Running a library like NPR

While the contract with Library Systems and Services, LLC to operate Jackson County libraries plays out, and Ashland and the county determine whether it is a fit, this may be the time to review how we fund our libraries.

Historically, our public libraries have relied almost exclusively on monies from taxpayers, both local, state, and federal to keep the doors open. But the recent closing of the Jackson County libraries has been an abrupt wake-up call. With property throughout the county feeling overburdened, other streams of income should be considered.

An article written by Steve Coffman, "What If You Ran Your Library Like NPR?" is predicated on the assumption that nationwide these are not the best of times for libraries: budget cuts, branch closings, slashed book budgets, reduced hours, layoffs. His profile sounds disconcertingly familiar, mirroring conditions in Jackson County. Libraries are in competition with police and fire departments for each tax dollar, and the libraries are losing, to the point that the County Commissioners are about to bring in a private company to run for profit the county-wide library system &

promising far more efficient services, albeit leaner.

So, what to do if at some point Ashland or the county decides to take the libraries back from LSSI and administer them once again as a public trust? Clearly, if the libraries conduct business as usual, budgets will continue to be strained and services and staffing will be in jeopardy. Perhaps it's time, using an overworked clich&

233;, to think outside of the box ... or the building, so to speak.

One alternative, Coffman suggests, could be that which has already been established by National Public Radio, zoos, museums and science and nature centers. To date, libraries have "failed to tap significant sources of non-taxing funding &

and that word 'public' does not necessarily have to be synonymous with dowdy, penurious and poverty-stricken."

Public Radio was once funded almost entirely by taxpayer dollars. However, Coffman writes, that changed in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, and in the 1990s when NPR was threatened by conservative Republicans because of its perceived liberal bias. Not unlike the county commissioners pondering their role running the libraries, the conservatives questioned whether government should be in the broadcasting business. This challenge mirrors a trend toward outsourcing, which has been the preference of the current administration at all levels. Think of it as romancing the private sector, while nurturing the assumption that for-profit companies can offer better services for less.

Those who ran NPR realized that if public radio (as opposed to private radio) were to survive, they would need an alternative source of funding.

"They developed annual membership campaigns (pledge drives)," writes Coffman, "on-air fund raising, direct mail solicitations, and even telemarketing to convince hundreds of thousands of listeners to pay money to help support programming they could get for free." NPR also went to large corporations, associations, and businesses asking them to underwrite program development. A variety of mail-order catalogs were even developed, selling high-quality merchandising. Public radio ultimately succeeded and took their funding destiny out of the hands of the taxpayer and began to stand alone. NPR came to be known as National Prosperity Radio.

Coffman also gives one other example in his article: the Smithsonian Institution, another service free organization. More than a quarter of its funding comes from membership contributions and retail sales.

Call it "plural funding" or call it business acumen merged with a public trust. But the Ashland Library (and the county system as well) could embrace such a strategy and thrive. How could it not? Let those in our community, such as Friends of the Ashland Library, who have stepped forward with enthusiastic support and donations, spearhead a campaign to build a solid membership base from which will come funding. The less the library is dependent on having to go to the taxpayers for additional dollars, given current fiscal realities, nationally and locally, the better.

Actually, Ashland could find a way to "go it alone," however that might be constructed, well into the future. The time, perhaps, has arrived when libraries, if they are to remain public trusts, will have to save themselves.

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