Where Does Public Library Funding Come From?

Libraries make magic happen with small budgets, but with proper funding, they can help their communities thrive.

How do libraries get the money to pay for books, programs, and other resources?

If only public libraries had money to stash! But unfortunately, most public libraries and librarians spend a great deal of their time applying for grants, asking for donations, and parsing out the meager state and federal funds they receive. You can tell that a lot goes on in a public library besides what patrons see!

Did you know that staff salaries, books, other library materials, office supplies, and utilities are funded primarily by city and county taxes? State taxes and special revenues cover roughly a third of those expenses. But federal grants cover a much smaller portion, often for minor renovations or one-time improvements.

Still, municipal taxes fund little more than essential services. Nearly every public library program boasts a broad and diverse mix of “extras”: children’s activities, adult wellness classes, portable wifi hotspots, and laptop computer lending.

Moreover, public libraries’ funding fluctuates considerably from one year to the next based on the amount of money sitting in city and state coffers and the repeated efforts not to stanch its flow.

These programs are funded by the generosity of individual, foundation, and corporate donors. And because of that, a public library clearly reflects the values of the community it serves.


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Does Public Library Funding Ever Stabilize?

Funding wavered considerably during the COVID pandemic — public libraries had little idea when the crisis would end, and most staff worked from home. 

Yet, despite the difficulties, a 2022 Library Journal Budgets and Funding survey received responses from 214 public libraries across the country, revealing unexpectedly robust increases overall. “From 2020 to 2021, total operating budgets rose by 3 percent, materials budgets were up 1.3 percent, and personnel budgets increased by 4 percent.”

As the pandemic began to wind down:

“There was a marked difference between two types of funding sources. Independent districts averaged operating budgets of $9.27 million — slightly down from (the past) year’s $9.6 million — while libraries paid for by local annual budget appropriation averaged 31 percent less, at $6.35 million, just up from 2020’s $6.2 million. Per capita funding in independent taxing districts ($78.49) also exceeded that of libraries dependent on government appropriations ($53.62).”

Historical data shows a noticeable trend: If a library’s funding increases annually, visits and borrower numbers are also more likely to increase.

Federal Funding for Public Libraries

With the continual need to fund public libraries, and with federal funding at a minimum, the American Library Association (ALA) has established the following tenets to provide direction:

  • Preserve and increase all current levels of federal funding for libraries across the country.
  • Preserve and enhance the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which distributes funds through state grants and the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) per a national formula with a state match.
  • Preserve and enhance the Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) grant program from the U.S. Department of Education, which supports school libraries and nonprofit literacy organizations working to improve reading skills at the most critical early years of a child’s development.
  • Communicate to Congress about the importance of funding federal libraries, like the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Libraries, the National Agricultural Library, and the National Library of Medicine.

With $189.3 million in LSTA funds, more than 120,000 public, academic, government, and special libraries can promote entrepreneurship, employment, and education in communities countrywide. LSTA prepares students for today’s job market through funds for coding and STEM activities. These funds also support skilled business and technology librarians with business development assistance programs to help aspiring entrepreneurs.

Cutting funding for libraries means whittling away at existing opportunities for all Americans. So, ALA strongly and persistently advocates for Congress to continue prioritizing complete funding for our nation’s libraries.


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What Patrons Should Know about Public Library Funding

People can get weird about things like late fees and book sale revenue. Some expect it to go towards building a new computer lab or high-end AV media technology. But it’s more likely to pay for small amenities like hand lotion for the washrooms or one or two new books for the shelves. Well, at least these pennies and nickels are spent wisely.

To Fine or Not to Fine

Columbus, Ohio’s public library board decided that fines not only didn’t encourage the timely return of materials, but these penalties actually worked against the library’s very reason for existence.

As the system’s CEO, Patrick Losinski, said,

“We’ve shut off access to the library when one of our staunchest principles is trying to provide the widest access to materials that we can. We just felt fines ultimately were counter to the overall purpose and vision of our library.”

So instead of daily fines, the library now puts borrowing privileges on hold for anyone with material over twenty-one days late and charges replacement fees after thirty-five days —but they are refunded if the item is returned. It already offers a separate kids’ card, which lets children borrow up to three books at once and doesn’t fine them if a book is overdue.

Are All Patrons on a Level Playing Field (With Library Fines)?

Late fines and replacement fees can have a significant cost to libraries and the communities they serve. Low-income children are far less likely to have access to books at home and spend less time reading with their parents. Recent research has characterized many impoverished neighborhoods as “book deserts,” with substantially fewer reading resources than wealthier areas.

Meg DePriest, author of a 2016 white paper recommending that Colorado libraries eliminate fines on children’s materials, points out, “We’re disproportionately affecting the people we’re most interested in getting to the library, the people who can’t afford to buy books themselves.”

Public libraries do so much for their patrons and the general public that they’re sometimes too busy to remember all the services they provide. But these libraries serve a broad array of users — many low income, some homeless —and will scrape together whatever is needed, even if they’ve overspent their tax funds and other resources.



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