"Where is the outrage?” That's what Garrison Keillor asked recently in his syndicated column, calling the federal bailout of the financial market “a calamity people accept as if it were just one more hurricane.... It wasn’t their money they were playing with,” he added. “It was yours. Where were the cops?”
It was library money too, and already we are seeing the effect on philanthropy and on budgets at the local level.
The American Library Association showed some outrage when it signed on to a September 23 letter to the Senate Banking Committee urging that sections of the bailout legislation be changed to address “one of the current crisis’ fundamental causes—corruption and other abuses of power sustained by secrecy. Otherwise, the taxpayers could end up giving $700 billion more to repeat the same disasters. Congress must prove it has learned this lesson. Any genuine solution must be grounded in transparency, with all relevant records publicly available and best practice whistleblower protection for all employees connected with the new law. Secrecy worsened this crisis, and taxpayers will not accept a law for secret solutions. What happens to our money is our business.” Bravo to that
In addition to worrying about the financial outlook for their own institututions, a lot of American Library Association members are worried about ALA, knowing that if library and association boards monitored their finances like the federal government, we’d all be out of business, and there would be no bailout. Like libraries across the country, ALA will pay for the folly on Wall Street.
I talked with author and fundraising expert Patricia Martin (former director of the ALA Development Office) this morning and asked her to assess the impact the national financial fiasco will have on philanthropic support. The bad news, she told me, is that although banks and financial institutions love to sponsor things like summer reading programs, youth library programs, and family literacy programs, those contributions were often funded by executives with discretionary dollars, so they didn’t necessarily have to go through a marketing department. "These dollars are significant," she said, sometimes as much as $250,000 worth of discretionary charitable giving, "and those budgets are being slashed left and right. And it’s not just the bad economy, it’s the fact that the bad economy goes right to the heart of the most traditional supporters of library programs."
The good news," Martin told me, "is that libraries swing so many ways. In an economic crisis, they become relevant for economic development and support of small business and job searching and retraining opportunities. There are just a lot of ways that you can characterize the work of the library and be flexible to stand out in what is going to be a very cluttered, very frenzied fundraising market
I also spoke today with Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey. She had a similar view of the situation, saying that the Chicago Public Library Foundation's annual Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner (with author Tom Wolfe) scheduled for next Wednesday was sold out before the invitations hit the mail, so the immediate outlook is not bleak. But she also said that private philanthropy is undoubtedly going to get tighter in the months ahead.
On the positive side, Dempsey also noted that through a lot of strategic planning and implementation, with the support of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the city council, she felt that CPL was well positioned to weather the storm. "There are reasons people want to come into the library," she said, thanks to a long-term building program and state-of-the-art technology. CPL offers "financial literacy classes free of charge and computer classes free of charge," she said, "so, I think we’ve worked very hard to build that brand knowledge and now it is spreading quite rapidly, and I’m grateful that we are prepared for the worst so that when people need us we are there." Circulation in Chicago is up 25% over last year and this years Summer Reading Program was the largest ever---50,000 children who read 1.2 million books, she told me.
The rising popular demand for library services is something we can all hold up against the inevitable cuts that will be bandied about many of our libraries as the result of the nation's financial melt-down.
Meanwhile, ALA Treasurer Rod Hersberger is working with Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels to prepare a statement on state of the Association's financial health for the November issue of American Libraries. Here's a preview of what he is saying: "Even though ALA is in a period of belt tightening, the Association is healthy financially. Membership continues to increase and registration for the 2009 Midwinter Meeting in Denver is off to a good start. We are looking forward to successful annual conferences over the next two years in two of the Association’s record-breaking sites: Chicago and Washington DC. We believe that we have adopted a prudent approach to the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. Our goal is to weather whatever rough waters lie ahead, while at the same time maintaining our services to members, as well as maintaining forward momentum on the many new and expanded ALA programs and services that benefit all librarians and all libraries."
And that's today's inside scoop.