I have been responsible for fundraising at the Edmonton Public Library for the past nine years so I understand the importance grants have in supporting great work. It was only after reading Committing to Research: Librarians and Grantsmanship, (Arlitsch, 2013) that I realized how important grants have been to driving innovation in North America. Through his article, Dr. Arlitsch shows that “grants are the lifeblood of research in this country and they have supported the development of untold numbers of inventions and innovations” (Arlitsch, 2013). Given that federal grants provide 60% of the research funding in universities, this is no surprise (Arlitsch, 2013).
While there is no question that science and medical fields regularly apply for grant funding to further their research, libraries have been less inclined to pursue this support. Why? There are several potential reasons including the idea that libraries are less about research and more about service to other faculties and individuals, and that library staff are not skilled in research and therefore are not the best recipients of grant funding (Arlitsch, 2013). Through his own personal example, Arlitsch shows the fallacy of this case. Working on multi-discipline grants has many benefits including engaging different perspectives in important research, creating a team dynamic in the workplace and creating projects that would be impossible with only the perspectives of a single discipline. A successful example of this is AI lab at University of Rhode Island University (URI). By placing the lab in the library, the University hopes that “students majoring in different fields, from philosophy and ethics to computer science and biomedical engineering, will brainstorm about important social and ethical issues today and create cutting edge projects” (Massis, 2018). Similarly, the Edmonton Public Library in collaboration with inner city social service agencies, received $600,000 in provincial government funding to research the benefits of social workers working in public libraries. This collaborative effort was successful and resulted in three full-time social workers hired as permanent library staff.
While there are definitely many positive reasons libraries and librarians should explore grant funding as a way to fund research and experimentation, libraries should consider a few things. First, grants come with strings. Most funders require project proposals, detailed budgets and specific outcomes delivered at predetermined times. Libraries should consider if the efforts are worth the investment. Sometimes they are not. Second, funders may have interests and agendas they wish to fill. Libraries need to consider if the interests of the funder align with the interests of the library and if the funder expects to exert influence over a program or service the library will deliver. Even if it is subtle, funders may want the recipient to focus on a specific group, add a new service, research a specific area, purchase a new product and more. If it isn’t something the library would pursue without the available funding, they should seriously consider whether the interests of the funder should push them in that direction. Finally, organizations and individuals from all areas can be lured into chasing money. They may apply for available funding even if the work isn’t aligned with the values and interest of the organization or if pursuing this funding results in reducing services or work in another area. The Edmonton Public Library recently declined a $50,000 grant from a provincial government ministry because, after careful examination, the project itself was a low priority for us and the work required would be excessive. Not many organizations have the resolve to turn away that kind of funding.
Grants provide many opportunities for libraries to fund new projects and drive innovation. By approaching them with clear purpose and an understanding of the fit with libraries values, grants can be a great tool in the library funding and innovation toolkit.
Kenning Arlitsch (2013). Committing to Research: Librarians and Grantsmanship. Journal of Library Administration, 53:5-6, 369-379, DOI:10.1080/01930826.2013.876828
Massis, Bruce (2018). Artificial intelligence arrives in the library. Information and Learning Science, Vol.119 Issue: 7/8: 456-459. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-02-2018-0011