New Funding For Libraries

The Metropolitan New York Library Council was invited to take part today in a working conference of the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Libraries and Information Technology on the digital divide, broadband and especially library funding. We — Nate Hill, Executive Director, and myself as Board president — took the opportunity to address the large and developing problem of how to fund libraries in this century.

We noted that these subjects are all part of a larger problem. Libraries are delivering more and more digital content and services to larger numbers of people, especially those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide or who still need help navigating the digital economy. These increased services require much higher bandwidth than most libraries can now offer, which puts an unfair and arbitrary cap on how well people can be served.

While the need for broadband in libraries and its value to the community is clear, what has been unclear and, at best, sporadic is the financing to make the broadband-based services possible. When legislators only thought about libraries as just another one of the cultural resources for the state, library funding was limited to a piece of cultural funding.

Now that libraries offer a broader array of services and can offer even more in a digital broadband era, the funding should also be more diversified.

• To the extent libraries support entrepreneurs and small business as both location for innovation and “corporate reference librarian”, a piece of the economic development budget should support libraries.
• To the extent libraries support students, especially with homework help and after school resources, a piece of the very large education budget should support libraries.
• To the extent libraries support workforce development and are the most cost-effective, often the only, way that adult learners can keep up their skills to be employable, a piece of the workforce development and public assistance budgets should support libraries.
• To the extent libraries support public health education, a piece of the health budget should support libraries.

There are other examples, but the strategy is clear. Library funding needs to come from a diverse set of sources, just as a good investor has a balanced portfolio and doesn’t have all the money in one stock.

Of course, in the longer run, public officials will recognize the role of the library as the central non-commercial institution of the knowledge age that we are entering. As such, perhaps the permanent funding of libraries should be a very light tax on the commerce going to through the Internet to support the digital public services that are provided by libraries.

To some degree, the principle of basing support for library broadband on telecommunications revenues has been established with the Federal E-Rate program. But the amounts are relatively small and the telecommunications base is traditional phone service, which is diminishing, not the Internet which is growing.

Whatever the source of funding may turn out to be, libraries need a consistent source of funding that grows with the demand for their services in this century.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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