Restore Our Destiny: Full-Not Plural-Funding; Growing Dependence on Fundraising Is Not the Answer for Public Libraries' Budget Woes

By Hennen, Thomas J., Jr. | American Libraries, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Restore Our Destiny: Full-Not Plural-Funding; Growing Dependence on Fundraising Is Not the Answer for Public Libraries' Budget Woes


Hennen, Thomas J., Jr., American Libraries


Libraries are a tax-supported public good. They should remain that way for their own sake as well as that of the public they serve. In his article "Saving Ourselves: Plural Funding for Public Libraries" (AL, Feb., p. 37-39), Steve Coffman chooses "plural funding"--an approach dependent on a variety of funding streams--and a greater emphasis on private fundraising as a means of ensuring libraries' viability; I choose instead full funding for libraries based on increased tax support.

Coffman, vice president for business development for Library Systems and Services, a private library-consulting firm, urged public libraries everywhere to follow the lead of public radio and museums into what he calls plural funding. He notes that in the last 20 years public radio was forced to diversify its funding base away from tax support and toward private fundraising, and goes on to make the tar pit of fundraising and value-prostitution into which public radio and television have been thrown sound like a desired destination: "Libraries too should consider plural funding strategies. Rather than wasting energies on ill-conceived Campaigns to Save America's Libraries and similar efforts that try to convince governments to give us tax monies they do not have, we should focus on developing new funding models and strategies to help save ourselves."

It is the urgent duty of librarians to put the "good" back into the "public good" of the public library movement. We have been beaten down by incessant attacks about the value of public libraries. The latest budget attacks, the calls for outsourcing, the tax cuts, and privatization efforts have taken their toll on our resolve, it seems. Nonetheless, I believe there is widespread support in the profession for ALA's Campaign to Save America's Libraries and other lobbying efforts for libraries.

I endorse the value of the tax-supported library as a public good. Yes, let's say it: The tax-supported value of libraries is a good thing! Public libraries can and do rely on multiple sources of funding; but first, foremost, and always they are a tax-supported public good.

Do I reject the value of donations to public libraries? Of course not. Andrew Carnegie in his day and Bill Gates in ours are just the most generous of thousands upon thousands that have given substantial funds to public libraries. We will continue to enjoy such donations in the future, just as we will continue to have the benefit of Friends groups that donate time and talent to libraries. But Coffman is steering us in the wrong direction by urging libraries to make fundraising on the National Public Radio model a much higher priority.

Writing off half the nation

Coffman observes that most public libraries serve smaller communities with an inadequate population for successful fundraising, and notes that it is difficult to raise sufficient pledge funds to cover expenses in cities with a population smaller than 100,000. Therefore, his recommended strategy writes off half the nation and 95% of the libraries in the country.

Consider the outcome for the sparsely populated half if that strategy turned out to be as successful as Coffman believes for the metropolitan areas. The 8,500 libraries in markets too small to do his recommended type of fundraising will be chastised by their governing bodies for failing to take advantage of this new plural funding paradigm. Many libraries will be punished for failing to do the impossible; and even in major urban areas, there are communities that have less fundraising potential than others, of course.

There is a great danger for poaching or appearing to poach on another library's territory in the major metropolitan centers where jurisdictions overlap greatly. The pattern of public library services in most metropolitan areas is fragmented and plural, rather than the unitary market that Coffman assumes.

Take, for example, the area with which I am most familiar: the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

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