The cost of knowledge: the state of funding in Ohio’s public libraries

Words by: Caelin Mills

Funding public libraries remains the most crucial aspect of maintaining the role libraries play in communities across the country. Despite this, many voters are unaware of the sources of funding and importance of locally sourced funding.

This is why Larra Clark, Deputy Director of the Public Library Association, partnered with the American Library Association and the Online Computer Library Center to publish a study titled From Awareness to Funding in 2008 and again in 2018.

Originally, the study’s purpose was to identify segments of the public who were more or less interested in supporting their local libraries and to uncover the motivations and barriers driving this support. Ten years later, the study revisits these questions in addition to analyzing any changes and evolving library services.

Clark says a majority of voters believe public libraries are essential to communities and value traditional library services such as free access to books and quiet areas, but also increasingly value the library as a community hub.

Despite this, there continues to be a disconnect between the services libraries offer and public awareness and support for those services.

“Although a majority of voters are likely to support library funding at the local ballot box, fewer are committed to definite support than a decade ago,” Clark said. “A majority of voters still do not realize that the primary source of library funding is local.”

While the survey responses were from residents, Clark says politicians typically have a traditional view of library services, not taking into account services that support workforce development, small business development, kindergarten readiness or disaster preparedness.

She says a lack of adequate funding can lead to cutting operating hours, which means reduced access for the community, fewer staff, fewer services offered, deferred maintenance of the physical buildings and reduced investments in collections and technology.

This is where alternative options, such as grants, can play an important part in the available funds for public libraries. One example of this is the Library Services and Technology Act, or LSTA program.

Cindy Boyden serves as the LSTA Coordinator and Library Consultant for the State Library of Ohio. She says these grants are very competitive and help fund state-wide and in-house initiatives.

“State-wide initiatives include such programs as the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, SEO Center, library consulting services provided on topics such as strategic planning and space planning,” Boyden said. “In-house initiatives include providing supporting materials for the Summer Reading Program.”

Boyden says competitive grants vary in maximum amounts from $1,000 to $50,000 and larger grants require a 25 percent project cost to be matched by the receiving library.

“We receive over 550 grant proposals per year,” Boyden said. “Typically, we award around 115 competitive grants.”

The Grants to States program uses a formula to determine distribution of LSTA funds among states. The states then determine how the funds are used.

To apply for a grant, libraries must submit a request for proposal to the State Library of Ohio, where a team scores the proposal and determines which libraries will receive grants.

“Depending upon the dollar amount requested (if the request is over $4,999), the proposal may require going before the State Library of Ohio Board for final decision on funding,” Boyden said.

Boyden says the LSTA program has impacted Ohio libraries in a major way. LSTA funds have been used to provide sensory rooms, MakerSpaces, mental health training for library staff, ebooks, technology training and book clubs across the state.

She says state funding cuts have had the bigger impact on libraries in Ohio, beginning in 2008.

“Staff layoffs, collection development budgets decimated, programming budgets sliced in half — it was a scary time for libraries,” Boyden said. “But, as library professionals, we figured out how to do our jobs the same way — with less funds. We persevered.”

She says things are currently more hopeful as libraries are hiring, creating new positions, programming is taking place outside of library walls.

“The effect of the State funding cuts is beginning to be shaken off, finally,” Boyden said.  

According to Carrie Krenicky, Chief Financial Officer for the Cleveland Public Library, the state of funding is currently secure due to the passage of a levy last November.

“This levy will help secure the Library’s future for years to come and it also paves the way for a major capital project that will revitalize most of our neighborhood branch libraries,” Krenicky said.

Despite this, the Cleveland metro area is still recovering from the recession at a slower rate than the rest of the state and the nation, which affects funding.

 

Currently, the majority of the CPL’s funding comes from property taxes and Ohio’s Public Library Fund. The remainder of the funds come from grants, fines, fees and investment earnings.

The importance of local funding shows, especially considering the CPL received over $26 million from the PLF in 2008 and is slated to receive $22 million in 2018.

As state tax revenues were forecasted to decline due to the recession, so was funding.
This reduction cut the PLF funding from 2.22 percent to 1.97 percent, leading to an 18 percent loss for 2009. It was then frozen at 2010 levels through 2013.

 

In 2014, the Ohio Library Council and the libraries began a campaign to educate legislators and members of the media on the importance of funding.

“As a result of the Restore the PLF campaign, the Ohio General Assembly decided to restore some funding to the PLF,” Krenicky said. “The legislature temporarily increased the PLF from 1.66 percent to 1.7 percent for the fiscal year 2016-2017.”

The OLC then launched the Protect the PLF campaign to restore the 1.7 percent funding rate, while Governor John Kasich wanted it to remain at 1.66 percent. Ultimately, the Ohio General Assembly temporarily set the PLF at 1.68 percent for fiscal year 2018-2019.

“I believe that public libraries would like revert back to January 2008 where Ohio’s libraries were funded through 2.22 percent of the state’s total general tax revenue and would like to achieve this with the state’s next biennium budget,” Krenicky said.

The From Awareness to Funding survey shows that 70 percent of voters have visited a public library in the past year. While 35 percent of voters say they would be willing to pay more in local taxes to better fund public libraries, 26 percent think public library funding should be one of the first things cut in a budget crisis, an increase from 18 percent in 2008.

“Libraries are learning organizations, and we’ll continue to look to our patrons (and potential patrons!) to see how we can improve our services and address community priorities,” Clark said.