As knowledge moves from pages to pixels, many of America's public libraries have broadened their mission.
Take, for example, the Boston Public Library, which occupies a full city block in the Back Bay neighborhood. Its imposing granite Johnson Building underwent a $78-million facelift last year, receiving larger windows, higher ceilings, and an LCD screen art installation behind its Information Desk. Since it re-opened last July, the brighter, airier building has been busy with a wide range of free offerings, from English as a second language classes to 3-D printer design.
“We’re trying to really define what is meant by a library in 2017,” says Jessica Elias, one of the BPL’s curriculum development coordinators. She spoke with The Christian Science Monitor in a glass-walled computer classroom as iMacs booted up for a class.
“We actually had a lady ... raving that years ago, she took all these classes at Bunker Hill [Community College], and paid all this money, and now all these resources, here at the library, she could have had for free,” says Ms. Elias.
Of course, someone still has to pay for those resources. National library expenses rose from just over $10 billion in 2002 to $11.3 billion in 2014, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Some libraries, like the BPL, enjoy large municipal budgets to support their operations. But in struggling urban neighborhoods and small rural towns, the costs of just keeping the lights on or fixing a leaky roof can shutter a library. The Trump administration's proposals to eliminate government funding for the IMLS, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts could force many of these institutions to make hard choices in coming years.
To solve this problem, David Rothman is asking the super-rich to create a national endowment for libraries.
Mr. Rothman, cofounder of LibraryEndowment.org, and Corilee Christou, a library advocate and retired librarian, recently laid out their vision for an endowment funded by wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, to provide a steady cash stream to libraries around the country.
However the federal budget process turns out, David Leonard, president of BPL, expects private funding to prove more necessary as library patrons seek ever-more expensive services.
“As we see a shift towards people wanting to see libraries do more programming [and] more classes, we're going to need even more of those dollars available,” Mr. Leonard says of private philanthropy. “And the hope is that it will be in addition to – and not have to be a replacement for – city, state, or federal money.”
How private funding could work
The American Library Association (ALA) reports that “the majority of library funding comes from state and local sources.” Donations large and small have supplemented these funds for generations, but the national endowment proposed by Ms. Christou and Rothman would take this support to a new level.
Through their website LibraryEndowment.org, the library advocates explain how they hope within five years time to build a fund worth $15 billion to $20 billion from the wealthiest Americans, enough to provide about $1.1 billion annually for a broad array of projects. A professional librarian would oversee its activities.
“This idea of having a library foundation at the national level would certainly provide additional opportunity for individual libraries to better meet the needs of their local populations,” says Leonard.
Without quality facilities and relevant programming, libraries could struggle to attract patrons, hastening their demise. In their opinion piece for The Washington Post, Christou and Rothman point to the town of Norlina, N.C., as an example. The library was forced to close its doors after visits had dwindled, and local officials could no longer justify the expense.
Both authors hope that America’s wealthy could prevent more episodes like these.
“There's a lot of money sloshing around on the private side,” Rothman observes in a phone interview. Noting that America’s 400 richest citizens have a combined net worth of $2.4 trillion, he argues that “even a speck of a speck of that could be used” for libraries.
“Librarians are already doing many good things, and ideally, donors will understand that the big issue is enough resources” to continue that work, he says.
Not a cure-all
Even if their cause succeeds in winning over billionaire supporters – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation declined to comment for this story – Richard Marker, professor of philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, warns that the wealthy can only do so much.
“It is very tempting, when one looks at the erosion of public support, [to] say, 'well, let's turn to the rich people, and they can solve things.' ” explains Professor Marker, who also founded Wise Philanthropy, a philanthropy advisory and education firm. “But in fact ... there is no ability of private support to take the place of public support.”
Even an annual endowment payout of $1.1 billion would only mark a 9 percent increase over the $12 billion that US libraries took in as revenue in 2014.
While that could offset some federal budget cuts, most experts say that support for libraries needs to be a robust combination of public, private, and government funds.
“We need to be very careful that we are not talking about an alternative to the current mix of local, state and federal funding that supports our libraries today," writes ALA president Julie Todaro in an email to the Monitor.
Rothman says that’s not the endowment’s intent. “We do not want tax money to vanish as a source of support for libraries,” he said. “I would hate it if the super-rich were the only source of libraries” funding.
To avoid that outcome, Professor Marker says that “advocacy, as well as pushing for private support, is crucial.”
Finding the balance
Rallying a majority of senators and representatives around libraries may sound tougher than convincing a few well-heeled donors. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. One-third of House members from both parties have already signed two “Dear Appropriator” letters, asking the House and Senate’s Appropriations Committee to preserve some library programs’ funding, according to the ALA's website.
These efforts could help many libraries continue operations. But as patrons seek ever-more costly technology, educational programs, and cultural offerings, creative fundraising strategies – like a national endowment – could prove necessary.
"City funding, and in our case, state funding, really only go to cover the basics of buildings and books and operations," Leonard explains. "To really make libraries come alive with creative programming, new exhibitions, that's where we rely on private money."
“For libraries to do what they need to do,” he predicts, “they will rely more and more on private funding going forward. Even if we get through the current crisis ... I think that point will still be true.”