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The Tech from the Non-Techie blog featured an interesting article, “Educate Don’t Alienate,” giving voice to something I think many library staff feel: charging for printing and setting up complicated print management systems causes grief for the customer, grief for the library, and does it really save the library any money?  The author, Beth Tribe, proposes not charging for printing and instead educating the rare offender who prints out his/her entire thesis eight times.

Philosophically, I am a proponent for eliminating all charges in libraries whenever possible, including late fines, print charges, copy charges, and not investing in expensive systems to track these minor charges and alienate our customers in doing so.  I understand the arguments that some library services are “extra,” or “not basic,” and that taxpayer money shouldn’t go to Mr. Public’s 800 color copies of his retirement party flyer or 17 late children’s books.  I also understand that these are “revenue streams” that might be hard to convince a city or county governing body to abandon.  At the same time, I argue that the investment of staff time, technology infrastructure created to handle these small charges, and bad customer service (including people who just don’t ever come back to the library) outweighs the money we potentially make back.

If you’re thinking about this yourself, just lay out a quick and simple cost-comparsion between resources gained from each of these services at your library and resources spent.  You might be surprised to find that the difference in what you’re gaining with the current method isn’t as big as you thought it was.

OK, now everybody–argue with me :)

“Print Management in libraries: friend of foe?”

  1. Keri Says:

    Overall I agree with you about eliminating fees (we still charge for “new” DVDs and for some very odd reason, using our Microsoft Word computers), but we just installed our print management software, and it has been a dream come true. The patrons hit print, they come to the desk, tell us they printed, hand us the money and their prints come out of the printer. We don’t make them purchase a card or put quarters into a machine. If they want to print one page and it says they are printing 50, they hit cancel and ask us to come over and help them. We used to spend all day fighting with patrons and now we spend much more time being able to help them. It did cost a lot of money to set up, but the yearly fee is reasonable, and we will stop wasting more than a ream of paper each month and a lot of staff time arguing with patrons about paying for their prints. If we offered completely free, unlimited printing, we’d have to change the toner every four days and we’d throw out tons of paper that was never picked up. That doesn’t seem like a great use for taxpayer money either.

  2. Jeff Scott Says:

    I’ve used print management and I don’t think patron’s view it as a hurdle. I think any staff member or patron sing the praises of this service as it is fast and efficient. It’s something new so people would need to get used to it, but they do usually quickly.

  3. Jessica Says:

    I don’t currently work in a library, but I use them frequently and I have never had a problem with the pay-to-print services. They have been easy to figure out and, not to jinx myself, hassle free every timet. I’ve used libraries that had both systems (pay-to-print or print for free). At the print for free library, there was always a ton of paper in the tray waiting to be picked up, and a pile in the recycle box under the desk. It seemed like a lot of wasted paper. People are more considerate and careful with resources when they have to put up even a little bit of their own money. But thats just my 25 cents.

  4. Amanda Says:

    Our library currently does not charge to print. We only have b/w, and we have signs on all of the terminals that state the first ten pages are free, but we ask that you please pay ten cents per page after that. There are honor boxes near each printer.

    Most students ignore this, though we do have several students who will drop money in the boxes. The biggest problem we have is that we are expected to monitor the four printers, and stop any huge print jobs. On top of other reference duties, this can be fairly overwhelming. We also have a lot of students who believe that, even after printing something, if they decide they don’t want it, they don’t have to pay for it. Some also get very annoyed when they have to pay for the copier, saying “Well, PRINTING is free! Copying should be too!”

    If I notice someone printing out a huge powerpoint presentation (as most of our professors are wont to create), I offer to show them how to print multiple sides per page, and stress how that will save them money. This has helped quite a bit.

  5. Margaret Says:

    I agree that education is more important than punishment, but good mediation allows for education. At my academic library we’ve finally gotten a good mediated printing system in place, which is actually a new system for the whole university. Previously we’d been wasting on average a ream of paper a day, partly because people would accidentally print things they didn’t mean to print. There is no charge for university affiliates, this whole system is designed to encourage thoughtful printing practices. We also may make double sided printing the default, but for now we’re just educating people on how to print double sided. The other aspect of this is a shift in culture–encouraging faculty to accept electronic assignments instead of paper and having students think critically about what is important enough to print. I think these are all positive developments.

  6. Jeanne Says:

    We are a private high school with a wireless 1:1 (student-owned) laptop system in place. Students are registered with the student network and their printing goes thru I.T. There is no charge for their printing, but they have to pick it up from the I.T. people and if any abuse occurs, they are then counseled. Print jobs have a student name attached, so I.T. can locate the student who sent the print job to the lab. Library printing is under my control. I have one copier and it is kept in an office across from my office, so no students enter unless given access by myself. They are allowed to use my copier at no cost. I do monitor what they are xeroxing, to ensure they are not copying entire texts for friends, etc., but it is a free service we offer and tends to leave happy patrons. I also do not charge late fees in my library – I never have since the inception of our school 7 years ago. They are charged if they lose materials – the replacement cost only.

  7. Michael Golrick Says:

    Sometimes it becomes a political issue.

    The revenue stream is important (politically), and if governments counted what it costs for this, and many other streams of revenue, they would be shocked. Although, I believe that many government managers know this and agree with your assessment. But *voters* don’t see it that way.

    I was the director at a library which used the “honor system” to collect for copies. Every once in a while (i.e. couple of years) I would ask the finance person to compare income with copier counts. On a day-to-day basis, there were days when the library “lost,” but many others where we took in much more than the copier counter said we should. That made it easy to justify not buying the coin op portion of the machines (yet another thing to go wrong). It also let us say that people were so happy with our service that they paid more than they should.

    However, I will note that it worked in that community, and would not have in other places. That was a very affluent town, the “poor” were generally better off than some of the folks who used the library in a community were I later worked.

    I look at it as not only a revenue stream, but a rationing system. Paper costs are going up, toner costs are huge. By charging we make people think about how much they really need the printed item.

    Finally, I would not call this arguing. I would call it “a thoughtful discussion of an issue which sucks up huge amounts of staff time.”

  8. Jim Peterson Says:

    We don’t use print management software, but we do charge 10ȼ per page. Where we run into fights is when patrons refuse to pay for all those white sheets that have page number 3/3, or the ones with nothing but advertising down the far left column that has nothing to do with what they were trying to print. It is at this point where I show them how to use the print preview function so they can see exactly what is going to print, and use that information to print only the range of pages with pertinent information. Of course, they forget the next time and we have to do this all over again.

    An automated system is cold and heartless, perfect for dealing with these situations. I am not :)

  9. Sarah L Says:

    Our University launched a new pay for print model this fall and it’s been a nightmare for students. New students are confused, returning students are angry. I don’t think anyone wins. The reasoning offered for the change makes sense on it’s face, but the way it was put in place has been like pulling off a band-aid. I know the toner costs money, so does the paper and maintaining the printer, but somehow I think these are costs we could (and should) absorb. One student mentioned the school he came from gave you free printing, unless you abused it. Students who were printing in excess were sent a warning that they could lose printing privileges if they didn’t take it easy. I like models built on trust rather than penalty.

  10. Chris A L Says:

    Even right now I’m sitting in the library listening to the printers go chugga-chugga-chugga.

    I’m not sure what the best solution is. We offer free printing with a limit of 100 pages, and this past year it’s gotten a bit crazy. There are quite a few patrons who want to use us as a free Kinko’s, printing off many flyers or 300-page PDF or Word files. Unfortunately it is not very rare here. The limit is mostly on-your-honor since we have no way to actually count pages, and it is often too busy to keep track of who’s printing what where. There are particular patrons who we always have to watch out for when they come in, because they’ll print until we stop them. And at the end of the day it’s just sad to see how much paper is in the recycle bin. My guess is patrons use about 1,500 to 4,000 sheets a day, based on how often I refill the printers each day. I’m not sure how that compares to other libraries. Part of me would really like a print management system. Not for the money, but just to discourage wasteful printing. And to prevent me from having to personally remind people of our limit and getting their mournful looks or their pleas or their excuses. “Yes, I’m almost done, just a few more pages. I really need this.”

    But ultimately I think it would just make more problems to deal with if we charged for printing; I can definitely imagine patrons not knowing how to use it or wanting free pages because they messed up. And we have so many patrons who use the free printing, they’d be outraged.

    Maybe we should just not have paper. If you want to print, you’re free to use our machines, free to print out as much as you like, but you must bring your own paper. I’m sure that would outrage people too.

    If we only had some way to *automatically* stop patrons from printing over X amount of pages. That’s what I’d like.

    Yet, another part of me agrees with those who argue that there should just be no patron printing at all. That would definitely outrage patrons, but I don’t think I’d mind. There’s a Kinko’s up the street. Come here to read and research. Go there to print off your flyers.

  11. MAP Says:

    I work at two academic libraries, both with fairly new print management. At the private university, we do not charge for printouts but used to have a situation where students would add every printer on campus (we presume) to their computer and print to several of them, stopping at the most convenient one the next day. The result was that students on-site by a printer were quequed up waiting for a lengthy job ordered from a dorm room to be picked up the next day. Another result was wasted paper, lots of it, all over campus.

    The print manager simply requires releasing a job from a laptop adjacent to the computer. No waiting behind phantoms! No multiple printings! One-two reams of paper a day saved just in the Library.

    Similarly, the community college used to have several printers around the Library. If the student didn’t hear the one they thought they were nearest to whirring away, they would hit print again and again. Many of reams of paper gone. The system is a little cumbersome, because prints are now “rationed” to 150 free a semester. So students have to log in at both their work station and a print release station, which they don’t like. But our paper/toner use has dropped dramatically. And, again, no one is waiting behind a student who has printed a 12-page article three times from across the Library.

    I think print managers are a win/win.

  12. jessamyn Says:

    This seems like one of those issues that might be better dealt with with better software and guidelines that seemed generally fair. So first whatever pages are free, if you try to print more you get some sort of error message or some sort of “are you sure” message or some sort of “click here to pay with paypal” or whatever. I am also of the opinion that basica services like printing should be free but I’m never sure what the limit on basic was, since obviously someone printing out a 150 page thesis is sort of abusing the commons, even though as a one time thing it’s maybe okay.

    Generally I like to think that all systems — pay, not pay, software, hardware — are a little broken and I’d like to err on the side of whatever semi-broken system allows the most people to remain happy. If print management systems make people miserable, maybe removing those barriers and trying to solve the problem in a different, social, way is the answer.

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  14. Rhonda Says:

    We don’t charge overdue fines, and charge only replacement costs for books and then I may waive that if the book was an old paperback, etc. Most people are very grateful for this and will often give a donation anyway. We do charge 15cents per page for printing. We only offer black and white. I am not militant about collecting it if is an issue for anyone and again, most people are grateful and happy to pay, but having the charge keeps people from printing unnecessarily and does help us recoup some of the cost for paper and toner. We live in a very small community where our only print/copy shop closed earlier this year, and where many folks do not have access to high speed internet at home, so I really feel like this is a needed community service. We get a large part of our support from the town in the form of taxes and each year we must “ask” for this support at town meeting. I feel the good will engendered by these policies helps us when we make our request for this support every year at town meeting. I do acknowledge that our small size and the unique Vermont procedure of town meeting are both factors which make these policies workable for us. Larger communities and libraries which get their funding through different means may have need of more structured procedures. I’m glad that so far these “gentler” policies continue to work well for us.

  15. Mandy Says:

    I used to work in a library that didn’t charge for printing…students would print out 20 page articles and leave them on the printer without ever picking them up. Just for the sake of saving a forest, I think it’s necessary to have a small charge for printing

  16. Greg Schwartz Says:

    We don’t charge for printing, but we have print management software which we use to allocate patrons a certain number of free pages a month.

  17. susan Says:

    Collecting cash for prints is a real waste of staff time too – print management software sounds like the answer – perhaps with any request over 50 pages being flagged for librarians permission (at their discretion). Another issue is copyright – perhaps moreso in Canada where our regs are stricter. Viewing some materials isn’t in violation – printing them may be – should we tactily encourage this?
    I am all for eliminating needless bureaucracy – at one library I worked at we eliminated sign up times for the computers – it worked great – often patrons self managed – and only occasionally would we have to ask someone to leave when another person needed a computer – mind you this was in an academic library – prob. wouldn’t work in a public one.
    Read with interest Michael Golrick’s article re coin box/no coin box on copier – I worked at a small library where I estimated I spent 30% of my day making change and administering the copier – was this good use of a librarians time? The coin box I talked admin. into ordering was worth every penny spent (I got a reconditioned one) – and it seemed to improve patron satisfaction with the copier service overall since they didn’t need to contact a busy staff person to assist with copies. Then, there is still the copyright issue. Perhaps libraries should not have printers or copiers at all.

  18. Julie Says:

    As a patron, I don’t mind paying to print. It’s one of those extra fees that makes sense to me. I get that paper and toner cost money, and it’s still cheaper and more convenient to print and copy at my library than to do it somewhere else (I’m in the library at some point each week anyway, but it’s not like I’m taking the kids to Kinko’s for story hour). Print management software seems like it could be a real bonus for allaying any abusers.

  19. Mary Says:

    I work in a large city library system and at the time we got Print Management, I ordered the supplies for our Main Library computer lab. Prior to PM we went through 2-3 cases (20-30 reams) of paper a week, after only about 3-4 reams a week. We also found large print jobs left on the printers at the end of the day and got a lot of complaints from people who printed and the prints disappeared from the printer before they could get up to pick them up.

    In addition to a significant increase in collections for printing, we were able to protect our users information. Sending a job to the printer did not cost anything, as it didn’t print until they released the print job. By marketing this as a cost savings for them and something to help secure their information, we were able to make many more people happy about Print Management than we had angry about the extra steps.

  20. Michael Says:

    I have no problem with charging for printing – I don’t think we owe it to patrons. My experience has been primarily at a large multi-campus Community College on the west coast, fairly affluent students, 72 PCs in the library …. and a one-campus Community College library on the east coast in a rural area with a lot of borderline poverty student body. In both cases, students ran up immense print jobs until we started charging. In th e first library, a print management system was installed and students had to purchase cards and charge them up occasionally throughout the semester. Printing went down dramamatically after a learning curve of about three or four weeks. Printing became a student responsibility and Librarians didn’t have to play “Cop” anymore.
    In my current situation on the East Coast, print management would be a wonderful tool for traffic control, but the administration will not pay for it. We still have way too many “accidental” print jobs and a nice +70-year-old staff member at the circulation desk that students take advantage of.

  21. Rich Says:

    I can see how some libraries would need to charge for printing as the cost could accumulate quite quickly. But as long as it is economically feasible, I say its best not to charge. I work in a small college library and we do not charge for printing anywhere on campus. We recently switched our two library printers for one that gives users the option to scan to digital format and save on a thumb drive. In the first month, we have 41 pages scanned vs. 17,495 pages printed. Read my entire post at

  22. Print Management in libraries: friend of foe? – Librarian in Black « Technology Advisory Committee Says:

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  23. jammin Says:

    After many years, we started using a print management system at our public library.

    Trying to strike a balance between the pros & cons of strict print management vs none at all, we’ve set it up in such a way that for most patrons and most purposes, light and occasional use of our printers is pretty much free. Easy and convenient. Whereas heavier use and abuse is charged, and thereby reimbursed and/or curbed. It has worked well so far, and the staff are happy. No patron complaints, either.

    Every patron basically gets $3 worth of free printing a month. That’s about 30 pages B&W, less in full color. It has been enough for those patrons that don’t need to print much, or might print a decent size job once in a while. Those that print more than that are few enough that it doesn’t take a ton of staff time to credit to take their cash, and adjust their balance accordingly. Patron’s accounts are “topped up” monthly. If they are under $3, they end up with $3. If they are over $3, they just keep whatever they have.

    Having the extra popup telling people how many pages it is and how much it costs definitely reduces wasted print pages, and accidentally large print jobs.

    Less waste. Fewer accidents. But still unobtrusive, convenient, and free for most. Wasn’t that expensive or time consuming either.

  24. Sam Says:

    Just take an ‘average’ amount of printing for one patron for one year..tally up the charges..and at the beginning of the academic year add it to their tuition. If they don’t use what? I have to pay school taxes to educate children, I don’t have children. I don’t get a refund. Any ‘surplus” can go to updating and maintaining equipment.

  25. Doris Says:

    One library I know of installed a print management system but doesn’t charge for printing. They found that making patrons physically release print jobs cut down on wasted printing. The savings was enough to pay for the print management system. A nice compromise that helps save resources.

  26. Kathy Schable Says:

    I work in a very small library with a collection of @7,000 items and 300 patrons. We were having a lot of problems of patrons printing, wasting paper and not paying for misprinted job (by hiding them in the bookshelves, throwing away, etc.) We eliminated printers from the computer stations and hooked each up to a central copier machine. Since we have more control of when patrons print, we have noticed a large decrease in wasted copies.

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