The Tragedy of The Commons

Last night when I was renewing my library card at the AADL, the local public library, the librarian politely informed me that I had $4.00 in fines and if I wanted to pay some of them. Having to pay library fines is something I have struggled with all my life. I usually OD on books and despite my furious reading speed I don't have enough time to read all of them by the due date. There was a time when I thought that having to pay fines meant something was wrong with my character; something I needed to improve. I have since rationalized that paying fines is a way to support your local library.

So, I told her: "Sure! I would love to pay the all the fines and support my local library!".
She said: "You are already supporting your local library through your taxes."
I said: "True, but there are some, like me, who use the resources disproportionately!".

She laughed so hard that everbody in the checkout line wondered what I had said. I think she laughed because she looked like a disproportionate user herself! It is quite a club at the AADL. Ann Arbor, is a disproportionately overeducated town, full of self-styled experts and polymaths. You know you are in Ann Arbor when 'serious' books have hold queues with over 200 requests. I call this phenomenon the NPR Effect.

The public libraries in the US are fantastic. They let you borrow as many materials as you want; they will get whatever you want. The libraries do much to educate and engage the community. Perhaps it is less true in Ann Arbor, but in general the public does not use its libraries as much as it should. The public library seems to be a perverse example of the tragedy of the commons-free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation. Here, a great public resource for which the public is paying taxes is being under-utilized. A tragedy indeed!

Old posts on: Fines and library nostalgia.


e said...

she is so wrong. except for military and wars, everything else that gets paid with our taxes is under paid! i personally am late whenever i can (not too long though, so that others can get my books).

Hirak said...

The government got at least somethings right! These small mercies!

Ashutosh said...

Atlanta is undereducated compared to Ann Arbor. All the better for me though, because it means that 'serious' books usually don't have any queues. My life's aim: to live in an undereducated city with an excellent library! Unfortunately, I don't want to live in Atlanta all my life.

anand said...

I spend five times the library fees on fines. I find serious books seriously overrated as they can say what they must far more succintly without polemic.
Ashutosh-Nalanda or Alexandria perhaps

Ashdin said...