March 20, 2018

Coffman vs. Hennen: What Should the Funding Strategy Be

By LJ Staff

Steve Coffman of LSSI, who’s called for ‘plural funding’ for libraries a la National Public Radio, faced off in a Public Library Association session against Thomas Hennen, a Wisconsin library director who stresses public funding. Coffman suggested that ‘being so heavily dependent on a single source of revenue’ is a dangerous strategy, and said that librarians should gain revenue from memberships, sponsorships, and earned income. The effort to gain full tax funding isn’t working, he said; some 50 years ago, two percent of local taxes went to support the public library; now it’s .5 percent. Moreover, in 1945, the American Library Association (ALA) recommended that 25 percent of the public library budget be spent on books, he said; in 1950, ALA recommended that one-fifth of that (five percent of the budget) be moved to salaries. Now materials funding is under 15 percent. Another piece of evidence ‘of the fatal tax strategy,’ he said, was the decline in Sunday hours, even as bookstores like Barnes & Noble are open more than 12 hours on such days. He pointed to local fundraising efforts last year in Salinas, CA, and Bedford, TX, stimulated by threats of service losses. A tax strategy, he said, means that a library ‘is not required to build support in its community, and an increase in service (such as circulation) does not guarantee an increase in support.

Hennen said libraries should pursue other sources of revenues, ‘but public libraries, for 170 years, have been tax-supported public goods. We need to get that message to everyone.’ He recommended a ‘plural legislative strategy’ that takes advantage of the public’s willingness to pay more for libraries. ‘Only 20 of 50 states have enabling legislation for library districts,’ he said. Also, only a few states allow impact fees to be assessed on new developments. He also recommended wider units of service in jurisdictions where there are many competing libraries. He challenged Coffman’s example, pointing out that two public radio stations in Milwaukee compete for donors, while dozens of libraries in the metropolitan area would have to do so. He also touched on the potential encroachment of commercialism. ‘How many people are going to believe [information you can trust] if there’s an underwriter, or did I say advertiser?’

‘I believe it’s important to do plural funding when the police department has bake sales,’ Hennen concluded. In the end, the question may be whether libraries are more like museums, or schools. ‘My sense is it fits in with other cultural organizations,’ said Coffman, observing that essential services like public safety will always be a civic priority. Hennen countered that in his state, the state Department of Public Instruction oversees the Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning. One person in the audience said she didn’t see it as an ‘either/or’; pointing out that libraries could go virtual and gain more private support. Susan Hauer, the director of the Library System of Lancaster County, PA, said that Coffman’s plural funding article was used to argue against a recent tax referendum. While the measure failed narrowly, the level of public support spurred the county commissioners into increasing the library allocation by 30 percent. ‘We’re not a charity. We’re not a cultural institution. We’re an essential government service,’ she said.