Public libraries are the public’s responsibility
To the editor: I offer the following in reply to Mr. Coffman’s proposal to apply an entrepreneurial fund raising solution to replace tax support for public libraries (“Changing public library funding,” May 2003). I do not claim to have expertise in the public radio broadcasting model for reducing its reliance upon federal dollars by dramatically increasing membership support. However, I have great difficulty picturing a librarian or a clerk pausing for a pledge break in the midst of each transaction with a library patron.
Since the turn of the last century, in most states and in most public libraries, library services have been free. Unlike fine art and historical museums, theaters, symphony orchestras, and other community-based cultural institutions, most public libraries do not charge a subscriber or membership fee.
Libraries are not just another cultural institution. Other than parks and streets, they are the only local government service that is open and freely available for use to every member of the community. And, they are the only non-regulatory community institutions where personal professional service is provided on demand to anyone regardless of eligibility status, age, ability to pay or need.
Libraries are a bargain. Tom Ridge, while Governor of Pennsylvania, said this: “I don’t believe that in the public service community there is an organization that stretches a public dollar further and maximizes the benefits of investment better than libraries.” In my community, nine million library books and other items were checked out last year. If the library wasn’t available, the residents would have had to spend at least $200 million buying those books. Instead, we spent $3.5 million for books, and everyone shared.
As to the hypothesis that private and corporate funding could take over for local tax dollars, all elected officials know that libraries already have the most dedicated volunteers of any government organization. They hold book sales, host fund-raising events, seek corporate donations, operate cafés and gift shops and donate money to augment book budgets and pay for special programs. These volunteers, fund-raisers and foundations are the model for other community organizations, and they have been working for years.
No, with few exceptions, libraries do not aggressively partner with corporations like baseball stadiums selling naming rights. Libraries as an institution have a hard-earned reputation for integrity, fairness and quality service. Selling the value of that reputation should come at a very high price, indeed. Perhaps it is a cost too high for any but a handful of corporations. Can that elite group afford the operating costs of 124,000 public libraries in this country?
— Gay F. Strand Director of finance/administration Santa Clara County, Calif., Library
To the editor: I must take exception to Steve Coffman’s article. While it may seem like a good idea to move the primary financial responsibility for public libraries from local and state government to the private sector, first consider several factors:
The public library has served since this country’s inception as the people’s university. It is the institution charged with ensuring that all of our citizenry is informed and educated.
The public library is the place where a citizen of any age can find the information needed to live a full, productive life.
Society considers the public library as a public good making the cost reasonable to and borne by all.
The governmental funding responsibility model acknowledges the societal benefit and need of public library services.
Libraries have moved into the outside fund raising arena, with many having a foundation arm to accomplish this. However, these dollars are to supplement basic services, not to remove the responsibility from the tax base.
The author asks, “If museums, orchestras, public broadcasting stations and other cultural institutions … can raise substantial portions of their budgets from non-tax revenues, why not the library?” Because the library is not another cultural institution in the community, but another educational institution. It is an institution that is charged with educating citizens so they may participate in an informed manner, thus ensuring the continuation of this form of government that we have enjoyed since our forefathers designed it.
— Jo Ann Pinder President, Public Library Association and Executive Director, Gwinnett County, Ga., Public Library
To the editor: I found Mr. Coffman’s ideas on moving public library funding to corporate sponsorships and membership drives a la public television/radio interesting. However, I would point out that television and radio stations serve a much larger area than a public library generally does. Also, libraries do not have the ability to broadcast their appeals as the media do.
Finally, corporate money often brings with it strings — strings that require the recipient to sometimes modify or change what is offered the public. Also, the sponsorship is blazoned across everything the recipient does. The public library, as conceived of and maintained in this country, is neutral ground: a place for our residents to find information in an unbiased atmosphere (note that I did NOT say they’d find unbiased information!). The best way to ensure the public library’s impartiality is to fund it partly with tax revenue and in return require a Board of Trustees or Directors be appointed by the local municipality(ies) — exactly what is in place in most of the public libraries today (at least here in Pennsylvania).
— Victoria E. Dow, Director West Chester, Pa., Public Library