Although public libraries across the U.S. are incredibly diverse, they all need one thing: adequate funding, which many achieve by pursuing grants and other funding opportunities to supplement their existing tax support. Earlier this year, The Oregon Community Foundation (OCF), which currently manages more than $1.5 billion in assets through 1,900 charitable funds, decided that it was time to examine the issues around library funding. With the financial support from two donors, OCF commissioned a statewide needs assessment designed to identify areas in which the work of public libraries intersects with the interests of the philanthropic community. The questions raised by the needs assessment included the following:
- What are the roles that public libraries currently play in their communities? What promising practices, programs, and strategies are libraries using to fulfill these roles?
- What are the challenges faced in fulfilling these roles?
- How can the philanthropic community best support public libraries?
As the researcher/library consultant selected to implement this project, I explored these questions through focus groups with library directors across Oregon, a statewide survey, a literature review and interviews with national library leaders and other key stakeholders. The result is the Oregon Public Library Needs Assessment, which has just been released. Here are a few of the assessment’s findings:
- Although Oregon’s public libraries are among the most heavily used in the country (circulating 17 items per capita annually, more than twice the national average), they are much more dependent upon local funding than is the U.S. average, and receive a much smaller amount of state funding.
- Of the eight potential roles for public libraries explored in the needs assessment, according to Oregon library directors the top roles in the state are Encouraging Reading and Early Childhood Learning, which received the highest rankings both as priorities and as areas of success.
- Almost three quarters of Oregon’s libraries have pursued competitive grant funding in the last three years.
Recently, OCF hosted a summit of Oregon funders to present the results of the needs assessment. According to OCF’s President and CEO Max Williams, the positive discussion that followed bodes well for strengthening the connections between public libraries and the philanthropic community. “Clearly, what the needs assessment demonstrates is that our public libraries are key players in strengthening Oregon communities. We look forward to identifying the next steps that will enhance their critical work throughout the state,” said Williams.
My thanks go to The Oregon Community Foundation, as well as the Betsy Priddy Fund of The Oregon Community Foundation and the Lora L. & Martin N. Kelley Family Foundation Trust, for their support of this important effort.
–Penny Hummel pennyhummel.com