Advertising in Libraries

Ethical dilemma for the day: should a visit to the library include advertisements?

In the last year I’ve read a few articles about libraries accepting advertising on everything from date-due slips to toilet paper (no, I’m not kidding). For the most part the discussions about ads in libraries have been fairly brief, but business agreements like this should definitely be subject to scrutiny.

First, you have the economic angle: libraries are doing this because it helps them save money, and in some cases brings in revenue. The Port Chester-Rye Brook, NY, Public Library that uses toilet paper printed with ads saves $1,000 a year by doing so. And by leasing ad space on the back of every date-due slip, the Toronto Public Library will rake in $20,000 in just 6 months! Times are certainly tough, and library budgets are feeling the strain. Therefore, monetizing ad space on library materials is certainly one way to pad the budget, even a little bit.

There is also the business/community angle: this ad space can certainly be used by local businesses and/or non-profits. It doesn’t have to be a McDonalds ad on your toilet paper (too much irony; must move on). Instead, libraries certainly have the option to be selective about who they allow to advertise in their space. And it could, in fact, be a great way to interconnect the library with other local business and cultural institutions.

That being said, there is an Idiocracy feel to it (a Mike Judge film about an advertising/commercialism-saturated dystopian future). Is the library not a sanctuary where we can be free from the constant onslaught of ads that plague our daily lives? This may sound a bit dramatic, but I couldn’t be more serious. Libraries are one of the few places that are still free of corporate sponsors, pop-up ads (if their computers have a good blocker), and talking ad screens (thanks, Wal-Mart, you found a new way to make my soul die every time I have to visit you).

Yeah... Ads on toilet paper just doesn't seem right... (Source: m24digital)
Yeah… Ads on toilet paper just doesn’t seem right… (Source: m24digital)

Closely related is the issue of the public image of libraries. Do we really want people to associate us with ads? How is this going to change how society sees and values libraries? Some of the Toronto Public Library board members and councilors like Janet Davis feel like their library is selling out: “The library is sacrificing its reputation for a ‘pittance,’ she said. ‘We have a good name, and I think the value of our good name should not be squandered for $20,000 of revenue.'”

Personally, it’s hard for me to make up my mind on this one. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense for libraries to start adopting some aspects of a business model, especially when times are tough. On the other hand, it sets a dangerous precedent: libraries should have to focus on generating revenue instead of the dissemination of knowledge, access to information, and freedom of expression.

What do you all think? Opinions/ideas?

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