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How are Public Libraries Funded?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Public libraries are an excellent resource for research, literacy education, and reading-oriented events. Most towns have one or share library services with other towns through a mobile library, and use of a public library is free to all residents who are willing to apply for a library card. In the United States especially, severe budget cuts have heavily impacted funding for these libraries, raising concerns in some areas over the survival of the locally based library.

There are several primary sources for library funding, starting with national funds which are distributed to states or provinces. These regions often offer additional funding when sending funds on to public libraries. Local municipalities also play an important role in providing funding to libraries, and most librarians apply for grants to supplement these funds. Finally, private donations help to sustain libraries; most libraries have an association of Friends of the Library who organize fund raising sales and pay annual dues to help maintain the library.

The proportions of funding depend on where the library is located. In general, the municipality provides the greatest percentage of funding for public libraries; often at least half, if not more. These funds are gathered from local taxes, library fines, parking tickets, and other tools used to generate revenue for a city or town. On the state and national level, funding is determined by budget allocation, and professional organizations of librarians usually heavily lobby for more library funding to purchase books, pay staff, expand libraries, create a bilingual collection, and provide other valuable support services.

Grants and private donations can also be used to provide a sizable amount of funding for public libraries, and some large libraries maintain a separate staff to increase the amount of funding that they can obtain through these sources. Grants include technology grants which allow libraries to install and upgrade computer systems, grants which focus on a particular topic such as science, fiction, children's books, or local history, and education grants which support locally based community efforts such as after school reading programs. Many private donors are pleased to support their local public libraries by donating funds or including the library in their wills, and libraries reward their high profile donors with treats like after hours visits or privileged access to special collections.

By combining multiple resources, enterprising librarians can keep their libraries useful, informative, and fun for browsers. When it comes to supporting public libraries, every little bit counts: if you cannot afford to donate to a local library, think about volunteering time to help shelve, lead after-school programs, or organize fund raisers. Being active with your public library is a very important way to contribute to your local community.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon973051 — On Oct 08, 2014

What do libraries need to do to create funds?

By anon925741 — On Jan 14, 2014

I reside in Miami. We have a large, 48 branch system that stretches east to west and north to south. The funding primarily comes from real estate millage (taxes) and is an infinitesimal amount per annum considering what is provided.

Unfortunately, the majority of the people who live in this area are tax-phobic and are totally opposed to the raising of the millage to support what used to be a world class system. Basically, they want something for nothing and the aura of entitlement is (like in everything here) overwhelming to a 12 year transplant from the northeast like myself. It is like a third world nation. So sad. This would not occur in other geographical areas in the country. Libraries should be funded by the community - all of the community. I gladly pay for the school system and I have no children. Wake up, Miami!

By anon186245 — On Jun 14, 2011

You are right. The Constitution does say government is not to compete with business. The fact of the matter is, they are not competing with you. They are providing a service: to help a poorer demographic. The whole point of the library being a free public service, is to provide equal opportunity to knowledge. Most people who utilize the library wouldn't be spending money elsewhere anyway. That is the point. They don't have the money. So you may be angry about the few people who can afford to spend money at your business, who use the library because it is cheaper, but that is an issue you have with the individual consumer, and not necessarily the services being provided at the library.

To operate in a different fashion would suggest that a poor person should have restricted access to information due to their situation (e.g., they cannot watch the movies you rent, because they cannot pay the price), in which case he would not have much opportunity to better his situation to be able to spend money at your business. I know you are probably thinking DVD's are purely entertainment value. Well, that is not true. There are many film courses offered throughout the world, where it might be necessary to review a film. As for the films that would not necessarily be used for a class, they still pertain to the pop culture of the time, and therefore are educational.

If a library were to reduce its materials because someone didn't think those materials should be at the library, there would be no library, I assure you. For every item they have, there are a hundred people who don't think that particular item belongs there. However, it is there for the ones who come to benefit from it. If you had only items that everyone approved of, you would have a very small, probably nonexistent library.

Thank you for your time. I hope this helps explain the situation. I just don't want you to believe the library is responsible for your loss in business. There are probably other reasons that you could attribute to that.

By anon151819 — On Feb 11, 2011

Speaking as a patron and not as a business owner, I can say that I have been irked a number of times by going into the library and seeing them throw away stacks of important books of academic or historical value to make room for enlarged DVD sections. They say it's because "that's what the patrons are asking for."

Well, of course the patrons would like to have something free when they ought to pay, but this stuff is purely entertainment. The library is squandering its value for providing the "equal opportunities" as mentioned by anon52931 just to show bigger numbers on their reports.

By anon89104 — On Jun 08, 2010

My name is Jack and I own The Gramophone Shop, a video music store that I have owned and run for 38 years. The New Canaan Library thing is just chilling.

Here I am a taxpayer and my (our towns people) tax dollars are being used to explode the dvd collection at the library and buy numbers for them for their explanation of need for expansion plans.

In the end they win and real service to the town goes down and I'm paying for it with my taxes.

A real injustice is happening to me (I have been in my business for 38 years) and probably to many others.

When did libraries become businesses taking businesses from tax paying, people hiring, town contributing business people? I love my town. I have been on many boards to help build us and be healthy. Is this my reward for working hard, contributing and paying taxes? Thank you.

By anon84139 — On May 13, 2010

I've got an idea! If you have a question about the US Constitution, well, why not try reading it?

By anon52931 — On Nov 17, 2009

The library is a great place in general and no, it is not in the constitution.

You need to understand that the intent of the library is to give those who can't afford books or don't have a quiet study area or equal opportunities. Also the supply varies between location and private business is all about location. You wouldn't put a chain market of lab grown foods next to a bunch of quality farmers, right? Of course not, no one would want cheap food that tastes terrible when you have quality.

Don't bother complaining about competing with the government. they are here to help not spite you. If you want to keep your business just make smart decisions that appeal to the consumer.

By anon19837 — On Oct 20, 2008

Isn't it in the constitution that government is not to compete with local business?

By anon18259 — On Sep 18, 2008

I operate a small video store which has been in business, various owners, for over 20 years. Our local library gets several copies of each of the new release titles on dvd, every Tuesday; the first day these movies are released. Their stock of movies is tremendous. And these are current movies, not just old ones or educational ones. Financially, they have destroyed me. Isn't what they are doing, wrong? Isn't it in the constitution that government is not to compete with local business?

By obsessedwithloopy — On Aug 02, 2008

It must be one of the best libraries in United States, the public library in Cerritos, California. It is equipped with computers, roving librarians ready to help, and a children's section that is just amazing. One eye catching feature is a gigantic aquarium that makes children and adults take notice.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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