I come from the non-profit world and fees for public programs (classes, talks, workshops) are essential and expected. The 2 biggest reasons would be to ensure folks show up (and that you know how many people to anticipate) and to provide an honorarium to presenters. Now I work for a public library and seldom know how many people will attend and must rely on presenters willing to speak/teach for free. I understand some of the logic but it prevents me from offering more substantial programs with experts in the field....for example, an expert on the 19th Amendment and Women's Suffrage or a respected author.
This is a good and I expect universal discussion. Our Friends group charges a fee for Yoga and Tai Chi classes as a fundraiser and the Friends funds, raised by these classes and book sales, are used by the library to fund library programming for all ages. We had to remove the programming line from the budget a few years ago and the Friends stepped in to save the day. Since the funds are limited, we have had to charge for a few of our adult craft classes that either have expensive supplies and/or that have an instructor who charges a fee. I will only do this if the attendee walks away with an item of comparable worth like a dyed silk scarf, a complex greeting card or a piece of jewelry with beads and metal findings. I never pass on the full cost but try to keep it reasonable (no more than $10.00, usually only $5.00) compared to the cost of the item in a store. I also ask for general donations of supplies from the patrons and the staff with which I try to create programs using only those supplies. A very generous patron, an artist moving across the country, gave the library practically her entire art studio or at least the heavy stuff. This included a lot of polymer clay and even the oven she used to bake the clay. I am also aware that there are some of my regular patrons who can't participate if there is a fee so I waive the fee for those "in need." I don't advertise that fact but if anyone would ask, I would certainly allow them to attend. I have considered charging a refundable registration fee but I fear that would get complicated and I would like to avoid that. I allow walk-ins to fill vacancies after the first 10 minutes of instruction so I usually get a fairly full class and it encourages others to get to class on time. I like to think that I offer more advanced crafts and activities by charging the occasional fee. We also do a lot of cooking classes and that does require a fee to have enough supplies so that everyone can taste the food. They all get generous portions of delicious food, printed recipes and the classes are an enjoyable social gathering. The librarian who runs these classes puts a lot of prep time and a lot of thought into the content. They are very popular classes.
Ours is a rural district, with a lot of patrons that can't afford fees for a lot of programs. Our director has made a point of never scheduling any program that has a cost associated with it, so if we can't do it for free, we don't do it. Even so, we have built a following for our Local Author Series by allowing local authors to sell their books directly during their appearances, and we use programming funds to purchase a few extra copies to give away to early arrivers, so the authors are guaranteed at least some sales of their books. Additionally, we reach out to other area businesses for community support. We hosted a program recently where we generated all program materials in-house, but then offered gift certificates for local restaurants as prizes. Our community partners got the benefit of free advertising with our patrons, and our patrons got the benefit of free desserts from some of our neighboring establishments. Budget-wise, we could not have pulled that off, but by getting the restaurants to donate the prizes, it was a win-win. We don't have a Friends or ganization to support us. Our Book Sale shelves are advertised with a "pay what you will" charge, and we have cut costs for printing and copying to almost nothing. We also have 2-3 "Fine Waiver" programs each year, whether it is "reading down" fines where patrons "pay" their overdue fines with reading time in the library or paying down fines with donations to the local food pantry. We are fortunate that the revenue we do receive covers our costs, but at the same time, trying to generate interesting and intriguing programming "on the cheap" encourages out-of-the-box thinking and stimulates creativity. I understand the "implicit value" that comes with charging for a program, and the greater likelihood that a patron will show up for a program they have already committed funds to, but I don't see us charging for any programming any time soon.