservative central Alberta; and, Leduc which is the source of so much of Alberta’s original economic wealth.  All three removed their user fees in September 2005 as a way to celebrate the province’s Centennial and in memory of a popular recently deceased Lieutenant Governor and author, Lois Hole, who was a passionate advocate on behalf of libraries.   The fact that these are communities that define small town Alberta, epitomize its rural agrarian roots and have generated so much of Alberta’s wealth, yet see the value of dropping the user fees gives hope that other municipalities will remove the fees as well. 

Another Alberta city, Lloydminster, has no user fees but is in a unique position.  The city sits on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border with its library on the Alberta side.  When library fees were implemented in Alberta, the library tried to charge Alberta residents but not Saskatchewan residents.  This led to many patrons who were living on the Alberta side of the city using mail delivered to a post office (which happened to be on the Saskatchewan side) to avoid paying the fees.  Eventually, a compromise was reached where the entire city became fee-free for library patrons.

Carla Frybort, Manager of Library Services at Wetaskiwin Public Library responded to my Jerome-L posting with some good news – a fifth Alberta city was soon going to drop their user fees:

Effective April 1st, 2006 Wetaskiwin Public will not be charging residents of the City and County of Wetaskiwin membership fees!  We are very excited about this. (Frybort, 2006)

When I contacted Ms. Frybort (coincidentally, exactly a year to the day after my initial inquiry) to inquire about the impact of the changes, this was her response:

The impact of the elimination of user fees for residents of the City and County of Wetaskiwin has been great.  All of our statistics jumped from 2005 to 2006.  For example, we had an increase of 7.8% in the number of cardholders. Keep in mind we eliminated fees as of April 1, 2006. Also, our circulation jumped 7.3 %.  Reaction from the public was extremely positive.  And one thing staff noticed was that parents, who are not library users, were more open to coming in and signing up their children for memberships once the fees were eliminated!  Below are the number of new card holders added from April to December in 2005 compared with 2006.  These numbers do not include the number of renewals we processed as well.  Patrons who had not been in for a year or so hurried in to renew.

  2005 2006  
April 58 196 added
May 39 154
June 44 109
July 61 148
August 65 157
September 50 99
October 111 161
November 64 81
December 26 70
Totals 518 1175

(Frybort, 2007)

Individual library systems are not the only ones rejecting user fees.  It can happen at a provincial level and ironically, Alberta is a national leader with The Alberta Library (TAL) card, a program that is unique in Canada.  Developed jointly by the entire Alberta library community, including the members of The Alberta Library Board which includes many of the Directors of the very public libraries that have imposed, or failed to remove, user fees in their own libraries.  Although The Alberta Library card is free and the program has a slogan of “barrier-free access”, there is a deeper irony in the fact that public library patrons must still pay for their local card to obtain a TAL card (The Alberta Library, 2006). 

Because of innovative programs like TAL, the ongoing advocacy efforts of a few dedicated librarians and library supporters, and the fact that libraries are already slowly turning away from user fees at the municipal level, there is always the possibility that the Alberta government can be convinced to re-institute full funding for public libraries. The fact that a new Alberta premier, Ed Stelmach was elected in the past year after fourteen years of leadership by Ralph Klein will likely lead to different governmental priorities, although it remains to be seen if libraries will be affected in any significant way. 

One survey showed that 92% of heads of libraries in Alberta are opposed to the fee-model for library service.  Although they are not all actively lobbying for removal, that fact is still another positive in the battle against user fees (Mardiros, 2001). On the flip side, a survey of library trustees, who are ultimately responsible for the bottom line of the library system, showed that a slight majority were in favour of keeping the fees which are an easy, direct source of income for the library system rather than the difficult, time-consuming efforts of concerted lobbying, especially in an environment which is seen as hostile to public funding. 

About the time that Banff started up it’s campaign to eliminate user fees, the Alberta Library Trustees Association (ALTA) surveyed its members on what they felt about the elimination of fees, particularly from a principled point-of-view.  I believe a majority of ALTA members (a slight majority?) were actually not in favour of the removal of fees, as a principle. (Anonymous #3, 2006)

On average, 80% of library budgets in Alberta come from municipal taxes, 10% comes from provincial governments and the remaining 10% is made up of self-generated funds (mainly membership fees.)  According to Mardios (2001), it would take less than $4 million per year (or 0.1% of the province’s annual budget surplus) for the Alberta government to cover that self-generated 10% on behalf of public libraries. (Mardiros, 2001)  With the growth in surpluses since the turn of the century, that $4 million would be an even smaller proportion of Alberta’s $8.7 billion post-budget surplus. In fact, it would be 0.00046% of the total budget surplus.  Or put another way, literally next to nothing. (Alberta Budget, 2006) 

Till The Cows Come Home

Alberta touts the “Alberta Advantage” – its natural beauty and its pro-business climate – far and wide in promoting the province.  But they do not mention the negatives that go along with these beliefs.  Although it is but a small example in a litany of attacks on the public sector during the reign of Ralph Klein (Taft, 1997), the actions of the Alberta Tories against public libraries is illustrative of the contempt that Alberta Conservatives hold for that most democratic of institutions, the public library. 

When Shelley Mardiros, Treasurer at the Banff Public Library was researching the issue of library fees around North America, she sent an e-mail to the PubLib listserv asking if anyone knew of any public libraries charging user fees anywhere on the continent.  One librarian in an undeclared location replied: “yes, we call them taxes.” 

What that means is that, according to her research, not one state in the most conservative parts of the United States has such a regressive policy, not even Texas, the American state that Alberta most resembles in terms of economy and attitude (Mardiros, 2001).

Although user fees may be useful from a purely budgetary standpoint, they may encourage patrons to see the value in the service they receive and they may not be much more than the cost of a paperback book, the fact remains that Alberta’s policy on library user fees is an embarrassment to the librarians, government and people of Canada’s richest province.  Beyond that, they are a potential threat to the sanctity of public libraries in other provinces. 

I have spoken frequently of the influence of the Klein breed of conservatism on creating and sustaining the current situation with user fees in Alberta libraries.  But it is important to also note that conservatism is not (and does not) have to be mutually exclusive to support of public institutions. 

Governing documents and statements of principle at every level from international (International Federation of Library Associations’ Statement on Libraries and Sustainable Development) to national (Canadian Library Association’s Code of Ethics) to the provincial library act of every Canadian province (including Alberta) include language specifying maximum access to information and resources as an important goal.  By charging user fees, Alberta’s public libraries are directly contravening this intent.  And that is why, in an institution which is one hundred percent funded by public monies in the rest of the country, public library user fees in Alberta are, to use the vernacular of that province, “as useless at tits on a bull.” 

Appendix One – E-mail Sent to Jerome-L Listserv – March 28, 2006

I am a Masters of Library Science Student at the University of Western Ontario doing a paper for my "501 - Perspectives on Library and Information Science" class discussing the situation with user fees for library cards in Alberta versus Saskatchewan - a topic that is of great personal interest to me as I am originally from Saskatchewan but lived in Alberta for three years from 2001-2004.   [Author Note: the focus of my paper changed to solely Alberta as the depth of the paper grew far past my allotted word count.]

I was hoping you could help me out - either by giving me your own thoughts and experiences on the topic, both specifically at your own library system and in general in Alberta.  If you give me your own thoughts, I'd be happy to keep your comments anonymous if that is what you prefer (ie. if you want to speak "off the record" instead of in your official capacity.)

I'm interested in any aspect of this topic - any background on how/when user fees were implemented in Alberta, feedback from patrons at that time and currently about the issue, any access concerns that result from these policies, any movement to abolish library fees in other systems or province-wide.

I know that Banff, and now Drayton Valley are the two Alberta library systems that have elected not to have user fees for their library cards and have read Shelley Mardrios' AlbertaViews article "A Very Public Library" which was very useful (

Anyone with comments and thoughts can write to me directly at: (Author e-mail)

Thanks very much in advance,

(Author Name)

Works Cited

Anonymous Librarian #1.  E-mail to author.  7 April 2006.

Anonymous Librarian #2.  E-mail to author.  28 March 2006.

Anonymous Librarian #3.  E-mail to author.  28 March 2006.

Anonymous Partnership Journal - Reviewer “D”.  E-mail to author.  16 Oct 2006.

Calgary Public Library.  “Calgary Public Library – Card” (2005).  24 Mar. 2006.


Faid, Alison, former Chair of Edmonton Public Library.  “Alberta User Fees.” E-mail to

author.  28 Mar. 2006.

Flanagan, Jackie.  “Paradise.”  AlbertaViews(Jul-Aug 2003).  14 Mar 2007.

Frybort, Carla, Manager of Library Services.  Wetaskiwin Public Library.  “User Fees in

Alberta.”  E-mail to author.  28 March 2006.

Frybort, Carla, Manager of Library Services.  Wetaskiwin Public Library.  “User Fees in

Alberta.”  E-mail to author.  28 March 2007.

Government of Alberta.  2005/06 Budget.  (26 Jun 2007.)  29 April 2007. 


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