Monday, October 15, 2007

The Jones Apophthegm

I feel the need to claim credit for the development of a new axiom that will come in handy for librarians and others who work in social services and non-profit agencies. I was writing my lecture for last week's class, using as a basis many of the students' observations of library governance. (They had all been to board meetings a few weeks earlier). Their descriptions of the various issues facing those brave citizens who sit on library boards swirled around in my mind for a few days, till finally I was able to sum up the situation this way:
On the day someone offers you $2.2 million to construct a building, what you will actually be in need of is $2.2 million in operating funds.

You see, a local library was made a gift of a very large amount of money to refurbish some space. But they are not allowed to use the money for running the space one it's built. I always wonder how people who make these kinds of bequests think the library is supposed to operate without operating funds. Apparently, people with money to donate to libraries have a list in their heads of things they like to underwrite, which in order of preference are:
  • Buildings
  • Collections
  • Computers
  • Classes
  • Operations
(Digital initiatives, I should point out, are probably the very easiest to fund, but for such ridiculously short periods of time that it hardly counts.)

I have no data for this list, by the way. Let's call it "observation." But it seems to me donors prefer things they can put their names on, whether a brass plaque or a bookplate. And one of my students pointed out that things that are material and lasting seem to rise to the top of the list too, whereas library work is by its nature ephemeral. What's a library to do? It's hard to turn down that much cash. But when someone offers you $2.2. million, do try to convince them that, having built the building, it would be good if it had heat, lights, staff, and were kept in reasonable nick. This is one of those situations where a library board member's life can't be easy.

The whole issue reminds me of the time some years ago when I had six student employees working for me--I believe they were all in that liminal summer between high school and college--and I came in one day looking, I suppose, rather downcast. One young man asked me if everything was okay.

"Yes," I said, "just take my advice and never sit on a Board."

He looked concerned. "Did you get a splinter?" he asked.


the chocolate lady מרת שאקאלאד said...

Oh my, hheeheee. I needed that. Will comment on the serious part of the post a bit later.

Anonymous said...

It seems to work the same way for higher education (with the exception of the endowed chair) -- no one donates specifically to support a salary hike, additional benefits, support staff, or heat. I do know of one department (not mine) whose alumni endowed a fund for incidental department expenses -- this is known as the wine fund.

Javier Hernandez-Miyares said...

omnia vanitas. ego contemno caritas.i love the jones apophthegm.