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.

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