Marylandís Successful Campaign to Increase Library Funding
by Mary Baykan
We librarians know that people like us, but we’ve always relied on anecdotal evidence to make that point. Hiring an independent polling company and getting solid numbers made it possible to prove how citizens feel about us, and to get a big boost in state funding.
In the last 2 years, Maryland’s public librarians have been successful in getting major funding legislation through the Maryland General Assembly—not once, but twice. This is in contrast to major cutbacks experienced by many of our nation’s public libraries.
Maryland’s Unique Public Library Environment
Ten years ago, I moved from South Florida to accept the directorship of the Washington County Free Library, a county system located in western Maryland, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. I was told by many of my Maryland colleagues that the state was known as “library heaven.” Maryland has a history of strong, county-focused public libraries. There are 24 public library systems, one for each of the 23 counties and one for the city of Baltimore. By law each library system receives per capita support from the state; that must be matched by the counties, though in reality each county funds at a higher level than the minimum service level mandated by the state.
Two associations, Maryland Public Library Administrators (MAPLA) and the Maryland Library Association (MLA), work closely together to promote our public libraries and to monitor state legislation that will have an impact (good or bad) on public libraries and the people who work in them. As the current volunteer legislative officer of MLA, it is my role to actively work with Maryland’s General Assembly to promote all types of libraries throughout the state.
The Looming Fiscal Crisis
At the close of the 2004 legislative session, predictions said that Maryland would be facing a major fiscal crisis in the coming year. A looming deficit of more than $1 billion would force major budget cuts during the 2005 legislative session.
People in Maryland’s public libraries feared that they would not be immune to the upcoming cuts and they needed to “circle the wagons” to protect their state aid. We needed to be prepared to prove to our legislators that their constituents used and valued public libraries. With a major grant from the Division of Library Development Services (the official name for our state library), the public library community hired a nationally known pollster, Potomac, Inc., to conduct a citizen poll.
Planning and Conducting the Maryland Poll
The poll we commissioned had three objectives:
1. Survey Maryland residents on their perceived value of public libraries.
2. Look specifically at the return on investment of government dollars in public libraries.
3. Provide information pertinent to the public officials who fund libraries.
Potomac, Inc. staff members conducted a significant telephone survey in September 2003. Each of the 24 jurisdictions was surveyed—100 interviews were conducted in the 10 metro jurisdictions and 50 interviews in each of the 14 more rural counties. That produced a maximum statewide sampling error of plus/minus 2.4 percent.
We who work in public libraries know that we are liked and supported by the citizens we serve, but we have always relied on both anecdotal information and the traditional in-house reference and circulation statistics that every system keeps to validate its services. By hiring a nationally known, third-party pollster to ask citizens about their perception of the importance and value of public libraries, particularly when rated among other tax-supported services like schools, local government, parks, fire and rescue, etc., we hoped to obtain strong, objective evidence that could not be so easily dismissed by elected officials. We also wanted to know the overall impressions our citizens have of public libraries, their frequency of library usage and what they used us for, specific library job ratings, the economic development impact of public libraries, public library funding and, of course, demographics.
While we were confident that the poll would indicate that Marylanders like and use their public libraries, what the results showed was way beyond our expectations, and it even amazed the professional pollsters who conducted the study.
When asked, “When was the last time that someone in your household visited a local public library in person? Was it within the last week, the last couple months, last year or longer?” 44 percent stated that they visited within the last week, an additional 36 percent stated that they visited within the last couple of months, and a final 9 percent stated they visited sometime within the last year. The median times used equaled 12 per year.
When asked to rate their public library along with other public services by giving each a grade of A, B, C, D, or Fail, Marylanders gave public libraries the highest grade, numerically averaging 3.3 out of 4 statewide. Happily, 42 percent gave public libraries an “A,” ranking us at the top of local public services that included police and public safety, parks and recreation, public schools, social service, roads and mass transit, and local government efficiency. Marylanders told us that, next to public green space (parks), they ranked public libraries as the most desired community asset.
After these questions on ranking different public services, the poll turned to asking specific questions on public libraries. When asked, “Are you more likely to think of your local public library as an essential service like a school or more of a cultural amenity like an art gallery?” 76 percent stated that they thought of their public library as an essential service. Further, 81 percent felt that the library staff were knowledgeable, courteous, and efficient; 70 percent felt that their libraries had the information and materials they wanted/needed.
The poll also aimed to give us a clearer insight into the impact that public libraries had on economic development in their respective communities. When asked if library patrons also used their trip to the library to include other errands, 75 percent said yes. Forty-three percent stated that having a public library move into a community would help attract businesses to the area, and 78 percent believed that public libraries improve a community by helping people learn new skills so they can get better jobs. A whopping 98 percent felt that public libraries help people learn new things no matter what their age.
There was more good news: 92 percent of those polled felt that public libraries were a good investment for their tax dollars. And, when told that less than 1 percent of a county’s budget and only four-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s budget was spent on libraries, more than 60 percent stated that more money should be invested in libraries by both local and state government.
The poll was tallied and the results given to the Maryland Public Library Administrators Association at its fall meeting in November 2004. While the poll strongly validated what we knew to be true all along, that Marylanders use their public libraries in great numbers, it also showed us that our citizens rated public libraries at the very top of the list of public services. They valued public libraries as a community amenity that they want to live near. They viewed their public libraries as “essential” and felt that libraries have positive economic impact. Finally, they believed public libraries are a solid investment of tax dollars and the large majority of those polled wanted more public money spent on libraries.
We Had a Powerful Political Weapon to Wield
It was immediately obvious to us that we had a major advocacy tool for both the local and state level. Each county was given its own individual data that its people could use in presenting their cases before their local elected officials at budget time.
By the time the poll had been completed, Maryland’s looming financial crisis seemed to be turning around. As tax revenue began to increase, the projected deficit began to shrink. While we started to breathe a little easier, we still took a very aggressive approach to protect our state funding.
As the legislative panel officer, it was my job to rally the library community to advocate on behalf of public libraries. I urged people at each library system to invite their state legislators to their libraries prior to the start of the general assembly in January. I sent the data electronically to each of the 24 library systems, which made it easy for each to customize the report. Using the new Maryland Poll, their goal was to impress upon the state delegates and senators how much their constituents used and valued their public libraries, and hopefully to send them back to Annapolis with the clear vision that public library funding was not to be messed with. Directors also invited local elected officials and business leaders to read the poll, either at the library or via e-mail. At this point the goal was to simply impress the local movers and shakers that their communities strongly supported and used their local public libraries, and thereby gain powerful allies to speak on our behalf when meeting with their state delegations.
Waging the Grass-Roots Library Funding Campaign
While the library directors were busy taking care of the home front, members of the legislative panel made strategic appointments with the governor’s chief of staff and with the leadership in both the House and Senate. We in Maryland are very lucky to have a powerful champion in the House. Delegate Sheila Hixson, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, had been responsible for sponsoring a bill that increased funding to public libraries about 6 years before. Chairman Hixson was as impressed with the poll’s findings as we had hoped she would be, and after much discussion concerning the disappearing deficit, she agreed to sponsor a new funding bill in January when the legislature came back into session. We left her with the instruction to come back to her office in early January with a proposal for increased funding. Again, as MLA’s legislative officer, it was my job to work with one of her chief aids to come up with a proposed dollar figure and to draft a bill.
The proposal that we brought forward was a bold one—an additional dollar per capita each year for 4 consecutive years for the 24 public library systems plus an additional dollar per capita each year for 4 consecutive years for the three regional libraries. (Maryland has three regional libraries that try to ensure equity of service for the three poorer more rural regions of the state. This helps the rural library systems that receive more modest county funding give the same level of service that the more affluent counties surrounding the D.C. Beltway are able to provide.) We asked for this multiyear amount thinking most likely that either the dollar amount or the multiyear request might well be reduced.
Since all bills impacting public libraries are sent to the Ways and Means Committee when being introduced in the House, the fact that we had the chairman in our corner gave us a leg up in getting our bill through the House. In order to strengthen our ability to get our bill through the Senate, it was strategically important to find a comparable champion there, and no one is higher than the president of the Senate, Mike Miller. Sen. Miller’s district is located in southern Maryland and the library directors from that region had been very proactive in introducing their delegation, including Miller, to the Maryland Poll. The prep work had already been done, which made it much easier for Miller to say yes when asked to sponsor a companion bill on the Senate side.
Once both bills were dropped into the hopper and hearing dates assigned, Maryland’s larger public library community swung into action. Even though my office was over 100 miles away from Annapolis, it was easy to track the progress of our bill by watching it on the general assembly’s Web page. Quoting from the Maryland Poll, letters and e-mails from trustees and Friends groups poured into Annapolis, at first targeting members of both the Senate and House committees where our bill was assigned and then on to the entire membership of the general assembly. Using listservs and the MLA Web page, several times a day I would send out progress reports, alerts, and “calls to action” to the library community.
The Maryland Library Association sponsored a Maryland Library Day in Annapolis during the first week of February. Patterned after ALA’s national model, trustees, Friends, staff, and loyal library users poured into the capitol to visit their delegations and to leave fact sheets that included the findings of the Maryland Poll (once again) along with requests to support our bill. The president of the Senate declared Maryland Library Day from the floor of the Senate while a packed balcony cheered. The day concluded with a reception sponsored by MLA to honor the governor and the legislature that was held in the governor’s own reception room. At the reception, Lt. Gov. Steele (representing the governor) presented the president of MLA with a proclamation also declaring the day Maryland Library Day.
As our bill in the House and its companion bill in the Senate made their way through the process of hearings, floor votes, and crossing over to the other house to begin the whole process there, the library community never gave up on sending letters and e-mails in support of the funding increase.
As the session moved into March and April, we became cautiously optimistic that we were going to get a bill through; however, we were stunned at the broad-based, bipartisan support we started to see. Both bills were first unanimously voted out of their respective committees with a favorable report and then, once being brought to the floor, received a resounding unanimous vote, then crossed over to the other house and were passed with unanimous support too! HB 200 passed the House 131–0 and the Senate 45–0. Its companion bill SB 421 passed the House 135–0 and the Senate 47–0. Our bill was signed into law by the governor on May 26, 2005. Starting in July of 2006, this bill will increase the state per capita funding formula to public libraries from $12 to $16 within 4 years. In that same time frame, it doubles the total budget of the three regional libraries from $4 per capita to $8.
Building on Our Success
This past legislative session, we brought forth another bill and followed the exact same pattern as we did for the 2005 session. We introduced legislation that would, for the first time in the history of the state, give state aid for the construction and renovation of library facilities. Again both Hixson and Miller agreed to cross-file the bill. Armed again with the Maryland Poll, and using the Web to post progress, to send out alerts, and to deluge Annapolis with e-mails in support, our public library community set out to refresh the memories of the delegations.
We worked just as hard for this bill as we did for the per capita bill that was passed the year before, and we were again amazed at the success of our bill. HB 1380 passed the House 138–0 and the Senate 47–0. Its companion bill SB 709 passed the House 134–0 and the Senate 47–0. The governor signed the bill into law in May of 2006. Starting in July of 2007, this will provide a dedicated stream of money for public library construction and renovation to the tune of $5 million annually. A picture of the governor signing our bill was posted on the state’s Web page for everyone to see and download. A copy of the picture now has pride of place on my office wall.
Let’s Talk Business
The Maryland Poll cost the public libraries $57,500, but it generated $35 million (over 4 years) in new state funding. The total per capita increase by the fourth year will be approximately $15 million. The building and renovation funding will provide $5 million per annum, therefore, by year 4, a total of $20 million in new state dollars will be going to the 24 library systems. We are currently in the planning stage of conducting an updated poll.
What the Maryland Poll told us does not make Maryland’s public libraries unique among other public libraries across the length and breadth of our country. I would wager that other public libraries would find similar results. This poll gave us a powerful weapon not only to protect funding, but also to increase it. It also allowed us to effectively demonstrate that we had strong community backing and, therefore, significant political clout both at the local and state levels. Using the poll and our ability to quickly communicate by e-mail and listserv, volunteers were able to wage a very successful political effort that will benefit our public libraries and the people who use them for years to come.
Mary Baykan is the director of the Washington County (Md.) Free Library and executive director of Western Maryland Public Library, a regional organization that provides equity of service. She also serves as the Maryland Library Association’s legislative officer. Baykan has a B.A. in political science from the University of Houston, an M.A. in library and information science from the University of South Florida, and an M.B.A. from Frostburg State University. She has also completed a certification program for senior executives of state and local government from the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.