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The Public Library
Finance Problem
in Perspective

Developmental Factors

A full variety of fiscal and functional issues now confront public libraries. The resolution of these issues will determine whether we are likely to witness the resurgence or the slow but sure demise of an historic American institution. In 1956, with passage of the Library Services and Construction Act's forerunner, a national policy and support program for public libraries was launched. The future of that policy and program, which expended some $500 million over its 16year history, is now being debated in terms of alternatives ranging from complete elimination to partial reinstatement in revised form. While the level of Federal support was well under 10 percent of the operating expenditures of public libraries, even the most severe critics of LSCA would agree that the program had a most significant impact on activating increased complementary support programs in many states.

On the functional side, there are serious problems concerning the role of the public library, the organization and structure through which public libraries are administered, and the functional relationships between public libraries and other social institutions, particularly library services operated by the public schools.

The Size and Nature of the Problem

The politically quiet posture of the public library, our "taken-forgranted" attitude about its continued existence, in the face of the increasing information demands of a modern society, sometimes blurs and understates the size and national importance of the financing problem. There are some 1,100 to 1,200 public libraries serving a total of 125 million people in municipalities over 25,000 persons and perhaps as many as 7,000 public libraries in the nation's 20,000 communities under 25,000 persons.


As later detailed in this report, the $814 million (less than $4 per capita) expended by states and localities for public libraries in fiscal 1971-72 was less than that spent for virtually every other domestic service. It was about one-third of the amount spent for local parks and recreation and less than one-sixth the expenditures for police protection. It represented less than 2 percent of state-local expenditures for elementary and secondary schools.

Total general expenditures of state and local governments rose almost 80 percent in the 5-year period 1967–1972, while library expenditures grew by less than 60 percent. By contrast, expenditures for police protection virtually doubled as did spending for health and hospitals. In relation to the increase in personal income during the same period, public library expenditure increased only minimally, while expenditure for police protection and health and hospitals rose by one-third.

Per capita library expenditures averaged $3.90 in 1971-72 and ranged from a low of $1.58 in Alabama and Arkansas to a high of $7.76 in Massachusetts—a factor of almost five to one. Library expenditures per $1,000 of personal income actually fell in a number of states between 1967 and 1972. Almost half the states showed declines in library expenditures relative to personal income.

All three levels of government—Federal, state and local-participate in the financing of public libraries. The Federal share of library financing differs little from its share of local school financing—7.4 percent and 8.0 percent, respectively, in 1971-72. But here the similarity ends. Only 11.7 percent of library expenditures are financed by the states, leaving about 81 percent of the total bill to be financed by local governments. State support for public education, on the other hand, was at a 40 percent of total cost level while the local share was only 52 percent.

Pertinent Issues in the
Development of Public Libraries

The public library is a unique social and cultural institution, but that uniqueness should properly be viewed as both an asset and a liability. Concern over the financing system supporting public libraries has greatly increased recently because of erosions and weaknesses in the fiscal condition of local government and, as described above, because of elimination or cutbacks in Federal categorical aid. The problem has deeper roots, however. It also involves changing perceptions of the role of the public libraries, changing library service needs and the response to those needs, changing costs and benefits of library services, and changing perceptions of local, state and Federal roles in supporting library services. Public libraries in this country have a rich heritage in private philanthropy. The transition from private to broad


based public financing under which local and state governments assume basic responsibility for support has been difficult and slow. This factor, plus the low political visibility of public libraries and the more or less isolated organizational status of libraries with respect to other functions of government, may have retarded development of a more stable, responsive system of intergovernmental fiscal support.

The history and development of public libraries are well documented in the literature, but a variety of origins are indicated. Some credit Benjamin Franklin, that inveterate inventor of almost everything, as the originator of this type of library in America when together with some of his associates he founded a library company in 1731. Others cite 1833 as a beginning date when a small public library was established by a group of civic leaders. The important point is that a link was forged between the library and governmental authority when, shortly before 1850, Boston passed a special law permitting the establishment of a public library and levying an annual tax for its support.

Municipal support for public libraries spread to other cities, but the amount of revenue contributed by municipal governments to local libraries was rarely very large. The largest contributors to free public libraries were philanthropists: John Jacob Astor gave $400,000 to New York City to establish and maintain a free public library; other philanthropists included Carnegie, Lenox, Tilden, Fiske, and Mellon among others. The list of Andrew Carnegie's benevolences for libraries is tremendous, even by today's standards. Carnegie funds supported the erection of 1,677 library buildings in 1,408 different communities from 1896 to 1923. In one instance, Carnegie donated $5.2 million for the erection of 65 branch libraries in New York City alone. There is no doubt that this philanthropic outpouring of funds was largely responsible for spurring the establishment and growth of public libraries. In the transition from private to public financing, the governmental role was delayed in emerging and may have been more reluctantly assumed.

Few would deny that the public library met the needs of many immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is of interest that some revisionist historians now see this effort as more elitist and authoritarian than philanthropic. As Michael Harris in a recent Library Journal article puts it:

In the 1890s came the onset of the “new” immigration from eastern and southern Europe, and an enormous wave of newcomers from Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, and Italy arrived in America and settled in the nation's larger metropolitan areas. Many Americans viewed this influx of strangers with alarm and were soon asking the same question that George Ticknor and his fellows had asked some 30 years earlier: "Can we afford to let the foreigner remain uneducated?"

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