Gazing Over The Gulch

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

As this is written there is off-and-on discussion in Washington about a possible second "stimulus" package being passed to boost the economy of the United States. The first such package had practically nothing in it that would directly benefit libraries. A rural broadband build-up initiative is nice but it is not something that is going to necessarily impact population centers like Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Cleveland, New York City, Atlanta, or others. There are indirect effects that the stimulus package has on libraries, though.

How are libraries in the United States funded? Like public schools there is quite a bit of library funding dependent upon ad valorem property tax levy revenues. During the present economic psychosis property values have been impacted as the housing market bubble shattered. With foreclosures still high in some areas, a fundamental problem arises. If a home is not owned in a traditional sense, who is paying the taxes on that home? KPIX noted in their local context that typically nobody pays those taxes. Unless adequate support is built into a stimulus package to keep people in their home and pay taxes, no stimulus bill can truly help plug funding holes for libraries.

No tax base alone can be considered safe for funding libraries. Ohio was previously known as having the gold standard for library funding. In the recent squabbles in Columbus that model was impacted somewhat. As the population of the United States ages, funding priorities can shift in cases from lifelong learning to instead end-of-life medical care. The old rules for the public financing of library operations may not necessarily apply in the same fashion any more.

There is a potential solution to this. What if a library was not tied to tax revenues that varied in value due to economic fluctuations? What if a library could set its own policies as to its possible ancillary operations which may or may not raise revenue?

Spinning off public libraries from being funding concerns of government to being non-profit corporations may become a necessary step. Amidst the balance of agencies requiring funds from governmental tax revenue, setting libraries loose from that trough to instead seek donations and grants can be a structural reform that would relieve pressure on governments.

Public libraries are presently creatures of statute that can only do what their enabling laws permit them to do. Allowing libraries to become non-profit corporations would allow greater flexibility to meet local needs without requiring the amendment of state-wide enabling laws first as only corporate internals would have to be fussed with. This might allow the imposition of coffee shops in libraries with a cut of profits plowed back into library operation. Fee services could also be possible for local libraries adapting to unique local needs.

Only the limits of one's imagination as to the enhanced services potentially offered hold one back in this regard. In-depth consulting over research questions, small business incubation, and more are just initial possibilities. A recent question posted to the premiere e-mail list for serialists about undertaking bulk purchases of an item like the Wall Street Journal for patrons poses an idea. While government agency accounting rules may create problems in making such available to patrons in a manner akin to McDonald's offering newspaper copies, non-governmental status would potentially ease that roadblock.

This would be somewhat of a brave new world for librarians to explore. There might be significant consolidation inherent in any such a structural change. Bookmobile usage let alone deployment might even increase. A contraction in the pool of available MLS-grade jobs would also be fairly likely to occur too. There is a partial example of such a library already in existence in Ohio known as Henderson Memorial Public Library that is owned by the Henderson Library Association and receives some funding support from state authorities. A companion foundation also exists to carry out fund-raising for the library and could potentially bridge a gap if state support ever disappeared.

Libraries are at a cross-roads. With a flaky economy that seems at times subject to pillaging, being yoked to a funding regime based on tax revenue can be a dangerous proposition. Libraries not only need more freedom than before to raise funds but also more freedom as to how they can act. With the nation's economic health at fairly distinct lows, stepping away from a regressive funding regime toward independence may allow firmer foundations for continued vitality.

Tax receipts are down and the increases in tax rates that seem to be inevitable do not lead to hope that receipts will increase. The notion of hiding wealth and the means of its production in Galt's Gulch is already growing in popularity and the Tea Party movement has shown signs of the common man growing interested in the concept. If there is nothing to tax or nobody to pay the taxes how would any public agency survive? While the modern public library paradigm has persisted in North America since the 1870s, nothing says it has to last forever without change.


Stephen Michael Kellat received his Master of Science in Library Science from Clarion University of Pennsylvania in 2004. He not only is not the Annoyed Librarian he is also not John Galt.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.


Wow! What idiocy! I haven’t heard this much neo-con horse hooey since Bush ran for the presidency with Rove, Wolf and the other creators of the current financial mess last channeled the ghost of Ayn Rand. Remember “let the market monitor itself”, “run government like a business!”, “get rid of all those pesky rules, regulations and regulators that hamper the financial markets!” and “what you need is a tax cut!”?
First off, the public library is and needs to remain a government organization. It is needed the same way schools, police and fire departments are needed. As a learning organization, today’s counties and cities need a place for the citizens to go to learn more without having to commit to the expense and time of formal education. Much of the early movement of public libraries was, in part, to allow working class citizens to grow and develop new skills for upward mobility. In today’s environment of looking for new careers because of job loss, outsourcing and plant closings, the public library is needed as a resource more than ever.
Secondly, as a county organization there is state and county protection from censorship (somewhat) and political influence (somewhat) that is almost totally lacking in non-profit organizations. There are laws and regulations about the disposal of library materials. Library trustees are almost independent from the county supervisors- supervisors can add or lower the amount of funds given to the trustees to run the library, but can’t tell the trustees how to spend it.
Thirdly, private funds are also at risk from the market, and not only go up and down with the market, but also can be wiped out overnight. Right now, my 401 is a 201, and even Harvard is letting librarians go because the trust is not making as much money as is needed.
Next, to raise funds for such a large private non-profit corporation, you need professional fundraisers. Fundraisers pay for themselves first, or did you think they did this for free? So out of the first $100,000.00 they raise, $60,000- $80,000 will go to their pay, and then more for their offices, secretaries, expenses, etc. If you were a donor, would you be happy that of the first money you gave, the first two thirds or it or more don’t go to your cause, but to some fundraising bureaucrat?
After all, if it was that easy, the friend’s groups all over the country would have a bank account exceeding the annual budget of the local library. They don’t. Not by a long shot.
So my advice is to put your money where your mouth is. Go start a small library in competition with the county public library. Ask for funding and make it into a private, non-profit corporations. Then drive the county library out of business, and take over the library world. It would be easy in Ohio where many libraries are closing and the governor wants to slash library budget by 50%. Go ahead, and quit your current job, and become a private librarian.
In ten years, come back and tell us how it is done, and how easy it was to do. I’ll listen then.

R. Lee Hadden (These are my own opinions!)

No one pays property taxes on a rental? Get real! Every landlord since the dawn of time has just raised the rent to cover them as part of the cost of maintaining a house. You want to know what the problem I see locally here is? It's people, especially under 40, not being paid a wage enough to buy homes or even afford to rent one because student debt is incredibly high and so are the cost of homes. Corporations, even NFP ones, by their very nature can't help that situation because they are in the business of making everything as cheap as possible, even if it means cutting out valuable, if rarely used, items and services. It's also not a "brave new world." Libraries based on a business model (often to serve a specialized client base of working professionals) were absorbed into public ones around the time of the Gilded Age for a reason. They served their limited patron pool and if that pool fell on hard times that was the end of it. Governments and library unions have drawbacks, but they are not dirty words or bastions of instability.

Also - leave Seattle out of this! Seattle's broadband upgrades are generally something business and individuals like to invest in because this area demographically is made up mostly by young, college educated professionals who understand and use technology and can see the value of improving it and are pretty evangelical about getting other people online. Plus, this is the land of Digi-Pen, UW (which has a MLIS school), Microsoft, Speakeasy, and a 12-story library funded cheerfully by taxpayer bonds that has a floor of computers available for patron use even after the rest of the state passed stupid "$30 car tab" tax "reform." (Yes, funding has become tight for even a rock star library like Seattle, but it has become tight for everything.) My locally-based educated guess is that Seattle would let the Space Needle collapse before going without fast and accessible internet for a week. Hell, the rural broadband projects will probably be a great help to us by allowing Seattle-based businesses to communicate more effectively with satellite branches and warehouses. Plus, we might actually get some of the rural-based legislators in Olympia and the other Washington to understand the concept of "technology infrastructure" beyond "the internet is a series of tubes" and let their tax base grow so we don't have to keep funding them from urban centers like Seattle (much to their resentment and ours too). Oh, yeah, and there's a national security element to this too out here in Washington State. Considering we have Boeing, Ft. Lewis, McCord AFB, and two nuclear drydock facilities in addition to a boarder with Canada and a staggering amount of Pacific Rim trade and some of those facilities are in areas outside of the City of Seattle that could really use an broadband upgrade (among other things) rural broadband is money well spent.

Finally, tea baggers really need to invest in a new name and get an actual nuanced platform other then showing pictures of "Obama = Lenin" on FOX News and blindly lashing out at anything regarding taxes like 2 year olds denied some candy before they start talking to me about how to fund community-based research and education efforts. Plus, you should really look up who's funding those parties before you cite them as a grassroots effort. I'm sure your local, publicly reference desk would be happy to help.