Literary Activism

Are Libraries Doomed? How Libraries are Funding Themselves

Kristen Twardowski

Staff Writer

Kristen Twardowski stumbled her way through working with wolves and libraries and found her professional home doing marketing and data analysis in the publishing industry. Though there will always be a place in her heart for numbers and graphs, the rest of her love is given to words. She recently published her debut novel, a psychological thriller called When We Go Missing, and blogs about books and writing on her website A Writer's Workshop.

In a perfect world, libraries would have all of the funding they could possibly need. They would have a budget that allowed them to purchase new books, keep up-to-date on the newest technologies, and sponsor events for the local community.

But the world we live in is far from perfect.

These days libraries in the United States face increasingly restricted finances. As part of his proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, President Trump sought to eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), essentially eradicating federal funding for libraries. This would result in the near destruction of over 120,000 public, school, and professional libraries in the United States that do much more than house books. These libraries are centers of education, places where people can job search, and hearts of communities. 27% of library visitors attend classes at them. 14% of visitors use them to job search. And 89% of people consider libraries to be safe places to spend time.

So library staff have been brainstorming, trying to find different ways to have enough funding to keep their doors open. I was part of a recent conversation where librarians shared the different and sometimes odd ways that their libraries are trying to raise money.

Several people mentioned library book sales. (You can discover sales near you using the Book Sale Finder.) During events like this, libraries sell donated or old books to the public at steeply discounted prices. A single book can often cost $0.25 or less. The libraries then turn around and use whatever money they have made to purchase new books, expand programs, or renovate old buildings. As one person observed though, libraries can’t depend on these sales to make much money. The libraries don’t want to take the most popular books out of circulation to sell, and they can’t guarantee that the public will want to buy any of the donated materials.

Other libraries have turned to renting out library spaces for a price. One library rents out its storage rooms to businesses in the local community. Another rents its computer lab to a community college for classes. Renting out spaces like this does bring in some revenue, but it also requires libraries to expand their business role. That often means that staff have to change their focus as well.

In addition to renting out spaces, libraries have expanded their “paid for” services. For example, Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio processes passport applications. Each passport they process earns the library $25 dollars, and during their first year in the program, the library brought in over $100,000 just from handling passports. Some libraries also sell other items to patrons in hopes of making some money. These products can include USB drives, coffee or snacks, and more for printing services.

Still other libraries have sought out donations and grants. They participate in programs like AmazonSmile, which allows Amazon customers to donate .05% of eligible purchases to a given charitable organization. They also create “Friends of the Library” programs in which individuals pay a membership fee to a given library. Those fees then support library programs and services.

Regardless of what programs libraries try, these options aren’t particularly sustainable. They certainly don’t replace robust local or federal funding. Still, it is heartening to know that so many people are dedicating their energy to preserving libraries.

If you know of other ways that libraries are attempting to sustain themselves, please share them. (Or maybe we all should follow these tips for supporting our local libraries.) Despite their changing roles, libraries remain invaluable parts of local communities. They are worth saving.