How to Pay for Libraries

David Kipen, one of the book review editors at the San Francisco Chronicle, has a column today on how to resolve funding problems for public libraries in towns that can’t or won’t pay for them. The prompt for his commentary is the situation in Salinas, where voters in November rejected a series of local tax measures to pay for city services, including the public library. The city says it will close the libraries sometime between now and June. Meantime, some book-loving citizens in town are hustling to get a new tax measure on the ballot this spring so that the libraries cans stay open.

Kipen, noting that Salinas isn’t the only community with a library-funding crisis, suggests a radical solution: redistributing available library funding from cities that have well-funded systems (like Berkeley, whose citizens have taxed themselves repeatedly to keep all the system’s branches open, well-maintained and well-staffed) to those that don’t. He says, “There’s no excuse for a system in which San Francisco embarks on an ambitious brand library renovation and construction program while, just down the 101, the next John Steinbeck can’t check out a book by the last one.”

Give him points for trying to come up with a new idea. He’s right about the importance of libraries to communities and their citizens and helping foster the intellectual growth of kids. But he’s vague on how such a redistribution of resources would work — suggesting, for instance, that “friends of the library” groups from better-off, book-loving communities be paired with groups from less-well-off, more book-challenged ones; whatever money was raised for the richer community would also have to be raised for the poorer one (through sharing, I guess).

Kipen’s underlying argument is that all library systems ought to have access to a basic level of funding to guarantee a basic level of service; that, similar to public schools, that level of funding and service shouldn’t be impaired simply because a community can’t pay at the same rate as its richer neighbors. Kipen’s smart enough to see that voters in places that have made a strong commitment to support libraries by passing special taxes won’t want their tax money to leave town. In the case of a place like Salinas, that’s doubly so: Why in the world should San Francisco or Berkeley or anywhere else share their dough with a town that’s declared, at the polling place, that it doesn’t want to pay for its libraries. What Kipen’s suggesting isn’t a hard sell. It’s impossible.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do something along the lines of what Kipen is suggesting. Maybe a state library endowment, funded through charitable contributions, tax-return checkoffs, and perhaps partly with a special bond issue. The endowment could provide matching funds for library districts across the state for any library-related purpose — branch expansion, capital improvements, buying books, or keeping branches open. The matching-fund amount would be capped so that rich districts didn’t take a disproportionate share of funds. At the same time, the matching funds would give lower-income districts an incentive to maintain basic library spending.

I’m sure there are practical reasons my idea would be tough to carry out. I’ve got no idea, for instance, how much money you’d have to devote to the endowment to make it self-sustaining. But since it promises some benefit to communities that are already committed to spending on their libraries, it would get past the predictable and justified local resistance to sharing tax money outside the community where it’s raised.

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