The Greatest Library Funding Idea Ever Written

There’s no subtle way of delving into it, so I’ll just lay it out there: this evening, I went to see the new Morgan Spurlock documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s a film about brand sponsorships in movies… and the movie itself is paid for by brand sponsorships. It’s a vastly entertaining movie on the process (from start to finish) of how advertising and entertainment are joined at the hip, the former funding and influencing the latter. And I really, really enjoyed it.

On the drive home, I thought about sponsorships as a means of funding the library. This is not a new idea by any means, so there is a certain amount of moving old bones into new graves on this blog post. But in the last two years, the sources of funding for public and school libraries have failed like nothing else. The budget cuts are well documented and well known (for non-librarians reading this, try this Google search covering the last three years) but the government funding forecast continues to look bleak. There have been victories in terms of raising tax levies and finding other public funding, but in most cases it is not a sustainable funding model for the future.

The ideal of the public institution for the common benefit is no longer good enough to win the budget day anymore; the common anti-public library refrain is that “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for other people’s entertainment/literature/ computer use”. Compared to the relative status of police, fire, ambulance, and even sanitation, the library is perceived as a luxury community expenditure. In taking money from interested corporations, public librarians can tell those anti-library people that their money is no longer being used for that. School librarians have been proven to be effective in raising achievement in schools; if taxpayers can’t or won’t foot the bill, why not pay for it through advertising and marketing money? Schools, once thought off limits, are now using advertising to meet their budgets. (There is a disconnect between wanting the best education for our nation’s children and paying that bill, but I digress.) So, why not libraries?

We have markets that companies want to reach through advertising. Whether it is book readers, movie watchers, internet users, or story time attendees, these are all representatives of desirable demographics. The library is uniquely positioned in the community since there is no other institution or entity (public or private) that does we do. There are aspects to the library that could hold unique appeal to both library vendors and non-library companies on that basis. And, to put it in some additional perspective, it’s a relatively unexplored market.

As much as people might find this idea reprehensible, here’s a incontrovertible fact: a closed library helps exactly zero people. You can explain your adherence to the “the ends don’t justify the means” principle while you stand on the front step of your closed library to the job hunters and students being turned away. I believe that the tough economic times call for consideration of other avenues of funding and revenue, especially from sources that libraries may have shied away from in the past. Where public funding has failed I think corporate funding can fill in some of the gaps to keep the doors open for both the public and students alike.

The fair rebuttal question to ask of this idea is “where does it stop once you introduce advertising to a library setting?” To be honest, I don’t know but I’d like to imagine I would know it when I saw it. Is the “Gale Cengage Computer Center” too far? No, I don’t think so. Is the “Playaway Presents Time for Twos: Story Time Program for Toddlers” too far? No, I don’t think so either. Would taking time at the start of a crafting program to announce and thank sponsor Jo Anne Fabrics while making promotional material be too far? Perhaps to some, but not to me. Considering how the Friends and Trustees of the library fund and support programs (hell, we even have a sign in our library to display when they do), how is that any different than offering a corporate advertisement? There are extreme cases we should avoid (like a 3-6 year old story time where the children sing commercial jingles or recommending books based on sponsorship and not patron desire), but I think it can be handled in a manner which is in line with our core mission while benefiting a corporate sponsor.

I feel there is a certain hypocrisy to the rejection of sponsorships and product placement in the library world. The major state and national conferences that we attend are not exclusively funded by registration fees. They have sponsorships where library vendors pay money to get their name on the front of the program book, on the websites, and on every advertising piece that goes out. It ranges from the free ice cream that is handed out at the New Jersey Library Association conference, the open bar exhibitor reception at Computer in Libraries, and funding some of the major speakers at the American Library Association Annual conference. Some might revolt at the idea of the “Harlequin Romance Section” at their library, but have no issue picking up advance reader copies or other swag from the publisher’s booth. You cannot curse it at one end while seeking to exploit it at another.

For the libraries that are well supported, this kind of funding should not be a consideration. For the libraries that are facing budget gaps, it should be a viable option put on the table. There is only so much materials, so many hours, and so many staff members you can cut before the operation becomes wholly inefficient to its mission. Like the movie poster for Morgan’s movie says, “We’re not selling out. We’re buying in.” And what we get for buying in is staying the business of helping our patron communities. At the end of the day, that is what matters.


Like I said at the top, there is no subtle way of approaching this as a blog topic. In putting links to the filmmaker, the movie, and providing my own personal endorsement, I’ve inserted a variation of product placement in my blog post (sans compensation but staying faithful to the unwritten blogging credo of citing and referencing the subjects being addressed). I’ve just sent this blog entry with a product placement/endorsement to over 1,000 blog subscribers, over 200 Facebook fans, and since I’ll tweet this post several times, over 2,300 Twitter followers. This will be in addition to whatever incoming links I might get from other bloggers (both from this post or from previous links) or if/when my posts get picked up by American Libraries Direct which goes out to the tens of thousands of American Library Association members. Between all those tweets, Facebook shares, and emails, those who actually read the post will see that I went to a movie, liked it, and then wrote about it. (To steal a line from Morgan in the movie, “dozens and dozens” of people will end up actually reading this.)

In looking back, I can see everything that I have, in essence, advertised: from “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Flavor” Facebook group to the Edublog and Salem Press Awards to a permanent link to my Mover & Shaker profile on Library Journal and even talking about how I advertised myself to boost my Facebook author page. And that’s just the stuff off the top of my head.

So long as we are talking about self marketing and self promotion, if I really wanted to utilize the blog space to pay some bills I could sell the banner spot, buttons on the side of the sidebar of the blog, even put a banner and link at the base of all of my posts. Of course, it is a matter of proving value (or in other words, my brand); while I get thousands of views a month (a small number compared to some of the other librarian bloggers out there), I would say that I’m widely read by all the right librarian people. “Do you want your library products to reach library thought leaders and futurists? Then I’m your guy. Send me an email and let’s talk!”

And Morgan, if you’re reading this: first, thanks for an enjoyable and informative movie. You do excellent work that makes people think. I laughed as I drove home and looked at all the advertising I saw on the way. Second, I’m biased but I would hope that you’d be interested in doing a documentary of libraries (or at least an important information issue like the inadequacy of current copyright or the digital divide). I’d be happy to answer any curiosities you might have even if it’s just for yourself. Third, if you have any thoughts about the idea of advertising libraries, please feel free to leave a comment. It would be most welcome, especially as someone coming from outside the library world.

Thank you.

(By the way, the only potential result I fear from this blog post is being haunted by the ghost of Bill Hicks.)

18 thoughts on “The Greatest Library Funding Idea Ever Written

  1. I for one like this idea, and I have for a while since I’ve realized how badly the traditional funding sources for libraries have failed. I will also admit to having a certain amount of glee at the expressions I got from people’s faces when I mentioned sponsorship schemes at ALA Annual last year (I actually silenced a vendor rep I met through someone else when I mentioned it, he sort of looked at me blankly, and then said I probably shouldn’t be talking too loudly).

    Historically there is precedence for it too. Think about all the libraries that Andrew Carnegie and his foundations were responsible for building. Granted that was done for a philanthropic goal rather than profit motivated, but his name still got carved into the lintel stones on those libraries. Would it be any different today if Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Staples made a large donation and asked for the building to be renamed?

    If a library could get Apple to fund a new computer learning center, and maybe a series of educational workshops for computer skills – I think they deserve having their name over the door to the center and be mentioned at the beginning of each lecture – maybe with canned video ads like what get sent to the smaller movie theaters.

    I think there would be sizable resistance to this idea not only from the public, but also the librarians. Look at how much negativity resounded in the library echo chamber regarding the “Kindle with Special Offers” (which I personally think isn’t that bad of an idea – the ads aren’t in the books, and besides it’s not like there has never been advertising in books before look at the back of almost any mass market paperback). If there is that degree of hostility to something that does not directly affect librarians, what would it be like for something that does?

    In the end, though, I applaud you for suggesting it, and I certainly agree with you on this.

    • Thanks Frank.

      To answer your comment in reverse, I think the problem with the Kindle with Special Offers is that it didn’t take that much off the price. $20 for unlimited exposure to ads is the value they put on the advertising; that’s, well, rather insulting in my book. I think that was more of the problem than having ads in books.

      I think the sponsorship ideas are pretty good. Why not? We do it as it is. Just a different revenue source.

      Sponsorships to ALA? I joked about wearing a NASCAR-like suit with sponsors on it and walk around the conference with it on. But, really, how is that different than the clothing I pay to wear? All the clothes have their own marking on them so others can see what designers we are wearing. Of course, there is a quid pro quo to work out on this one; would I have to be at the booth for different sessions? Would I have to wear it all day and at night? What are they getting for their money?

      Of course, there are people who are sponsored by companies now, but that’s a small group of people in the library world.

  2. Great idea! Actually, I think you overstate the possibility there might be some potential conflict between the interests of corporate sponsors and the “core mission” of libraries; a little reflection will reveal that they truly are one. Besides, what’s wrong with “a 3-6 year old story time where the children sing commercial jingles or recommending books based on sponsorship and not patron desire”? I can’t see how that crosses any “line.” If kids learn every commercial jingle from all the advertising they’re exposed to outside the library, why shouldn’t they be able to share those familiar tunes with friends and neighbors at the Library? And since most marketing is about the creation of desire (Hey! They’re the ones who say this, not me!), who are we to say there’s any real difference between a sponsored suggestion and what a patron wants? It’s not like we haven’t seen people coming into the Library asking for the latest hyper-marketed book / CD / video – don’t they really want those things? I too want to stay in the business – apt word, that! – of helping our (well, our sponsors’) patron communities, and to do so I will gladly provide that help in a manner consistent with the values and priorities of my corporate sponsors. Bravo!

    • If you’re going to be snarky, the least you could do is put in some paragraph breaks so that it doesn’t look like a solid mass of text. Just sayin’.

      • Only 15 words separates your longest paragraph above from my comment, but I’ll concede your point.

        And I’m not actually being snarky. Your idea (shared by many) deserves a considered response, but not within the confines of the blog comments section.

        Carry on.

        • My apologies! The way your comment came across seemed more sarcastic than actual praise. In that light, I appreciate your comment and offer my apologies again for the mistake.

  3. Hi, Andy,
    I don’t know if you’ve yet read “What’s in a Name?” in the chapter on New Ideas and Out-of-the-Box Thinking for Creative Fundraising in my new book: Saving Our Public Libraries: Why We Should. How We Can.

    “What’s in a Name?” talks about a less commercial version of what you’re suggesting. An example is honoring library patrons who provide funding for various “invisible” as well as visible library expenses with signs that say something like: “The library’s lights are on today because of Amanda Smith’s contribution to the library.” or “Jose Martinez paid for the the air conditioning in use at this library.” or “Thomas Lincoln funded this Tai Chi class being given free at your library today.”

    While I don’t have any problem with the commercial sponsorship you’re suggesting, as long as the lines are drawn carefully, this type of patron sponsorship could accomplish similar things and be less worrisome to many librarians.
    janet jai

    • janet, thanks for your comment. I’m focusing on the commercial end of the equation. What you’ve suggested here (and talk more about in your book) is something we already do in different ways. Libraries have plenty of plagues to individuals and groups that donate to the library to pay for certain expenses. That’s a known funding source. I’m talking about corporate sponsors.

      Here’s the thing: if those people were stepping up to fund these kinds of services and programs, this post would be moot. But they aren’t. Perhaps they are waiting to be asked, but we can’t wait for them to make up their minds either.

      As for less worrisome, it still can lead to people overstepping their bounds and giving their own input on what the library should do in different situations. That’s no different than a company doing the same.

  4. Our Business Library branch had this kind of sponsorship for the new computers a few years back by a big microchip company (not sure if I can tell which company, since I’m not the official rep for the branch library.) I believe this was facilitated through the Business college where the branch is located.

    • Interesting. And it’s probably more common than I imagine, but it feels good to bring it back up and talk about it once more.

  5. My major worry is that Gale/Playaway would insist on exclusive (or first preference) use of of their products, and librarians/libraries would not have the option of selecting products that would better suit patron needs.

    That said, Playaway at the public library where I used to volunteer (before I moved 650 miles away for my MLIS/job) was extremely popular and the advertising idea could take root there.

  6. One more thing-politics might enter into a companies decision not to advertise/remove funding. What if a company took exception to an increase in GLBTQ literature, or accused the library of (perceived) political bias due to the types of programming offered? A worse case scenario for me would be advertising as a kind of censorship.

  7. Librarians are going to have to get MUCH more business savvy to convince me that this would be a good idea. Of course, if they were more adept at making deals, they might not need to be making these kinds of deals at all. :-/

    ps: “Fox News Non-Fiction Wing.” Case closed.

  8. I can see sponsorship being used at a library to make certain programs available which cannot be offered within its own budget, and it is a good idea to leverage external funding sources. But when you say that this is an option for closing libraries, are you suggesting that sponsorship / advertising should be considered as a source for a library’s operating budget? A library being an entity that aims at providing public goods, there is something very jarring about the idea of getting its operating budget from the private sector. I don’t think you are suggesting this but the thought popped up in my mind…

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