The nation's oldest public library sets fund-raising example. At a time when libraries face pressure to find money, Boston prevails

Times are hard for many free public libraries around the United States. But the nation's oldest one, the Boston Public Library, is discovering untapped resources in its search for funds. After a decade of reducing hours, staff, and services, not only in the main branch, but also in 25 community satellites, Boston library administrators are counteracting the funding downtrend by touching base with the private sector, foundations, and other grant agencies - and with state government.

``The Boston library is setting a spectacular standard of success for raising nontax monies,'' says Eleanor Jo Rogers, executive director of the Public Library Association.

``Public libraries are facing increasing pressure to find money in a day when local governments are cutting back their support. The Boston business and philanthropic worlds have adopted the library as a good cause,'' she says.

``We turned the corner in October when the Boston Globe Foundation awarded us a grant of $1 million,'' says Kevin Moloney, president of the library's board of trustees.

This gift provided the needed push for the library's $49.3 million program to revitalize its McKim Building, for 98 years the historic landmark headquarters of the library, and to upgrade its 25 branches, says Mr. Moloney.

Other libraries are following the Boston lead as they seek funds to bolster bone-tight budgets, Ms. Rogers notes. ``Free libraries are finding it difficult to maintain the hours, service special collections, buy new books, and keep good employees unless they can unearth new sources of revenue,'' she says. ``Many are conducting drives to raise needed funds.''

Rogers foresees endowments, elegant, pricey fund-raisers, and special donations as new resources. Unusual gifts reported during the past include $10,000 from the social security funds of an elderly couple to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County, Tenn., library. A proposal to invest $100 in town funds for a season's ticket in the state lottery was made to the Swamscott, Mass., Town Committee. The Public Library Association is expecting to complete a study of new sources of library funds next spring, Rogers says.

Between 1975 and 1985 public support for the Boston library dropped 35 percent, says Arthur Curley, head librarian and director.

``This is not unusual for libraries today,'' he says. ``Municipalities are cutting cultural budgets across the boards.''

Five years ago Boston's library officials were in the dumps as was their budget, Mr. Curley says. Proposition 2, the Massachusetts version of California's Proposition 13 to limit property taxes, led local governments to cut budgets for public libraries in the Bay State. The Boston library was threatened with losing prestige as a center for research and study.

``We've come a long way in 30 months,'' says Moloney, of the board of trustees. ``During this short period we have increased our operating budget by 30 percent; we have made $20- to $30 million in capital improvements, and we have raised $13.5 million toward a $28.4 million restoration of our resource library, the Kim Building.''

First, the library sold its program to the mayor and city council, Moloney says. ``We are a major resource for research, not only for school children, but for students of the 60 colleges in our area, and for state and city officials,'' he says. ``We have many private collections. They include 253,000 rare books, 129,000 children's books, 15,000 current magazines, 17,000 films, 2 million government documents, 310,000 maps, and various works such as paintings, photographs, architectural drawings, and more.''

The city responded by increasing the library budget.

Second, the library sought state help, and the state responded by providing capital funding plus $13.5 million toward the restoration of the McKim Building.

The third target was the private and philanthropic sector. The Globe Foundation gift kicked off a drive to raise money needed to complete the $28.4 million restoration.

The Boston library will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its McKim Building in 1988. By this time, says Curley, the library hopes to have completed the modernization of its cataloging process to include a data base for 23 million books and various collections throughout the system.

Two other big city libraries, New York and Los Angeles, also are conducting major drives. The New York Library, founded as a private corporation in 1848, four years earlier than the Boston library, opened a $307 million fund-raising campaign Oct. 3, to finance a five-year plan to upgrade its central library, called the ``People's Palace,'' to restore books and other buildings, to increase storage space, and to extend operating hours. Campaign chairman Andrew Heiskell has enlisted a variety of people to help. David Rockefeller calls on the private sector to contribute. Author Toni Morrison invites writers, publishers, and artists to support the drive. The city will provide $93 million. The Vincent Astor Foundation has awarded the library $10 million.

The Los Angeles Library is raising $10 million to purchase and restore volumes destroyed and damaged by a fire last June. Donors include the Times Mirror Foundation ($500,000); the Ahmanson Foundation ($250,000), and smaller sums from others. The California Legislature has received proposals to sell library bonds to preserve public library service throughout the state.

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