In the 19th century the United States led the way with bold new concepts in public library practice. The first tax-supported free library in the world opened its doors to the public in Peterborough, N.H., in 1833. Now it's time to catch up with countries that do their writers justice -- by recompensing them for the free use of their books by library borrowers.
Why shouldn't people borrow books free from the library? The system is set up. Then again, why shouldn't the people as a whole demonstrate a financial responsibility of commitment, no matter how small, similar to writers as a whole who strive to produce books of merit and worth?
American public libraries would not be pioneering shaky ground. On the contrary, the US lags far behind many sophisticated nations in accounting to its writers. In 1946 Denmark became the first country to inaugurate the so-called public lending right law to compensate its authors for royalties lost through library borrowing. Since then like laws have been instituted in 10 countries, including Great Britain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, and West Germany.
Writers are compensated in various ways. In some countries compensation is determined by the number of times a book is borrowed; this is figured by averaging a judicious sample of public libraries. In other countries the compensation hinges on the number of an author's books in libraries or the number purchased by libraries.
The compensation comes from a central state fund, as an authentic expenditure of operating public libraries.
Yet in the US every time a book is checked out from a library the author receives nothing, not a penny, for a title that would have cost each reader probably $10 or more if bought. The borrower benefits disproportionately to the writer's complete loss of royalties.
The American public library system has contributed directly to the survival and prosperity of our republic and is still an envied model around the world. By allowing ordinary people easy and unrestrained access to information, libraries have helped the overall economic, political, moral, and intellectual climate of our democratic way of life to flourish.
A simple check of date due slips on most circulation systems reveals how many times a single book may be read. Some are taken home 20 or 30 times a year, others once or twice. In either case, the author gives away the book free each time to a different reader in exchange for what is learned, savored, used to further the reader's business, or incorporated into the reader's personal well-being.
This fundamental injustice should not be taken for granted. It certainly shouldn't be dismissed as the essence of free public libraries. Safeguards are written into the lending right laws of other countries so that certain best selling writers don't deplete the fund. With such protection writers do not reap millions, as critics may imagine. In Australia, for example, the typical writer receives about $200 per book per year; $5,000 is the top limit allowed for the most widespread popular titles.
American public libraries and the people who use them should demonstrate their responsibilities to the ultimate source of their wares -- the writers -- and promote a similar public lending law in this country.