Libraries are core institutions for communities around the world. With a mission to democratize access to knowledge and information, they equip people with the resources they need to grow and get ahead. Despite their value, libraries have had to chase funding for as long as they have existed, relying on grants, fundraising initiatives and private patrons to keep the doors open.
To this day, making money remains one of the biggest challenges for libraries, regardless of their jurisdiction. And with government funding focused primarily on recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — which incidentally shuttered many of these institutions for months at a time — libraries are getting lost in the mix.
How do libraries get funding?
Traditionally, libraries lean on grants and private fundraising to run their operations and services. In the US, there are various established cultural and library grants that are also supplemented by emerging funding programs such as technology grants. One example is the NASA@ My Library Grant, by which 60 US public libraries are selected to receive training and resources to host NASA programming, access to subject matter experts and a stipend to purchase relevant materials.
In Australia, the National Library offers Community Heritage Grants — which include funding and educational opportunities — help institutions keep their services publicly available. New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage has a number of grants on offer, and it recently launched the Arts and Culture COVID Recovery Program. The UK, meanwhile, has a number of funding organizations and trusts dedicated to preserving and enhancing libraries.
Library associations also play an important role in advocating for funding in their regions. The American Library Association (ALA) is actively working with the IMLS, LSTA, and IAL to ensure that public and school libraries have continued access to funding. The ALA is also providing timely resources for libraries to take advantage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which has a stipulation for libraries.
While these traditional funding mechanisms have worked for libraries in the past, they’re often not enough. To bridge the gap, libraries need to consider a different approach to generating the revenue they need to provide crucial services to their communities.
5 other ways libraries can be funded
So, what are the alternatives? To start, it’s important for libraries to start thinking a little more like for-profit organizations. Instead of fundraising, focus on revenue generation, identifying ways your institution can make money that then funds key services.
Here’s what that might look like.
1. Charge for additional services
Public libraries pride themselves on offering free resources to their communities, but that doesn’t have to be the case for everything you provide. You may already be charging for small items like printing, scanning or faxing — if not, that’s a great starting point. You could also revisit your space to create appealing workspaces for rent; or even lease out musical instruments, art supplies and printers.
This can be paired with a premium membership offering, where library members pay a monthly fee for additional services — things like extended loan periods or free access to digital educational resources.
2. Build valuable partnerships
Partnering with consumer businesses that can set up in your space is a great way to bring people into the building. If patrons are visiting your local coffee shop, restaurant or retailer, they’ll have more of an incentive to stay and use the library services. The bonus? The rent these businesses pay can go towards enhancing your resources.
If you’re wary of setting up something permanent, you can also partner with businesses to create pop-up shops that reflect your community’s values and interests. Alternatively, you can partner with local event planners, making your space available for after-hour galas or celebrations.
3. Revisit your list of services
Are there any services you offer that could be monetized? If not, consider brainstorming new paid experiences your library could provide. After all, people are typically more willing to pay for experiences than material items.
For instance, you could use your resources to plan a historical tour of your town or part of your city, catering to local and visiting history buffs. Alternatively, your library staff could offer tutoring, specialized classes or custom research services for a fee.
4. Create space for innovation and entrepreneurship
Much of a library’s resources can be used as building blocks for a new business or product idea. With enormous intellectual and media capital, as well as easily accessible technology and internet, libraries enable entrepreneurs and connect them to global markets.
By providing low-cost office space and guidance around navigating business registrations and grant applications, for instance, your library could better enable budding entrepreneurs in your community — and make a profit in the process.
5. Invest in technologies with a proven return on investment
In some cases, you may need to spend money to make (or save) money. Your members are becoming increasingly used to seamless digital experiences and they expect the same standard from their library. Adopting the right technology services — like a publication subscription platform or digital education offerings — can go a long way to keeping your members engaged. Not to mention that these services can decrease other line items in your library budget, such as individual publication subscriptions.
The time for change is now
In today’s landscape, raising funds for public libraries is not an easy feat — it’s time for the model to change. Libraries have the chance to take fate into their own hands, building revenue generation opportunities that help fund their critical services while growing patron loyalty.
We know you have a lot on your plate. To make life easier as you consider your funding options, we’ve put together an Alternative Funding Cheat Sheet for library leaders. Click the button below to download it for free.