Information Today, Inc. Corporate Site KMWorld CRM Media Streaming Media Faulkner Speech Technology DBTA/Unisphere
Other ITI Websites
American Library Directory Boardwalk Empire Database Trends and Applications DestinationCRM Faulkner Information Services Fulltext Sources Online InfoToday Europe KMWorld Literary Market Place Plexus Publishing Smart Customer Service Speech Technology Streaming Media Streaming Media Europe Streaming Media Producer Unisphere Research

Vendors: For commercial reprints in print or digital form, contact LaShawn Fugate (

Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2024

Back Index Forward

Vol. 44 No. 4 — May 2024

The Cost of Free Printing
by Suzanne S. LaPierre

But will free printing really save patrons and staff time and improve accessibility? Or will it bring new problems? The most obvious downside is the potential for abuse.
I have been eagerly awaiting the day my library system might move toward free printing for the public. Why? The payment kiosks are often not able to accept one form of payment or another. As of this writing, they are unable to take cash due to a coin shortage. This is an access issue for people who don’t have credit cards. While it is possible for staffers to bypass the payment kiosk for those who don’t have cards, many people don’t feel comfortable asking or know that’s an option. It can be stressful for newcomers to figure out how to pay for prints. The kiosk interface can be confusing, especially for people from other language backgrounds. Therefore, I hoped free printing might simplify the process for patrons and staffers.

But will free printing really save patrons and staff time and improve accessibility? Or will it bring new problems? The most obvious downside is the potential for abuse. Budding writers might print off copies of their novel, and small-business owners could easily use hundreds of pages of paper and lots of ink on marketing materials. This would not only create a major expense for the library, but running out of ink or paper due to a few people monopolizing the resource would curtail access until supplies could be restocked. This would exacerbate accessibility issues.

I turned to professional social media groups to gather insight from those whose libraries had moved from paid printing to free printing. How had the switch worked out for them? In an answer to a question about access, a librarian mentioned that patrons monopolizing free printing made it difficult for others to physically access the equipment, even if supplies such as paper and ink were kept fully stocked. Others said their library staff spent more time resolving printer issues after moving to free printing due to an increased volume of use.

The biggest problems occurred when libraries did not limit the number of free pages. Staffers had horror stories about massive print jobs left abandoned, wasting ink and hundreds of pages of paper. Excessive color printing represented an especially big drain on the budget. One librarian mentioned that a nearby playground suffered from paper littering after children discovered the free printing option.

Success stories came from libraries that limited free prints to about 10 pages per day. Community members appreciated free printing for small jobs such as resumes, job applications, letters, and tickets. No one was able to overuse the service. A few said they put tip jars out by the equipment, and some community members left generous tips over and above the cost of their prints. Here’s how a few library systems put limits on free prints:

  • The Seattle Public Library enables visitors to print or copy 10 black-and-white pages or three color pages for free each week. Those who want additional prints can pay by credit or debit card or cash.
  • The DC Public Library allows 20 free prints per day. These can be remote print jobs sent through email or via self-service using equipment in the building. The prints can be color or black and white. Double-sided prints count as two pages. Library policy states that users cannot exceed this limit, even if they are willing to pay for additional pages.
  • The Library of Congress’ reading rooms include copying and printing services and scanners in most public research areas. There is no fee for printing/copying/scanning, nor is there a page limit.
  • The Los Angeles Public Library offers free remote printing at all locations up to a $6.25 value. That can include either black-and-white (25 cents each) or color prints (50 cents each) up to the daily maximum. There is no provision to pay for additional pages. Users must wait until the next day to print more.
  • The Enoch Pratt Free Library allows 20 free black-and-white prints or copies per day for library card holders. After the free pages, black-and-white prints are 10 cents per page. Color prints are not included in the free pages and always cost 20 cents per page. Patrons can add money to their accounts using a Smart Access Manager (SAM) kiosk.

Clearly, there are multiple ways to limit the extent of printing and prevent a few people from monopolizing supplies and equipment. Notably, many systems—especially large urban libraries—put a strict limit on printing volume altogether, paid or free. This indicates they have experienced monopolization of the service even when fees are charged.

Smaller rural libraries have their own challenges. A librarian serving a remote population noted that her library provides the only printing option within an hour’s drive. Therefore, there is a huge demand for the service. Staffers spend a significant portion of their day helping with copying and printing. In addition to staff time, heavy use drains significant funds from the budget that don’t come back to the branch.

COVID-19 changed the way many libraries handled print services. Some initiated free printing during the early part of the pandemic. Often, this started well but deteriorated, as individuals found ways to abuse the privilege. An academic librarian reported they had to move back to pay-per-page printing after students started to print off entire textbooks. A public librarian lamented individuals printing out the entire contents of their email account—hundreds of pages—regardless of content. One noted that individuals with mental health challenges often could not be dissuaded from overusing the service. Many found their resources drained quickly by for-profit businesses printing out advertising and reports, some even emptying all of the library’s paper and ink in one session. A library serving a population of about 60,000 reported spending around $4,000 a month on ink when it moved to free printing, which quickly became unsustainable and necessitated returning to fees.

On the upside, many librarians report good public relations resulting from patrons being happy with the lack of fees and improved convenience. Some people even volunteered donations to support the service. It also brings more community members through the doors. Although some will still need help, one librarian estimated that moving to free printing saved about half the staff time over helping patrons pay to print. Here are some tips from the feedback gathered for this column:

  • Decide on a limit for free prints per day, and even consider limiting the number of overall pages printed per day. This prevents monopolizing equipment and supplies and keeps resources available to more patrons.
  • State the policy up front, such as, “The library reserves the right to change the daily printing allotment at any time.” This gives staffers more flexibility if the resource needs to be rationed due to limits on staff time or supplies.
  • If attaching a free daily print allotment to library cards, consider also doing so for guest passes. Typically, the guest pass will have about half of the free print value of a library card. Some reported allowing about $5 a day per library card and $2.50 per guest pass.

Free services aren’t always free when it comes to staff time and accessibility consequences. Having learned from those who have been there, I still hope to see more libraries adopt free printing—albeit with well-defined limits in place.

A Few Options for Print Management Tools

PaperCut print management software is used by many libraries (

PrinterOn Public is a cloud-printing service designed for public spaces (

The ePRINTit cloud-processing system can work with a TBS self-serve kiosk (for payment) and has library-specific features (

Suzanne S. LaPierre ( is a Virginiana Specialist Librarian for Fairfax County Public Library in Virginia and co-author of the book Desegregation in Northern Virginia Libraries (The History Press 2023). LaPierre has worked in public library information services for more than 17 years, with prior experience in academic libraries, archives, museums, galleries, and special collections. The opinions expressed are her own.