It's easy to see why Union Library has always been a magnet for children. I first visited as a 7-year old, and still recall the smell of books and the excitement of learning new things. Future generations should be able to experience the same joy and history.
As an avid reader, the library was one of the first places I sought out when I moved to Hatboro fifteen years ago. On my bi-weekly visits, I would stock up on books for my hour long commute to Center City. I was always welcomed by a friendly face and a book recommendation.
When our family expanded, and my commuting to the city was a thing of the past, I found a friendly group of parents with young children at Miss Harriet’s story time. I enjoyed those Friday mornings where I could relax for a few minutes with a cup of coffee, chat with other parents, and browse for my own book selections.
Now that I'm an employee, I see the community we serve on a larger scale. I see that the Union Library is more than just a place for borrowing books. It's a place for families to play, a daily stop on a retiree’s morning walk, an office for the businessperson on the go, a meeting space for civic groups, an entertainment venue for all ages though summer reading programs and the adult speaker series, and so much more.
The Christmas Tree Lighting is one of my favorite events, when the whole town comes to sing holiday songs, greet Santa, and watch the tree be lit for that year. There is not a better way to start the holiday season!
I love the rich history contained in the library, as well as the historic building itself. People are amazed to find out that the original rooms were built in 1849. It's one of many reasons I hope that we will be able to get funding to make sure this lovely historic building will be preserved for many years to come.
Union Library's Michael Celec explains
how grant funding works
for public libraries
More than one person has asked why the library does not seek funding through grants. The assumption seems to be that there are large pools of untapped funding that for some reason the library just hasn’t bothered pursuing. Some questions have also had an assumption that the way grants work is a simple, ‘Ask and you shall receive.’ We wish grant funding did work that way, but the true picture is that grants are not automatic and often difficult to get. This post will give some detail on how competitive grants work and the limitations that are always inherent in such funding.
As a publicly held, publicly accountable 501c3 nonprofit organization, Union Library Company of Hatborough does indeed qualify to apply for grants. In fact, a substantial portion of Union Library’s income already comes from grants. Unfortunately, for reasons I will explain, this source of funding will never be sufficient to replace local funding to sustain the library.
One of the problems with grant funding is that competitive grants are awarded only for specific, limited projects. The way it works is that an agency will announce a grant for specific activities that it wants to fund for a specific type of organization, like “public libraries in the United States.” In response, libraries whose work or needs are in that same area may apply for the grant. The work entailed in preparing a grant application can come to over 100 hours for their detailed proposal. The exact amount depends on what the application requires, but this is almost always paid staff work. Unfortunately, no granting agency can fund every applicant’s project. So, while a lucky few are able to fund their proposed projects, the unsuccessful applicants do not receive any funding for their efforts, regardless of the quality of their work.
Libraries, then, may put a large amount of paid work into a grant application, and come away with nothing. This may mean delaying a roof repair, holding off on updating equipment, or eliminating programs. Since every grant proposal requires weeks of focused work to prepare, this means that you can spend a lot of time submitting grants and end up with no monetary return. In other words, this is a very unstable source of funding where the amount of effort exerted does not necessarily translate into money received.
When a library has the good fortune to be awarded a grant, those secured funds are only available for the specific project as laid out in the application. For example, if you secure a grant for teaching with primary sources from the Library of Congress (one of the things they’re currently funding), all of that funding needs to be spent on teaching with primary sources. It can’t be used to staff the circulation desk, to purchase books, or pay the electric bill. Grant funding cannot be put toward general operating expenses, nor can the library rethink how grant dollars are used: the money has already been earmarked before the check arrives. These are basic and universal facts in US grant funding not unique to public libraries. They would apply as well to a nonprofit theater, or to the American Cancer Society. Some readers without a background that involved pursuing grants may find it hard to believe this is how the process works. You don’t have to take my word for it. I invite you to research this yourself. You can start to explore the process yourself here or at any of a number of other places.
Currently, there are only two government grants that a public library in Pennsylvania can apply for. These are Pennsylvania’s Keystone Grant for physical projects, and the federal LSTA technology grant. Union Library has several important projects that align perfectly with the Keystone Grant. But there are two further aspects of a Keystone grant that help illuminate how grant funding works. First, the library itself has to pay 50% of the cost of the project total. Union Library’s 2018 budget level is not adequate to cover the costs in the grant proposal it would like to submit. Thus, needed measures for preserving the building have had to wait, in some cases for years, until the library can afford to match the grant it qualifies for. Another issue is that a waiting period of at least five years is expected before a library applies for another Keystone grant. Most grants have similar rules and limitations.
Union Library had also planned to apply for the federal LSTA technology grant. However, a recently proposed federal budget would eliminate not only this grant, but the entire department of the government that administers it. If this proposed budget is approved, this grant will disappear, and that would be the end of federal monies for local libraries until further notice. This example illustrates just how volatile grant funding is.
Unfortunately, those two grants are the only government grants relevant to Union Library. There are local, private sources for smaller amounts, but all of these small grants are subject to the same limitations: they can only fund specific projects (and are thus inflexible), they are competitive (and thus are insecure), and they typically take a tremendous amount of preparation which strains resources, and may not lead to funding.
The days when a wealthy benefactor like Andrew Carnegie supplied funding to build libraries from the first to last brick are gone. The nationwide picture today is: if there’s going to be a local library, the funding for it needs to be a local, stable source. No grant or group of grants is either stable or renewable. Union Library will always do its best to leverage every cent it receives through grants and other means, but ultimately the library needs the community itself to invest in it with regular funding. The benefits of having a stable library extend to residents that never enter the building or check out a book. For every dollar invested in your local public library, the community receives over five dollars in value back. We think the residents of Hatboro will recognize this as a worthy return on their investment.
In 1984, the Union Library Company of Hatborough became a fully-fledged public library. It was founded in 1755 as a private, subscription-based library, but the Union Library is and has been a public organization for thirty-five years. Union Library does hold a ceremonial annual shareholders meeting to honor a founding tradition, but it is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. For those used to thinking in terms of private organizations and profits, it may come as a surprise to learn that a nonprofit organization is not "owned" by the person or persons that manage it. These types of nonprofit public organizations belong to the public at large. Nonprofit organizations cannot be sold and are not allowed to generate profits. Instead, publicly owned nonprofit organizations exist to serve a specific mission and spend all of their funding in pursuing this mission.
A familiar example in Hatboro of a publicly owned nonprofit organization that serves a local community is its firehouse. Enterprise Fire Company and the people that manage it provide the service of fighting fires, along with a variety of other services such as public education. In order to do this this, the organization receives revenue, which in Pennsylvania is determined by a millage calculation. A firehouse does not at any point expect to produce or accumulate income in excess of what it uses for its mission. Residents pay for it because of the services the firehouse provides, which have value for residents, even those that never experience a fire on their property. The firehouse may do fundraising annually, or for specific initiatives, and those funds go into the services that the firehouse provides.
With a private for-profit business, the owners aim to reach a point where their initial investment is paid off and then profits begin to accumulate for them that cover more than the costs of continued operation of the business. Nonprofits never reach this point and are not intended to. Any budget surplus in a given year will typically be used the next year while continuing to provide services in line with the organization's mission. This is a key difference between these two types of entities due to their very different mandates.
The original purpose statement of Union Library was to: Operate a private library company to promote knowledge and moral virtue, to expel the gloomy clouds of ignorance, and to continue to make the public conscious of the heritage that each may seek and find knowledge for himself, in his own way, in the reading of books.
Obviously there have been some changes to this 1755 statement. The "private" part was changed to fully public decades ago, and the library has begun to provide knowledge through other means than books! Union Library is now open to all members of the general public, every community member can access its collection, and it provides basic services without charge. This mission is distinct from that of research libraries, school libraries, and other private libraries that serve the information needs of a restricted group of individuals, such as the faculty and students of a given school or the employees of a business.
Union Library's work is an ongoing project that grows and changes to meet the need of its community. It is fitting that such an organization that so ardently serves its community is in turned owned by the public at large. The board of directors of Union Library act as its stewards, but it is a resource for all and nothing would make the board happier than to serve all members of the community while fulfilling its mission.
Short Term Updates (2020-2022)
Collections. We have wanted to offer several things that our current budget would not allow, and I would like to start adding these items to the collection quickly. We want to add more passes to area museums and to greatly increase our options for audiobooks, ebooks streaming movies, and genealogy. There is strong local demand for these items and I’d like to see these items enter our collection in the second quarter of 2020. My hope is that Hatboro residents will have quite a few new digital offerings if the referendum passes. And yes, we want to add more books and update some of the older parts of our print collection, especially the nonfiction.
Building. We have some enhancements planned for the library’s building. Our building is in great shape for being 169 years old, but we’ve had to postpone a few things due to budget constraints. The things we’d like to update include a new roof, new carpets, energy efficient lighting, and restoring our original pine flooring in the original section of the library. The front façade needs painting. Most of these items are eligible for a Keystone Grant, but this grant requires 50% matching which has been difficult for us to secure in past years. We plan to apply for a grant and to include as many of these items into it as possible, and we’ll be able to do without hesitation if the referendum passes. We want to ensure that the library will remain at its current home at 243 S. York Road, in its current building, for the long term.
Expanding Services and Responding to Change (2022-2025)
Collection. Nontraditional items are another area that has developed in public libraries in recent years. This basically means being able to check out things that aren’t books. We want to add tablets, laptops, and wifi-hotspots that patrons can check out and take home. This type of service can be critical for people that have limited computer and internet access, and it can be the difference that lands a person a job (which strengthens the whole community). We would also like to offer a seed library for gardeners, and tools that the typical person will use rarely (or only once) such as a drain snake, gutter cleaner, fruit picker, or sunlight calculator. There are many possibilities and we see many different ways such nontraditional collections could benefit the residents of Hatboro.
Programming. Additional programming for children and family audiences is something we’ll continue to enhance. Our story times are beloved, and our children’s summer programming is popular, but with increased funding we will be able to further expand offerings around STEAM topics for older children.
When I started as Director in 2018, we started to present adult-oriented programming again. Many people have good memories of the War Stories series, and while that program is not exactly replicable, we plan to launch a new series that is just as successful. We will offer an increase in adult classes based on what residents want to learn about. I would like to see us begin offering classes for things like financial literacy, more advanced research for everyday topics like genealogy, computers and devices, common software like Microsoft Office, or even how to build a website.
Building. Over the next ten years, we plan to make our historic building as close to ADA-accessible as it can ever be. This may entail adding a chair lift into the oldest part of the building, a new side porch area with accessible doors, and more. As a public library, we care about this kind of inclusiveness and will be taking steps to update our building.
We've received a number of questions about how the library is run and organized, the process by which the library sets it budget, how it makes certain decisions, and what kinds of fiscal oversight are in place at the library.
Even though this is really a set of questions for the library rather than the Yes Committee, we're posting some detail here as it relates to the referendum. Most or all of this information comes from the public record, but we hope it's convenient to find these answers in one place.
Who makes the financial decisions at the library? Are these people paid? How much is done by volunteers?
Board. The library is overseen by a board of directors. The board is all-volunteer, and two members of it are appointed by Hatboro's Borough Council. You can see the current board members listed here. This group shares a service orientation and a love for the library. In addition to overseeing library decisions and finances, board members contribute time, money, work, and other forms of support to the library.
Staff. The library has a director, a state-certified librarian with an MLIS degree. Library directors are paid, and make most of the day to day decisions with the support of a staff of library assistants. These staff members are trained and paid and also listed here. Support staffing decisions are made by the director, while the director serves at the pleasure of the board and under their supervision. The background of the current board encompasses professional experience and expertise in banking, nursing, financial planning, teaching, librarianship, and more.
Larger questions are decided by a vote from the members of the board at their monthly meeting. For example, in making a major decision like deciding the library's budget for the year, the director submits a proposal to the board, authored in consultation with the board's treasurer. The board at large then votes whether to approve the budget. Including research and other forms of follow-up, this process can take place over two and a half months.
Though variations are common, a similar division of responsibility is standard at nonprofit organizations.
How does the library report its finances? Can the public inspect the details?
All public library tax filings are reported publicly and open for inspection. Nonprofits in the US file a 990 form for this purpose. The 990 report covers all library revenue, expenses, assets, liabilities, and more. It also reports on the activities of the organization. Here is a recent example. The most recent available 990 from Union Library is the 2017 filing for the 2016 fiscal year, which you can find here: bit.ly/ULCH990_2017
What about the library's internal financial controls?
Union Library follows standard best practices for US nonprofit reporting. The library hires an accounting firm with nonprofit experience to inspect its accounts and to help prepare its 990 form. Every third year, this firm makes a full audit of all library books. For the other two years, the accountants do a significant but somewhat less involved inspection of accounts, and issue a report. The treasurer also makes a report to the board each month on the current state of all financial matters.
What other reporting does the library do?
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania collects additional information from public libraries at the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, which is an office of the Department of Education.
As a public library, ULCH reports a number of additional figures to the state, with detail about things like programming, attendance, and circulation. The state receives the annual audit or accountant's report.
Public library statistics are reported by the state, for example at this page.
Will residents or the Borough receive equity in the library or its property?
There is no such thing as equity in a nonprofit organization. This is a key difference between a nonprofit organization and a for-profit business: nonprofits do not have accumulation of funds as a goal. The goal of a nonprofit is to engage in conducting its mission, whether that's putting on plays, doing medical research, or any of a variety of other activities. This is why we mentioned their orientation toward service and volunteerism above. They don't receive any monetary compensation, but find their work at the library itself gratifying. Any funds that accrue to a nonprofit organization are simply directed towards furthering the mission of that nonprofit.
The residents of Hatboro benefit from the referendum directly by the increase in services and other fine things that come with having a good modern library, and by the impact on their property values and in a number of other indirect ways. There are numerous sources and studies that illustrate the various benefits libraries bring to a community and we invite you to do your own research rather than simply taking our word for it.
What can you tell us about future year budgeting in the event of a successful referendum?
The short answer is no, and this is because of the process the library uses to set its annual budget, as described above. In the event that the referendum succeeds, the library will not receive additional funding until March 2020. Following the library's standard processes, the 2020 budget would not be put to a vote until summer. The budgeting procedure is involved and lengthy, and such a budget would necessarily be highly speculative since it would not only assume the outcome of the referendum but also the exact funding levels of the library twelves months into the future. Thus, such a hypothetical budget would be both prohibitive from a resource point of view and too speculative to merit serious consideration.
The amount of the millage proposed in the May referendum was examined and approved by the library's board of directors, whose credentials are noted above. The requested level of funding, will bring Union Library to the average funding level of the libraries in Montgomery county. This was discussed more in a previous posting which can be read here: http://bit.ly/FairFunding4Union. Residents are asked to decide their vote based upon their past and present experience of Union Library, their confidence in the library's volunteer board, and their satisfaction with the standards and procedures for accountability the library has in place. We have taken some pains here to detail the library's standards and procedures of accountability here so voters have as much information as possible.
I've seen those old books in the library's non-circulating collection. They must be worth a fortune, no?
Alas, the value of the library's collection of old books is primarily historical. These books are shown amongst the library's assets on the 990 report. They're included on page 11 in item 10A, which is then detailed further on page 22. At the most recent valuation, they are likely worth under $100,000 total, including one valuable book that might yield around $50,000. This 1854 book is a nonfiction volume with hand-colored illustrations on the subject of toucans. Selling these non-renewing minor assets would fund less than one year's worth of operating funds. The library's funding dilemma will not be solved in this way.
We hope this helps supplement your understanding of the processes Union Library has in place to manage and account for its resources.