Libraries turn over new leaves in quest for funding solutions

Caught in a fiscal drought, public librarians and their patrons are leaving the quiet of their reading rooms to seek out new ways to replace failing revenues.

Increasingly, they're turning to political lobbying, active fund-raising, and expanded fees for special services and non- resident users.

"It's extremely difficult, especially for a tax-supported public institution, to raise private money," according to Liam Kelly, assistant director of the Boston Public Library. Library officials agree that private philanthropy alone cannot make up for public sector support of libraries. But it can certainly help.

And systems across the country are pursuing this possibility, as well as others, in an effort to meet financial challenges.

Bostonians are lobbying for increased support from the state of Massachusetts for their city's central library, which functions as an important center of research for the state as a whole. But the library is also looking at more innovative ideas to keep the system, including branches, fully operative.

Kathleen Satut, a member of the Save Our Library Committee, told the Monitor that making the main library a private corporation, similar to the New York Public Library, would be one positive step. This would make it easier to attract private philanthropists to support the research library and other activities. She also mentioned a state tax on cable television stations as a possible source of new income for libraries.

A City Council bill proposes taxing college students for use of the library, while suggestions are afoot for assessing businesses and nonprofit organizations for their use of library services. One quarter of the system's users, the nonresidents, are another possible source for new revenue.

Across the continent in California, public library systems are reeling from the effects of Proposition 13. That measure reduced state property taxes, which are the lifeblood of most public libraries.

But last November the Berkeley Public Library won a victory which may herald a new era of bibliophilic political activism.

"We fought back in Berkely, and we're glad of that," said REgina Minudri, president of the California Library Association.

Ms. Minudri said that librarians and patrons "worked 24-hour days for two months" to get out the vote for a referendum on a special library tax, which won with 69 percent of the vote.

The new tax, based on square footage of house space to short-circuit Proposition 13's limit on land tax, averages $50 per household, according to Minudri.

Businesses pay more. Revenues from the tax are specifically marked for the library, which is no longer in financial trouble.

The Friends of the Berkeley Public Library was a key group in working for passage of the tax, and such "Friends" groups are becoming more important around the country as libraries seek to be more aggressive in fund raising and political lobbying. Friends of Libraries U.S.A. reports new library support organizations forming all around the country.

Aileen Schrader, past president of the Friends of California Libraries, said that Friends groups often raise money from private philanthropists, because it is easier for a private group to do this fundraising and then contribute to the library.

The Shenandoah Public Library, which services the upstate New York towns of Clifton Park and Halfmoon, recently raised $350,000 for a new building from small contributions of money and labor. According to Nola Reese, Shenandoah director, the library's on-going needs are net by contractual arrangements with the two towns it services and by significant amounts of privately raised funds.

What continuing changes will there be for public library funding in the future?

Two economists who have studied public libraries say that these somewhat genteel institutions may have to change certain values and fund-raising methods in order to survive.

Prof. Malcom Gets, author of "Public Libraries: An Economic View," and an economist at Vanderbilt University, said that large systems must overcome political considerations and consolidate branches. They must also consider expanded fees for users, particularly nonresidents and businesses.

Many library officials agree that user fees will be increasingly important -- and controversial.

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