To celebrate a loved one’s birthday, you could spend $100 on a Kindle Fire or Apple iPod or a really nice dinner.
Or you could get a day named after them at Carlisle’s Bosler Memorial Library.
Signs will be erected in your loved one’s honor and posted around the building. Bookmarks will be printed with other important days in history.
And of course they can use the facilities for free, just like the other 700 to 900 people who visit the library each day.
This new program is one of many ideas the Cumberland County Library System buildings are embracing to combat budget cuts that have slashed funding over the past 12 years.
In that time, more than $4 million in state funds have evaporated. Local funding, through the county library tax, has continued but hasn’t made up for the missing dollars.
Currently, 15 percent of library funding comes from the state and 46 percent from the county.
The funding gap has forced libraries to get creative.
“We’re trying to look beyond the annual appeals to come up with some new and different donor opportunities,” says Jeffrey Swope, the director at Bosler Memorial Library.
Libraries, like most government-subsidized organizations, have never been swimming in dough.
There’s always been a need for fundraising and creative accounting. Libraries frequently apply for grants and have cut back on staff and services to make up for budget gaps (see sidebar).
But while all of the CCLS libraries have their own boards and friends groups that handle fundraising, the need has become so large that buildings are exploring new approaches, too.
Bosler is one of several libraries that’s begun a fast-track service.
Say you want to read the latest book by author James Patterson. You might spend months on a waiting list for one of the popular author’s novels, because hundreds of other people want to read it, too.
The fast-track lets you bypass the line, for a fee.
Bosler has added a book cart where it puts copies of its most popular books and movies, extra copies that do not circulate to the people on the hold list.
If the Patterson book you want is sitting on the cart, you can check it out right then and there — for a $2 fee.
“It’s not a huge money generator. But it diversifies our revenue. If you think of it like a pier in the ocean, the more support you give, they all work together to hold up the pier,” says Swope. “Then if one collapses, the whole thing doesn’t give way.”
Another way to bring in more income has been upping the cost of library fines, which most people who’ve ever visited a library are all too familiar with.
CCLS has raised its fine rate several times over recent years. Jonelle Prethar Darr, executive director of the CCLS, says fines make up 7 to 8 percent of funding. The library system also recently added a fine for people who don’t pick up materials on reserve within a certain number of days.
Appealing directly to the people who use the library can work, too. In 2011, New Cumberland Library director Joy Hamsher asked patrons for donations of office supplies, such as staplers, sticky notes and pens. She received about $2,000 worth of such items.
Acting as a resource
“The libraries have all been busy, very busy trying to make up that funding gap if they want to start any sort of different service or keep that person on staff, because they’re getting less money from the state,” Darr says.
Bosler’s diversification goes beyond just cutting down on long wait lists.
For two decades, the library system has contracted services to the county prison, each week delivering books in exchange for a fee.
Last year it also became the official Cumberland County Law Library, receiving funding from the county in return for offering new services such as WestLawNext, an online legal research tool, and a layman’s law library that addresses technical terms in easy-to-understand language.
“It’s created more access for the public, and in return we receive funds,” Swope says.
A national need
Cumberland County is not alone in its funding woes. Library systems across the country have seen their funding levels fall starting with the recession.
They, too, have embraced new ideas to make up for the budget shortfalls.
“My home library in Cuyahoga County, which surrounds Cleveland, became a passport acceptance service,” says Sari Feldman, president of the American Library Association.
“We process passports and take photos. We do it at all 27 of our branches.”
Feldman says the new service has produced a steady revenue stream of $30,000 to $50,000 a month.
She says other libraries have tried opening gift shops or cafes on the premises, or renting out rooms. Most have foundations or friends groups, as the CCLS libraries do, that handle larger fundraising efforts.
Darr notes CCLS looked into the passport idea, but ultimately rejected it after concerns were raised about duplicating services offered by private businesses.
Charging for books?
Of course, there are limits to how creative libraries can get with their funding sources. The libraries can’t do certain things.
They can’t charge Cumberland County residents, who number just under 245,000, for a library card.
The Pennsylvania Library Code prevents charging anyone in the county for a card, because citizens already essentially pay for the right to use the library with the library tax levied by the county.
Libraries can and do charge residents of other counties $5 per month for cards, though that fee is only levied if there’s no home library in their county.
And charging for other services at the library can be hard.
“The problem is once you have something out there, it’s very difficult to start charging a fee for it,” says Darr. “Plus, there are those people who can’t afford it.”
Another way to save money is, of course, cutting back on costs, something all the libraries have done to some degree.
“We’ve kind of been tightening our belts, making sure every penny spent was thought out,” says Cynthia Thompson, director of the Amelia Givin Library in Mt. Holly Springs.
“We’ve really looked at the services that we use, bidding those out — even electricity suppliers, cable, that kind of thing, making sure we get the best price on that.”
The belt-tightening probably won’t let up anytime soon. But then, it’s never really been a plush time for libraries.
“I think we’ve always faced funding problems. I’ve been a librarian for many years now, and there’s never been a year when I thought, ‘Golly, what am I going to do with all this money?’” Darr says.
“I don’t think anybody, when you’re running an organization, ever feels that way.”