The BBC had a piece on the rise of subscription, also known as membership, libraries in the UK. The cutbacks to public libraries have been severe there – 8000 staff positions gone, 343 libraries closed – and membership libraries are an alternative. This focus on a successful membership library fudges on the financial realities facing library operations.
I’ve touched on the scarcity of law library funding in the past. Many law libraries in North America are, in part, membership libraries. The local bar may have an arms length relationship and just provide dollars or, more often, will have some role in the running and funding of the library. Those dollars are insufficient of themselves, and so government support is required.
Even when the public are not provided with access, governments often provide space for free or low cost. In many jurisdictions, they enable funding through court fees, traffic fines, or even a lump sum allocation. This support can be uncertain: if there are no major highways in your county, traffic fines may be too low to support your costs. Similarly, if there is a drop off in court filings, law libraries can suffer.
The BBC’s look at Bromley House membership library is useful because the library has its financial records online. In many cases, this information is kept private or is a detail lost in an aggregate financial statement. A search on law association library in the Ohio State Auditor’s web site will still return years of audits, required by law, on the 88 courthouse law libraries.
The basic math is this: a member pays £96 a year. Membership has increased, as has the annual fee, so that in 2014 the library brought in £96,557 and £112,538 in 2015. If I’m reading their report correctly, the library expenses in 2015 were £225,173, up from £172,434 in 2014.
This is, in my experience, pretty typical. Operational costs for a membership law library cannot be covered by membership dues alone. Bromley House’s deficit is made up in a variety of ways – they appear to have a strong governance board as well as entrepreneurial staff – and whether it’s large bequests, their £1 million + bank account, or other activities, they are able to stay in the black each year.
Unfortunately, the younger the membership law library, the less opportunity there is to establish an endowment. Government funding is flat or drying up. I’ve touched on the continued merging of public libraries and county courthouse libraries in a wise and economical way for governments to save money.
The blended financial approach avoids the starvation budgeting that can otherwise happen. Government funding and membership dues can be held steady to assuage the payors. But flat budgeting ignores the costs of actually operating a library, public, law, or otherwise. Content costs money and it costs more money each year. Staff salaries are even less likely to stay flat year to year if you want to keep good people.
It’s disappointing to see the changes in the UK public libraries. It wasn’t clear to me that Bromley House’s success was something that could be replicated. The challenge for any library these days is to find multiple, diverse funding sources.
They may be direct or funding through a partnership, or stitching together of grants from year to year. The funding imperative may also mean that the library needs to change its mission so as to be able to qualify for support and continue its operations.