By Catherine Alloway and Thomas Fountaine, ICMA-CM
What options exist for public libraries and their funding by local governments when critical revenue streams are reduced? The public library of the State College, Pennsylvania, region successfully used an unorthodox and focused approach in 2014 to help alleviate budget pressures and increase public awareness of public library funding.
Annually, six local governments comprising the Centre Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) band together to provide local funding for the Schlow Centre Region Library located in downtown State College. The award-winning library, located on the one of the busiest corners in the city, serves a population of 92,096.
It attracts more than 310,000 visitors annually and checks out more than 700,000 items on a $2.2 million budget. Financial records showed that 59 percent of Schlow’s 2014 income came from CRCOG, while 19 percent came from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Government funding for Pennsylvania’s 442 public libraries relies heavily on state revenues. In fiscal year 2011, the commonwealth’s libraries ranked sixth among all states in state funding for libraries and 46th for local county or municipal funding.1 Since 2007, Pennsylvania libraries have experienced a steady decline of state revenues in real and inflation-adjusted dollars, resulting in numerous library service reductions and closures, as local governments, particularly in rural areas, struggle to replace lost state aid.
In addition to reduced state revenue, Schlow, like other libraries, has experienced additional revenue declines, including investment interest. New consumer reading habits have also reduced a long-standing library revenue stream: overdue fines. Fine income is decreasing due to e-mail date-due reminders and e-book checkouts, which do not generate penalties.
The library developed an aggressive fund-raising plan, and donations have increased 130 percent since 2009. CRCOG, meanwhile, has provided annual municipal revenue increases of 2 to 5 percent.
Simultaneously, expenditures have risen, and large annual increases in facility and health insurance expenses have stressed the budget. The high cost of popular e-books, priced higher for libraries, has stretched the ability to buy new bestsellers in the multiple formats readers demand. The first draft budget for 2014 showed expenditures exceeding revenues by 10 percent.
Weighing a One-Week Closure
As library director, this article’s author had heard of public libraries that had closed and furloughed staff for a week or more to resolve financial stresses. Although most libraries address budget shortfalls by trimming weekly hours or services, staff wondered: Could a more extreme approach benefit Schlow in a tight budget year?
Typically, reducing schedules or programs here and there tend to go unnoticed by library users, while gradually whittling away at the library’s overall community effectiveness.
Library staff researched extended library closures, but library professional literature yielded few insights, and libraries contacted had no remaining staff who had details of the experience. Meanwhile, these potential benefits of closing the library emerged:
- The inconvenience of closing would be shared by an unserved public and unpaid staff who would have a one-week furlough.
- Closing for seven consecutive days would maximize operational cost-savings, especially for utilities.
- The temporary closure of a valued government service could raise awareness of library value and funding among residents.
The library board of trustees ultimately approved a one-week closure of Schlow to balance the 2014 budget at an estimated cost savings of $38,000. Trustees acknowledged it was a painful but necessary decision, but wondered how the extreme measure would affect use and support.
Photo by Catherine Alloway
Determining the closure dates began with a review of long-term library use patterns. The month of May tends to be a relatively slow time for the library, as college students return home in early May and the K-12 population winds down the school year.
Warm weather, proms, wedding showers, and other spring activities also contribute to reduced library use each spring. A review of historic gate-counter visitor data helped establish the week of May 12–18, 2014, for the shutdown and furlough.
The library estimated that maximum cost-savings could be achieved by closing as many services as possible, including all on-site and off-site book return drops and portions of the library’s website. Library users could continue to check their accounts online, with only a few other functions available on the web pages.
Extensive preparation was required for the library to prepare its patrons, stakeholders, vendors, contractors, and media for the shutdown. The work was more extensive and challenging than expected, including the catch-up work of shelving and other tasks in the weeks afterward.
Community groups making extensive use of the library’s meeting rooms were greatly inconvenienced, and the closure also affected library users far beyond Schlow’s region, as Schlow participates in regional and national interlibrary loan services where libraries exchange materials.
Opportunity for Advocacy
Board members of the Friends of Schlow Library, an independent nonprofit providing fund-raising and advocacy support for the library, joined library trustees to meet with local and state elected officials before the closure to inform them about the budget pressures and shutdown. The group also hosted a residents’ rally on the steps of the library that week, which drew more than 25 speakers, 75 attendees, and considerable regional media attention.
Trustees and staff reported increased awareness in the community about library government funding based on feedback after the closure. Library donations online and by mail also spiked after the closing and remained strong the remainder of the year, with Schlow breaking all previous records for annual giving, raising $238,000, a 20 percent increase over the preceding year.
Was It Worth It?
Overall, the closure was deemed a success. The library saved approximately $40,000 in salaries and operations because of it and leveraged public attention to achieve a record-breaking fund-raising campaign. The extensive staff work needed before and after closing, however, was deemed extreme.
In the end, the closure was determined to be an activity worth consideration only on a multiyear, cyclical basis or a last-resort budget-balancing technique. The 2015 budget employed a reduction in weekly hours, from 65 to 60, and a reduction of part-time employee hours to achieve strategic goals for the current year.
Libraries considering similar closures should weigh all risks and opportunities. Closing a library is not to be taken lightly and can reduce resident access and satisfaction with information, public computing, and other vital services.
The technique is likely to be most effective when the budget gap is small to moderate, the public is unaware of funding challenges, and elected officials are supportive of the process.