The Library’s Business

I recently read something in the Future Tense series–a collaboration between Slate, New America and Arizona State University (ASU) examining technology’s impact on our future–that made me sit up straight and issue a grave, “Oh. Huh.” The article is titled “What Will Libraries Look Like in 2100?” Near the article’s conclusion, Jim O’Donnell, a university librarian at ASU, said this: “There are many historical explanations offered for the disappearance of the great ancient library of Alexandria, but my personal judgment is that it did not fall victim to Julius Caesar or Christian monks or Islamic warriors. Libraries are more likely to disappear because the responsible leaders of a community deprive them of support, take them for granted, treat them dismissively.”

Oh. Huh. Right?

On December 10, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which will unwind our education system from the No Child Left Behind Act’s teach-to-the-test focus, was signed into law. Those in the library field are especially excited by ESSA because it will, in part, restore federal funding to schools to support school libraries, library programs and librarians.

President Obama after signing the ESSA into law. Image from

You see, under NCLB, school librarians became “media specialists” and libraries became “resource rooms”. And we all accepted the new normal: when schools funds thin, library programs and librarians (along with art and music programs and teachers) become dispensable.

That is so heartbreaking. Especially to someone who had a fantastic public school education: its highlights were the periods I spent lost in the library, and my many art, music, and drama classes. Sure my parents complained about their property taxes but when my husband and I compare the quality of our elementary and secondary educations (he went to both public and private school in Oakland), hands-down, mine always wins.

I cannot imagine school without a library, library time, librarians, or art and music class. I’ve grilled parent-friends with older kids to find out what school looks like nowadays, because it seems like it’s all academics. Even PE has gotten the shaft (not that a younger me would have minded). What is that adage about all work and no play? At the end of every such conversation, I shake my head and say, “My son’s school experience is going to look so different than mine. We are in for a rude awakening.” I really hope I am wrong about that.

My son’s art table.

Public schools and public libraries rely on tax revenue and government funding to operate, and in large part, on parent/patron support. That much I gathered. But I wanted to understand the details. Before starting my current job–the one without pay and benefits in the form of whole body hugs, fierce kisses, and “thank you, Mommy”s–I worked in nonprofit agencies, in academic institutions (as both faculty and administration), and in a small for-profit business. I understand how all of these entities generate revenue, how they hustle to keep their business machines running. Perhaps because I tend to be naive, it surprised me to learn just how business oriented nonprofits and educational institutions have to be. All these industries are thinking deeply about their bottom line, even if they disguise their business savvy in pauper’s robes. The nonprofit agencies, especially, operating under the banner of common good for a particular population (in the case of my employers: people with disabilities), generated millions of dollars in profits for fee-based services each year.

When I sat down to research just how libraries make money when most of the services they provide are free of charge, I realized that I had no idea how libraries run as businesses. As in, I couldn’t even conceptualize it. Seriously, how do libraries make money? After all, they have employees to pay and lights to keep lit, and late fees alone won’t cut it.

I asked Susan Weaver, president of the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library and retired manager of the Lafayette Library, about our library’s revenue stream. She told me that around 84% of the Contra Costa County Library’s budget relies on property tax revenue, which also means that the majority of the County Library’s budget is tied to market volatility. She continued: “To make matters worse, when the economy improves, the assessed property values can only rise by 2% per year even if the housing market is great. This has led to an up and down budget that, over the course of my career, has had huge impacts on the number of books, periodicals, subscription databases and other services libraries can afford on a yearly basis.” (Thanks to Prop 13, my in-laws never complain about their property taxes.)

So, clearly, libraries aren’t in the business of making money. They exist to serve and they have to remain accountable and responsive to their communities. They rely heavily on grants, donations, and volunteers because as Susan reported–and this is where my jaw dropped–“the County doesn’t give any money for library programs.”

Wait, what?

So the part of the library experience that enriches its community and brings its community together is not at all supported by the library’s main funding stream? I am still scratching my head over this.

Here are some more remarkable facts I learned. Across the 28 Contra Costa County libraries:

  • There are more part-time positions in the library than full-time.
  • There are two different types of library volunteers, in-library volunteers that help with the daily running of the library, and Friends of the Library and Foundation group volunteers.
  • There are 175 paid County Library employees versus 288 in-library volunteers, to perform the roughly 13 in-house job duties at each library.
  • The total number of County in-library volunteer hours in the past year was 6,144.
  • The total number of County Friends and Foundation group volunteer hours was 67,531.
  • Friends and Foundation groups rely on membership, donations and book sales to raise money to support their libraries.
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Contra Costa County Library Annual Report

The crazy thing is, at least in the context of our community, less than 1% of Pleasant Hill residents are members of the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library, which has been supporting the library for 62 years. Last year The Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library gave our library $14,000 for collections and $14,000 for library programs. Those numbers across the County Library system: $771,000 toward the purchase of new library books and materials, and over $1,033,000 to sponsor programs for children, teens, and adults and to provide funding for furniture and equipment (

So basically, it is a small slice of our community, through generous donations of time and money, that keeps our community libraries from “disappear[ing] because the responsible leaders of a community deprive them of support, take them for granted, treat them dismissively.” This small slice of our community, through the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library, picks up the slack for the County, state and federal budget shortfalls in the same way parents find themselves picking up the slack for downturns in education funds and the lack of resources at their children’s schools. As Susan explained it, “Friends funds allow libraries to provide a richer and more focused collection [and experience] to best meet the needs of their patrons.”

We need our library. We do. Our library transforms its patrons and community. Our library is valuable in, and to, our past, present and future. Our library is the gift that keeps on giving, with its access to information, technology, and human connection. And it’s available, for free, to all of us. Wouldn’t it be lovely to keep it that way?

Our library needs us right back. It does. ‘Tis that time of year, when we pause, consume lots of warm beverages and cookies, and take stock in what we have. The littlest ones among us find themselves making wish lists of wants, wholeheartedly believing in the magic of the holidays to make their dreams come true. The holidays are a kind of magic. In these last months of the year, we allow ourselves to be filled with humility and gratitude. We remember how kindness, compassion, and generosity feel. Most of us love putting these attributes on. It is a time when our lives slow down, our priorities align in some miraculous way, our hearts soften and swell, and as our bellies grow fuller, our pockets grow deeper. ‘Tis the time to give, in whatever way we can afford.

Titled in Instagram: “From grant applications to snowman parts: the life of a public library director.”
Titled in Instagram: “From grant applications to snowman parts: the life of a public library director.” Reprinted with permission.

We Pleasant Hill residents need to invest in our library. How? By becoming members of the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library, by donating to the Friends, by volunteering at the library and/or for the Friends.

I just donated eight bags of books to the library. I paid my Friends membership dues. I volunteer to write this blog. It’s the least I can do for an organization that stirs and expands my son’s imagination and perspective–opening up his world–by providing him access to the art of storytelling. My son is just one three-foot-tall example of the library’s impact and reach. Our library gives our community so much. It’s time to give back.

It’s time to make its business our business.



Originally published: December 15, 2015

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