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Ads in Support of Books – Coming to a Library Near You???

by on April 4, 2013

As public libraries have faced continued budget challenges, many have turned to non-traditional means of generating the revenues necessary to facilitate their ongoing operations.  One such tactic that has generated continued discussion is the notion of allowing businesses to advertise within libraries, in exchange for fees that can be used to offset recent cuts in public dollars.  Some have viewed this trend as an unfortunate one, in that these purists believe that libraries should be maintained as “no ad zones.”

As it happens, I have some experience with the use of advertising as a revenue generator by a public sector agency.  Earlier in my career, I served as the chief of staff for the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA).  This enterprise agency operates my state’s series of eight toll facilities, and raises all of its revenues from fees charged for the use of these facilities.  Some years ago, the agency experimented with ideas that might both generate new revenues, while also increasing customer satisfaction.

MdTA devised the notion of offering outside entities the opportunity to purchase a package of sponsorship privileges in exchange for their agreeing to pay the costs of customer tolls. Even more innovative was our idea that these free toll sponsorships would be set at defined windows during weekend off-peak travel times at a major beach travel route, Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was our hope that this marketing concept would simultaneously please customers, who always like getting something for free, while also spreading peak travel demand across a broader window of time, thereby reducing the possibility for traffic back-ups.

Not surprisingly, the benefits received by toll sponsorship groups were oriented to advertising, specifically by having the sponsoring organization’s name displayed on tollbooth and highway signs, and also allowing information about the sponsoring organization to be distributed to customers in the toll lanes. During the summer of 2003, the Maryland Lottery and the Ocean Conservancy participated in a series of four such toll sponsorship weekends.

Not unlike the push-back that the Toronto Public Library has experienced as it presently seeks to introduce outside advertising to some of its print materials,[1] the Maryland Transportation Authority also ran into some objections to its toll sponsorships in exchange for ads. Ultimately, the Maryland General Assembly weighed in and informally expressed its opposition to the practice. The legislature’s concern however was not rooted in an opposition to ads per se, but rather that three of the four free toll events were paid for by another state agency, namely the Maryland Lottery. Ultimately, it was decided that the modest revenue generated through such sponsorships was not worth the prospect of annoying legislators, and the program was suspended.

Libraries here in the United States have also been experimenting with advertising as a means of bringing in new revenues. In California, the Friends of the Sun City Library offer ad space on the group’s newsletter and on the windows of its used bookstore, in exchange for fees of $50 per business.[2]  This is not unlike the modest foray into advertising that my home library employs. As part our annual fund-raiser, the Foundation for Baltimore County (MD) Public Library allows the logos of business sponsors to appear on programs and other print materials prepared for this event. I suspect that many library systems allow for similar advertising in order to entice businesses to make donations for various programs.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ad strategies used by a public library exists at the Port Chester-Rye Brook Public Library in upstate New York.  This library sells advertising rights on, of all things, its toilet paper.  Advertisers pay $99 for 20,000 advertisements that appear on approximately 160 rolls of “Grade A” toilet tissue.[3]  Such ads are bound to attract customer notice, as what else would typically be available to read in your run of the mill restroom stall.

Public libraries have not typically been viewed as ad venues, certainly not to the extent that public buses or subway stations have historically been.  One risk for libraries in pursuing non-traditional revenue generating options is the danger that public officials may view this new found partial self-sufficiency as an excuse to justify reductions in public dollars.  One way to mitigate this risk is to dedicate any “new” revenues to the development tor support of special amenities that would otherwise not be possible with government budget allocations.

In any event, libraries and other public agencies should proceed with caution as they see of there is a way to turn toilet paper, or any paper for that matter, into gold through ad profits.  Libraries may discover, as did my former agency, that turning ads into big money is not as easy as it appears.



  1. “Cross the Bay Bridge on Friday Evening and Have Your Toll Paid Courtesy of the Maryland Lottery,” News Release, Maryland Transportation Authority, August 20, 2003.  http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5300/sc5339/000113/002000/002409/unrestricted/20063666e.pdf
  2. “Kupferman, Steve, “Toronto Public Library Board Decides to Go Ahead with Advertising Plans,” The Torontoist, February 28, 2012. http://torontoist.com/2012/02/toronto-public-library-board-decides-to-go-ahead-with-advertising-plans/
  3. Kabbany, Jennifer, “Library nonprofit launches business membership drive,” San Diego Union Tribune,” February 19, 2013.
  4. Schwartz, Meredith, “NY Library To Adopt Ad-Supported Toilet Paper,” Library Journal, August 22, 2012. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/08/managing-libraries/ny-library-to-adopt-ad-supported-toilet-paper/