Why Libraries Need to Be More Transparent about Their Finances

On April 8, 2019, Jennifer Anne wrote a Twitter thread explaining how the rising cost of books, combined with shrinking budgets, has made it more difficult for libraries to buy materials.  She also explained how the high costs of e-books prohibits libraries from buying as many e-books as they might like.  Her insights provoked a telling response.  Concerned readers suggested possible solutions and asked how they could help.  What prevented readers from taking action before?  Quite simply, the general public remains largely uniformed about the state of their public libraries.  And this is largely the fault of libraries themselves.

I spend a lot of time promoting support for libraries on the blog and I do a fair amount of research on them to do so.  However, facts about the financial state of public libraries are not widely publicized or readily available to the public.  Indeed, only by talking to a worker at my local library did I discover last year that the library budget had been drastically cut ten years ago and never raised to that point–even though operating and materials costs had gone up.  To the public, my library seemed to be doing well.  Exciting renovations have occurred and more have been projected.  But this is largely the result of fund raising, which is best suited for one-time projects and not to paying for staff or resources.  The flashy renovations my library completed diverted attention from the fact that hours had been cut and never raised, most staff are reduced to working part-time, and new purchases have become limited (most of the new releases I want have to come a different library).  If anyone notices these issues, they are likely simply to complain to the library workers themselves, as if it is their fault they have no money for materials or programming, and are not being offered more pay or longer hours.

Because my library is funded by tax dollars, they do release an annual report detailing each year’s revenue sources and expenses, as well as fun facts like how many people currently hold library cards or how many people walked in the door in the past twelve months.  However, without any context, these numbers are not very useful to the public.  Their revenue, for instance, may seem quite large to anyone simply looking at the number, when in fact it means shortened hours, fewer new books, fewer magazine subscriptions, and fewer subscriptions to online resources. Obscured, too, is the information that the revenue remained static for ten years.  Without librarians explicitly explaining their funding and their costs, the reality of their situation is likely to remain a mystery to the public.

I am not sure why librarians do not talk more openly about their finances, but I cannot help but wonder if it is because they are so often struggling against public officials who believe libraries are obsolete and that their funding should be cut as a result.  Perhaps libraries worry that revealing their struggles will make them look weak, that public officials will use their financial situation as a reason to close them instead of to support them.  No one wants to throw money at a failing enterprise, right?  But look at everything libraries manage to do with small budgets–and imagine what the could accomplish with larger ones.  If libraries were open with their patrons about their struggles, their patrons would undoubtedly come forward with offers to help.

Libraries are wonderful resources for the community and they advocate quite effectively to serve the needs of their patrons.  However, libraries also need to advocate for themselves, and not just behind the scenes.  Libraries should be honest with their patrons about what their financial situation, what it means for materials and services, and what steps could be taken to improve their situation.  If libraries remain silent, patrons, quite simply, cannot be expected to help.

10 thoughts on “Why Libraries Need to Be More Transparent about Their Finances

  1. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    Great post, Krysta! I agree that librarians should be more vocal about the details regarding the financial situations of libraries! If the public is left mostly in the dark about these matters, I’m afraid they won’t be able to support as much as they’d like to.


  2. Lois says:

    This is actually such a relevant post to me. I’m working at my local library right now and with this new financial year we’ve had even more cuts. The thing is though, a lot of the staff themselves, myself included, don’t know the specifics of how much of a cut we’ve taken. It’s frustrating to say the least.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. nsfordwriter says:

    Great idea for a post. I think that because public libraries are not money-making enterprises, decision-makers can’t measure their value to society the same as they would for other places.
    In the UK, budgets are set by local councils. Cuts have been the trend for several years at least. I don’t keep too close an eye on what’s in the news about it, but I think finances are fairly transparent here.


    • Krysta says:

      Good point! The value of libraries comes from the good they do to the community. It’s disheartening to me that some policy makers don’t seem to value the equalizing force of libraries.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. spicejac says:

    I think it’s really important for libraries to build up their own evidence based statistics. So for example the Library can then produce small bites of information – for example for every dollar invested, there is a $12 return on investment. Easily digested financial information is so important. I’ve worked in a number of roles (including managing very large multi million dollar budgets) and I always provided return on investment information – that is the society that exists now. (One built on valuing net worth in monetary terms, on in terms of building intellectual capacity, digital literacy skills etc).


    • Krysta says:

      This is such an excellent point! And I think it would help, too, when people complain about the library tax. Because you are getting a return of investment every time the library helps someone graduate or get a job or learn English. The library is really putting money back into the community! But people don’t see it that way and libraries themselves often don’t help them see it that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: May Wrap Up 2019 |

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