Library needs friends to help it keep getting by

Comment

August 04, 1996|By MIKE BURNS

FRIENDS OF the Library. It's a common auxiliary of public library systems, helping to acquire books and other items for the collections, providing volunteer assistance and sponsoring literary programs.

The roots of these organizations stem from the days when private groups formed lending libraries, either for paid subscribers or as a free community service.

Libraries that are now seen as a fundamental, publicly funded government service were once volunteer organizations with private support. Yet even in the hard-choice budget debates today, nothing outside of the public schools elicits as much vigorous support as the library system. People who may use it only a few times a year are surprisingly loyal partisans of the public library.

So it seems only logical and fitting that the citizens of Carroll County, which leads the state in per capita use of the public library, are pressing forward with plans to create a library foundation to receive public donations.

Not a Friends type of charitable society (which doesn't exist here), but a professionally managed non-profit endowment fund that could pay for substantial physical improvements and long-term projects, as well as buying extra books and reference materials.

The library's Board of Trustees told the staff last month to draft guidelines for an endowment fund through the Community Foundation of Carroll County. That relatively new local foundation already manages assets of more than a half-million dollars for the Greater Westminster Development Corp., several charities and scholarship funds.

The trustees are firmly committed to the idea, raised in earnest this spring by Library Director Linda Mielke after the threatened 14 percent budget cut in fiscal year 1997, which would have reduced library hours by one-third.

The county commissioners raised taxes to avert this deep cutback, after a strong public protest at budget hearings. But it raised alarms of what could happen in the future. Better to have a rainy day fund outside county budget control than to count on another tax increase.

Libraries across the country are increasingly turning to outside sources of funding. Most of them have an established financial support group; Carroll does not.

More than 70 percent of all Carroll residents have library cards. There's a broad base of potential support here for the foundation. A donation drive would likely have resounding success.

The danger is that the outside foundation funding becomes not a safety net, but a floor for the county government spending. In other words, it might be too easy to reduce library funding (now about $4.5 million) if it has significant outside contributions.

It's the old PTA Syndrome that has troubled school-funding decisions for many years. If a local PTA is very active and raises lots of money for its school, the school board is likely to direct more funds to those with less successful PTA efforts. And that can become an established trend that, in effect, penalizes outside support rather than encourages it. So those parent-teacher groups have to be very careful about what they choose to donate to a school.

Ms. Mielke is fully aware of that pitfall, and warns that the library system should never use foundation money for operating expenses, even to keep the doors open for extended hours. People won't contribute for things that should be covered by rTC political budget decisions. And political leaders should bear full responsibility for their budget choices.

Of course, there's a big difference between lobbying for how your tax money is spent, and choosing to pay extra for it with your after-tax dollars. So the contingent of supporters for a library foundation is not going to be the same as those who supported the system's claim to full county budget funding.

Like volunteer firefighters

The county's volunteer fire companies provide an analogy of sorts. County funds help support the community fire organizations as a vital public service. But much of the fund-raising, and all of the labor, is done by volunteers. Not everyone who is potentially protected by the local fire company is a contributor, however, feeling that taxes are paid for such public safety services, even though volunteer fire protection requires a mix of voluntary and government funding.

Public support will be influenced by what it sees the libraries doing. If the shelves are devoted to videos, if the tables are dominated by computers for Internet surfing, will old-fashioned bookhounds be as amenable to solicitation? And for those who feel at home in media centers, rather than in old-time libraries, will the opposite be true? Too many or too few best-sellers, outdated reference works or missing periodicals?

Carroll's libraries seem to strike a comfortable balance in their range of both media and content, avoiding the pop-trash video-store route pioneered in Baltimore County by Charles Robinson, and his Panderer's Box branches.

Because if the library is going to raise voluntary funds for its support, donors can be expected to judge a book by its cover.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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