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Public libraries are walking a tightrope. They are a free service to all, but increasing funding cuts have some libraries turning to a wide variety of revenue-generation strategies to ensure financial security. Gift and coffee shops, meeting room rentals, classes, and more are being launched in hopes of filling funding gaps. In fact, in a recent survey by L I more than 40 percent of 408 respondents say they feel pressure to reimagine even such core services as interlibrary loan (ILL) and holds as fee services.
The urgency comes from multiple sources. About one-fourth of respondents say they feel the pressure or have a mandate from local government, and nearly half of those surveyed have Friends group- and board-generated initiatives in place. Others are trying out fee-based services that improve customer service or position the library as a destination: What's a new central library without a cafe? However, nearly 60 percent are looking at revenue generation as a response to funding cuts, feeling a need to "self-fund."
And there's the rub: discussion with librarians and analysis of results show that revenue generation that actually generates revenue is elusive, and, in fact, such activities can often drain resources. While these programs can help change the perception of the library, even increase goodwill (like that cafe), they are no panacea for funding dilemmas.
The revenue landscape
With nearly 100 percent of responding libraries reporting some sort of income-producing initiative, what's out there? The classic library fundraiser--the onsite used book sale--tops the charts and is in place in 88 percent of responding libraries, particularly smaller ones. More than one-third of libraries serving populations above 500,000 provide gift shops, and over 25 percent have cafes or coffee shops. The figure drops to about ten percent in libraries serving populations of less than half a million. Nearly 20 percent of responding libraries--large and small--are trying consignment sales of used books through services such as Better World Books. Libraries cite a remarkable range of other income producers, such as partnerships with online booksellers that earn them commissions, library-sponsored trips, after-school and vacation camps, fee-based classes, and meeting room rentals, but these are far less common--used in fewer than ten percent of responding libraries.
Excluding overdue fines, more than one-third of responding libraries say core services that support lending of materials have fees attached. That is fairly …