Time to Review: How Public Libraries Lured Funding, and You Might, Too

(Adapted from the book The Funding Game, Rules for Public Library Advocacy,The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland and London, England, 1999)

The impetus for creative and innovative library funding goes back to the New York financial crisis of the 1970s. Administrators at the New York Public Library adapted the cost-efficient, effective techniques honed by community organizers: tapping volunteers to intercede with public officials; creating events for council members to meet voters at the library; phoning council members to invite their presence at lectures; and setting up letter-writing tables for library users to send messages telling council how much the library meant to them.

In 1999’s The Funding Game, Rules for Public Library Advocacy, I profiled public libraries that attracted funding through grassroots advocacy, shrewd business sense and just plain gumption. This legacy of innovative fundraising, exemplified in the stories below, is an encouragement and inspiration to today’s libraries as they face current economic challenges. So how did libraries do it?

They introduced projects that attracted funding agencies largely for their novelty.

When the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was refused city funding for their material budget, they explored alternative means of disseminating information. The result of their brainstorming was a plan to link some forty county libraries with public internet access. That ambitious plan, the Electronic Information Network (EIN) project, first attracted attention and then attracted dollars; the library received the necessary funding to implement the project.

They leveraged gift dollars to attract more dollars.

When the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock received a grant from Microsoft for the Libraries Online! project, they set up a bookmobile service for community centers and housing projects in underserved areas. Included were books and computers with public internet access. After successfully meeting this goal the system was able to get more grants from the federal Housing and Urban Development department (HUD), the Rockefeller Trust and a local foundation, thus enlarging their project substantially.

They implemented socially responsible initiatives.

Programs such as Little Rock’s that benefited the underserved in Arkansas; partnerships with nonprofits serving minority-owned businesses, such as the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library in Minnesota initiated; and literacy and homework programs developed by the Tucson-Pima Library in Arizona are a few of the projects that attracted funding and supported the federal initiative for social responsibility.

They developed unconventional library services.

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library in Ohio oversaw a Government Procurement Center (GPC) that used minimum contract dollars to leverage hundreds more. The major part of the library’s budget was funded by the state government while the GPC facilitated the objectives of local government in helping small businesses compete for jobs. The library provided consulting, research and high tech services for which it received income from the state and generous approval from its business-oriented community.

They developed new structures.

Fundraising was slow for the new San Francisco Public Library’s main building until the library came up with the idea of affinity groups that would involve the city’s many ethnic and interest-based minorities to contribute to special collections, with a percentage of their contribution going to the library’s general fund. The affinity group idea was thought to have saved the new main building as it contributed nearly one-third of the campaign funds either directly or through matching grants.

They nurtured the grass roots.

When the Rockridge branch of the Oakland Public Library in California had a severe rent increase that threatened the library’s existence, grassroot efforts, facilitated by a popular neighborhood newsletter, were able to establish a voter-approved special tax district. Funds from the state, however, were not easy to obtain. The fact that they succeeded was believed to be due, ironically, to a neighborhood tragedy: a devastating fire that swept through the area causing loss of lives and homes just prior to the state’s library grant voting session. Advocates present at the voting wore identification tags displaying a red flame and emphasized the role of a new library as a community center—something for which the fire tragedy had demonstrated a serious need.

They located service outlets in high-traffic areas.

Requiring space for a library branch to serve a rural area, but without the funding to make it possible, Adams Memorial Library in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, arranged with a local supermarket in a busy mall to provide 6,000 square feet of donated space within the market. This novel stroke attracted national media coverage in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and other publications.

They turned to entrepreneurial ventures.

Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library in Minnesota was one of the first groups to establish a used bookstore to handle the withdrawn books and donations from the library’s branches. Books from their fourteen branches yielded earnings of over $100,000 per year that were used to benefit the library’s Franklin Learning Center (an adult literacy center) and were thought to save the library extensive costs in used-book disposal.

They contracted with local government.

The Palm Springs Public Library in California contracted with the city for a five year funding agreement with the annual funding that the library specified if they provided the designated library services, such as hours of service, acquisitions, collection development, staffing and automation. According to the city librarian, the arrangement enabled the city council to plan its future, the library’s customers to be comfortable with the fees they paid and the library “to have more authority over its destiny.” Other benefits outlined in a memo to the city council were long-term quality library services, recycling of unexpended funds in the interests of cost conservation, coordination of fee increases with service enhancements, a simpler annual budget process and improved planning opportunities for both the city council and the library.

Another agreement, in the form of a city ordinance, was arranged by the Chicago Public Library to offset concerns that the library foundation’s private fundraising might jeopardize public funding. The ordinance called for the city council to consider private funding as an additional, not an alternative, source of revenue and to ensure that an increase in private funding would not be the basis or justification for offsetting reductions in public funding.

They investigate off-the-wall funding sources.

The Commission on the Future of Libraries in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, received funds for its Knowledge Connections project (consisting of mini-libraries with computer capabilities located in public housing communities) and a special fund generated by forfeiture fees from illegal gambling operations, such as raids on sports betting and numbers operations, lotteries and video poker machines. In two years, the fund yielded $105,000.

The Auberry branch of the Fresno County Free Library in Fresno, California, convinced its Chamber of Commerce to ask a bank that was closing its local branch to donate the bank building for a new internet-capable library and community meeting center. The bank agreed to donate the 5,024 square foot building and threw into the package the furniture, the computer systems and over an acre of land on which the building sits. In the opinion of a Friends member, the gift was made possible “because the Chamber had the guts to ask for it.” The implication was that the same can be true for other libraries if they take the initiative.

For further information, contact Mary Anne Craft at craftlib1@aol.com.