Voters and Public Library Funding: An OCLC Market Research Report
Posted On July 21, 2008
Public libraries are in trouble. Costs and demands for their services continue to rise, while revenue and support for maintaining, much less increasing, financial support continue to sink. The problem should pose real concerns for information industry vendors selling into the public library marketplace. Now one of the leading library vendors, one not only serving that market but—in a sense—owned and operated by that market, has begun a move toward helping public libraries find the funding they need. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (www.gatesfoundation.org) and hard work by Leo Burnett USA (www.leoburnett.com), OCLC (www.oclc.org) has produced a report titled "From Awareness to Funding: A study of library support in America" (available free as a PDF download at www.oclc.org/reports/funding or for $10 in print).
As the introduction to the study reports, library visits went up 19% from 2000 to 2005, circulation of library materials rose 20%, and access to public computers rose 86%. Nonetheless, "[l]ibrary levies, referenda, and bond measures have been failing at an increasing rate over the past decade. And the number of library levies placed on a ballot for voter consideration is also in decline."
The study provides detailed voter segmentation and analysis of groups on the basis of their likelihood to support library funding. It also covers, to a much lesser degree, the thinking of a small group of elected officials bearing some responsibility for library funding decisions. The report could assist librarians in targeting their messages to the right segments. One interesting factor revealed in the study is that library funding support is only marginally related to library visitation and use.
However, since the study restricted its public library usage statistics to on-site use of physical facilities, it omits any remote usage over library websites. A National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, "Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2005" (http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2008301) showed that even back then at least 71.4% of public libraries had websites. Cathy De Rosa, vice president for the Americas and global vice president of marketing at OCLC and lead author for the study, told me that the omission of website usage had been vigorously debated in the course of designing the survey.
The surveys conducted for the study fell into two categories. The quantitative surveys targeted adults chosen from communities with less than 200,000 population (90% of public libraries serve communities of this size), as well as a survey of 84 elected officials, which the study warned was statistically nonrepresentative. The qualitative research consisted of a series of focus groups in five cities, two of which were large metropolitan areas (Minneapolis and Pittsburgh). These studies focused on groups tending to support library funding, analyzing the reasons for that supportiveness and the potential success of different marketing messages for libraries. Phone interviews of selected elected officials supplemented this effort.
So how do the voters sort out? The Library Supporter Segmentation Pyramid comprises four tiers: Super Supporters, Probable Supporters (further segmented into Just for Fun, Kid-Driven, Library as Office, Look to Librarians, and Greater Good), Barriers to Support (divided into Financially Strapped, Detached, and The Web Wins), and Chronic Non Voters. Within each of the categories and subcategories, the study analyzes a number of factors: demographics, library visits, perceptions of the local public library and its librarians, attitudes toward taxation, voting behavior, community involvement, impressions of local tax-based services, and overall willingness to vote for library funding. Only Super Supporters and Probable Supporters made it into the focus groups. When it came to the Barriers to Support triad, the report more or less suggested writing them off in voter campaigns, even though the Detached encompasses a demographic with people having more than $100,000 a year incomes. It would seem that the failure of the survey instrument to represent the public library as a web service might also have skewed results for The Web Wins grouping.
Though survey results indicated that people recognize the library as "a provider of practical answers and information," the study concluded that this "is a very crowded space, and to remain relevant in today’s information landscape, repositioning will be required." The study recommends branding libraries as "transformational," capable of changing and enriching people’s lives. De Rosa admitted that the tools librarians use to "transform" lives fall into the information category. "The vehicle is books, librarian expertise, publication, electronic resources, access to the internet, etc., but it’s definite, it’s transformation, not information, that can change funding." The other angle that sold strong was equal access. "The focus groups were unanimous in their belief that the most compelling argument in support of funding increases for public libraries is the important truth that U.S. public libraries provide equal access to valuable information resources for all residents," says De Rosa.
Commenting on the study, Miriam Drake, professor emerita at the Georgia Institute of Technology Library, stated:
Public librarians will find the report’s research and insights useful. Among the key findings are: many people do not know how public libraries are funded; they do not know about the full range of services offered by public libraries; library funding has not kept up with the need for resources and services to serve the community; librarian involvement in the community makes a difference in funding; public officials advise stressing return on investment; and public officials see the public library playing an important role in providing equal access to information and technology.
One of the surprising findings is that demographics are not a key factor in determining library support. The demographics used in the study, for the most part, did not use educational levels. The study did not cite any differences between communities with highly educated populations that can be found in suburbs and college towns and communities populated with fewer college graduates. The report does not tell us if education is an important factor in library support.
The study did not deal with potential sources of private funding such as endowment funds. The study found that about 80% of public library funding is from local taxes and 10% is from state and federal taxes. With the increase in the number of people in the multi-millionaire category endowments may be worth exploring.
Unless the economy improves substantially there is some probability that tax receipts will necessitate keeping library funding level or reducing library funding. This situation will place greater burdens on public librarians to demonstrate their value through community involvement, by providing personal services to public officials, special services to the business community, and services that will help officials bring business to a community. The study points out, ‘library funding support is an attitude’ and is driven by ‘attitudes and beliefs.’ In tough times it becomes essential to change beliefs so that the community views librarians and libraries as making a difference in the quality of life in the community. Ideally, a voter will believe, ‘My life and community are better because of the library.’
Steve Coffman, vice president East Coast at LSSI, a library outsourcing service, praised the job done in segmenting the population, "both those who use libraries and those who don’t, and in defining how the various segments take advantage of what we have to offer or not. I’ll use this information in my planning and analysis totally separate from the funding question." Ironically, one of the communities used for focus group sessions—Medford, Ore.—now has its Central Library under LSSI management. According to Coffman, the people in Medford had voted against a library referendum three times, mainly because the people thought "the library had plenty of money, it just was not spending it right."
Coffman did complain, though, about the weakness of the elected official coverage. Even the coverage they provided seemed dubious to Coffman. "Because one of their conclusions was that local officials used the library more than the overall population, and that has certainly not been my experience in most of the communities we work in, with one exception and that’s library board members, but they are quite a different breed from city managers. This is an important omission because these officials often determine library funding period. Even in cases of referenda, they often determine whether something gets on the ballot at all. So if we really don’t understand their perspective accurately, we miss a lot."
However, Coffman’s main concern was that the study "totally ignored alternative sources of funding and that’s even though they [the study authors] think there’s about 50% of the population that might, under the right circumstances, favor voting additional money for the library. The problem is, if you go the referendum route, the only way additional money gets to the library is if they can persuade 50% (and in many cases now super majorities of 65–75%) of the people to vote for it. However, if the libraries encourage that 50% or so of those who are inclined to support us to whip out their checkbooks and buy a membership or make a contribution then we capitalize on that latent support without having to convince a majority of the population to vote us money. This is a major oversight."
When it comes to the idea of a national campaign to encourage people to help fund their libraries, Coffman found "the messages they came up with—focusing on equal access, shared community values, a sacred place, and community stature—all seemed pretty anemic and did not tie in well with the library as a ‘transformationl place.’ They all seem pretty nostalgic to me. I have serious doubts that any kind of a national campaign, which I’m assuming would be run over a period of time in most markets, will do much to change the votes on a particular referendum in a particular place at a particular time. If such advertising is going to work, it must be done at the time the referendum is on the ballot and in that market specifically like any other political campaign. I would also note that ALA already has a ‘libraries change lives’ campaign that has been running for a number of years now and I don’t see any evidence that it has made a difference in funding, although it too has focused on the power of libraries to transform."
Nonetheless, Coffman was grateful for the study. "I’ll use much of their data to help me analyze where we put our resources and to better design services to serve the market segments they’ve identified. And, indirectly, it also helps me to identify who we should be targeting for private support, even though they missed a good chance to address that in the report itself."
This background study provides the basis for future decision making. However, a lot more information needs assembling, particularly the identification of funding decision makers. Are the voters involved? For example, although every state has some form of legislative referenda, i.e., the legislature placing items on the ballot for voter consideration, less than half the states have initiative or referenda placed on the ballot by the electorate. For an inventory of states, the University of Southern California’s Initiative and Referendum Institute offers an array of information, including a link to state activities (www.iandrinstitute.org/statewide_i%26r.htm) and a background piece for researching local governments (http://iandrinstitute.org/Local%20I&R.htm). According to Coffman, "by far the majority of public library funding comes out of general funds, leaving the library director standing before a Board of Supervisors, hat in hand." De Rosa admitted this would require some work. When it comes to bond issues, for example, she said, "Some places do, some don’t. Some allow bonds for physical facilities, but not for operations, some the other way around. It will be very complex to create the data. Currently, there is no centralized place putting it all together."
The study may constitute a first step by OCLC toward commitment to a major marketing and advocacy campaign for public library funding in the U.S., but according to De Rosa, that commitment may require 9 months to emerge.