Keeping Libraries “Right Side Up” | Budgets and Funding 2024

Most library measures passed in 2023, but the year also saw confusingly worded ballots and little new funding.

Most library measures passed in 2023, but the year also saw confusingly worded ballots and little new funding

Election year 2023 marked a significant moment for libraries on the ballot, with a return to pre-COVID numbers of operating levy renewals and building bonds, but also a marked increase in “upside-down” library elec-tions that can confuse voters. While a high number of renewals passed, there were few ballot measures for new funding. In the face of opposition from would-be book banners and censors, several libraries were on the ballot for critical measures that would radically change their governance, or even force them to close.



In 2023, 109 library operating levies, millages, parcel taxes, and referenda were on the ballot, and all but five passed. This was the second highest pass rate for operating referenda since EveryLibrary and Library Journal began collaborating to track elections for libraries in 2013, but below the 10-year average count of operating referenda (116 annually). New York accounted for almost half of the total operating ballot issues (53 out of 109), followed by Ohio (32) and Michigan (11). However, it is important to note that 40 percent of the funding elections were for simple renewals or budget approvals rather than for new or increased revenue. In fact, only four elections were for brand-new funding, while another two were for structured, voluntary reductions in the local tax rate. This low number of new funding requests continues a disturbing trend first identified in 2017.

Still, good news was in evidence, even at a small scale. The closest election in 2023 was for the annual budget of the Putnam Valley Free Library, NY, where it passed by four votes. In Hopedale, MA, the Bancroft Memorial Library avoided certain closure through a levy override. The Sugar Grove Library District, IL, passed a new operating referendum timed to coincide with the sunset of a 20-year building bond. Idaho’s Hansen Community Library passed its first permanent override levy since 1986. America welcomed its newest library district in 2023, when voters in Missouri ratified the levy for the Taney County Library District, which succeeds a small nonprofit library that had run out of funding. For only the second time in New Jersey, voters approved a Johnson Act 1 mil increase in local tax funding for the Phillipsburg Free Public Library.

In 2022, the Patmos Library in Michigan was the object of a bitter defunding campaign after the board refused to ban certain books. Two renewals were defeated, and the library would have closed without a levy reauthorization. A significant fundraising effort, supported by national figures like bestselling author Nora Roberts, helped stabilize the library. After a yearlong consensus-building effort by a split library board, 63 percent of voters in Jamestown Charter Township passed a three-year stopgap levy renewal for the Patmos Library.


statewide State of Colorado FAIL 41 59
Pella Pella Public Library FAIL 49 51
Algoma Kent District Library FAIL 23 77
Branson Taneyhills Community Library PASS 50.5 49.5
NEW YORK        
Bergen Byron-Bergen Public Library PASS 58 42
Byron Byron-Bergen Public Library PASS 54 46
Oakfield Haxton Public Library PASS 83 17
Walworth Walworth-Seely Public Library PASS 63 37
Airway Heights Airway Heights Library PASS 70 30




Every year, bonds for building projects pass at a much lower rate than operating referenda. In 2023, 17 of 25 building projects (68 percent) were approved by voters, which is in line with the 10-year historical average. Bonds often require supermajorities to pass (even in states without this high threshold requirement for operating referenda). Most bonds are proposed for dedicated library projects, but we also track bonds issued by municipalities for multi-project capital needs that include libraries. We estimate that voters authorized over $175 million specifically for library building projects last year.

Texas held five of the 25 building referenda, followed by New York with four. In Palmer, AK, voters approved a $10 million GoBond to rebuild the Palmer Public Library after the roof collapsed under heavy snow in February 2023. This funding comes after Rep. DeLena Johnson (R-Palmer) helped secure $5 million in funding for the library during the Alaska legislature’s special budget session. Voters in Albuquerque, NM, authorized a $15 million bond for improvements and renovations for libraries, museums, and other cultural facilities. The Hodgkins Library District, IL, will replace a 1980s-era building with significant structural flaws with a new energy-efficient, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)–compliant building for its service area.

The inventory of library buildings needing upgrades or replacement across the country is significant. According to a 2021 data brief from the American Library Association, the average library building in the United States is more than 40 years old, and over $32 billion in delayed, deferred, or potential construction funding is needed to modernize America’s libraries. Until recently, library buildings were built for transactional purposes or repurposed from spaces such as historic homes, vacant main street storefronts, or temporary locations that became permanent sites. While pre–World War II construction standards were more robust than for postwar buildings, older spaces often lack HVAC and electrical outlets; are not ADA compliant; and can be victims of mold, rot, and the effects of neglect. Homeowners and commercial landlords have a responsibility to maintain their properties, not only for the health and safety of residents but to ensure that the property value doesn’t depreciate. The same should be done by our public libraries.


Palmer Palmer Public Library PASS 80 20
Buena Vista Northern Chaffee County Library District PASS 59 41
Longmont Longmont Public Library FAIL 33 67
Wolcott Wolcott Public Library PASS 64 36
Hodgkins Hodgkins Public Library District PASS 67 33
Roselle Roselle Public Library District FAIL 49.6 50.4
Ely Ely Library FAIL* 39 61
Slater Slater Public Library FAIL* 55 45
Lynnfield Lynnfield Public Library FAIL* 56 44
Westborough Westborough Public Library PASS* 84 16
Roseville Roseville Public Library PASS 60 40
Jefferson City Missouri River Regional Library FAIL 37 63
Maplewood Maplewood Public Library PASS* 87 13
NEW MEXICO        
Albuquerque The Public Library of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County PASS 75 25
NEW YORK        
Baldwin Baldwin Public Library PASS 72 28
Massapequa Plainedge Public Library FAIL 38 62
Pearl River Pearl River Public Library PASS 62 38
Shelter Island Shelter Island Public Library PASS 65 35
Euclid Euclid Public Library PASS 59 41
Arlington Arlington Public Library PASS 64 36
Denton South Branch Library PASS 56 44
Justin Mary Emma Tate Community Library FAIL 28 72
New Braunfels Southeast Branch of New Braunfels Public Library PASS 55 45
Princeton Lois Nelson Public Library PASS 70 30
Sumner Pierce County Public Library PASS 62 38


* Supermajority required for passage



Last year saw four “upside-down” library elections, where a “yes” vote paradoxically leads to diminished library services, radical changes to library governance, or even closure. Library directors and boards must engage in strategic and active communications to help their communities understand the wording and implications of these ballot measures. It is the right of the voters to decide the outcome of the election. However, the structure of an upside-down election is designed to take advantage of low levels of civic awareness and create confusion.

In several states, voters grappled with proposals that originated with frustrated book banners and would-be censors. Voters in Algoma Township, MI, decided to “Keep KDL” by rejecting a measure to remove themselves from the Kent District Library system. After an 18-month-long campaign, voters in Pella, IA, rejected a petition election introduced by a book banning group by 168 votes. The petition would have eliminated the library board and put control of the library directly under the city council. The Dayton Memorial Library in Columbia County, WA, faced potential dissolution via a ballot measure, but was saved when a court intervention stopped the measure from reaching the November ballot.

When confronting an “upside-down” election, it’s essential to communicate the consequences of the ballot measure in a simple and transparent way. The library’s informational campaign must detail the specific implications of the vote. In Pella, IA, the board took the important step of forecasting to voters what the impact of such a fundamental change to the independence of the library could mean. This official statement provided clarity to voters and was a rallying cry for the Vote No committee to preserve their town library.

Coming to prominence with the rise of the Tea Party, and continued by frustrated book banners, these “upside-down” library elections are political actions driven by special interests and fueled by misinformation. They are often brought to the ballot quickly and unexpectedly. Library leadership can navigate these complex elections, but they need to be engaged and willing to speak to the matter. When a ballot measure is upside-down, a local pro-library campaign committee must be in place to validate the library, correct the record, clarify the election’s impact, and activate voters against a bad decision. Unlike the library’s board, pro-library committees can legally influence the outcome of elections. Any library facing a politically motivated ballot measure should welcome an active pro-library campaign. They are necessary counterweights to the groups advancing anti-library measures.

The pro-library campaign committee must have an accurate understanding of the structure of the ballot measure and its implications for the library and the community it serves. This factual knowledge will enable advocates to translate a complicated ballot question into plain language and communicate effectively with voters. Campaigners should develop clear messaging that explains why—in this case—a “yes” vote is detrimental. The average voter needs to hear a straightforward message from trustworthy neighbors. Authentic conversations between community members, both in person and online, are the most effective way to counter election misinformation.


  NUMBER OF MEASURES % PASSING Avg. % For Avg. % Against NUMBER OF MEASURES % PASSING Avg. % For Avg. % Against
TOTAL REFERENDA 109 95% 70% 30% 25 68% 59% 41%
TIME OF YEAR                
January–April 12 92% 81% 19% 5 60% 65% 35%
May–August 32 94% 70% 30% 7 86% 60% 40%
September–December 65 97% 68% 32% 13 62% 56% 44%
Under $10 million n/a n/a n/a n/a 10 70% 65% 35%
Over $10 million n/a n/a n/a n/a 11 73% 58% 42%
Northeast 59 98% 75% 25% 7 71% 63% 37%
Midwest 44 93% 65% 35% 8 50% 57% 43%
South 2 50% 50% 50% 5 80% 55% 45%
West 4 100% 64% 36% 5 80% 62% 38%




Despite the attacks on institutions and the profession, the library community must continue to acknowledge and respect the democratic rights of individuals or groups to petition for an election, even if their views are contrary to the interests of the library and its community. This respect for the democratic processes is fundamental in a pluralistic society.

As a public institution, the library must not advocate for the outcome of the election. This means avoiding an official stance on a petition drive or voter-initiated ballot measure. Library communications during any election should remain factual and impartial—libraries can educate, not advocate. This does not mean that the library cannot communicate the potential impact of a ballot measure. In fact, the library board and staff leadership have a responsibility to accurately describe which services would be diminished—or disappear—if anti-library petitioners prevail, and how populations could be harmed by losing access to the library.


2023 109 95% 5% 25 68% 32%
2022 134 87% 13% 32 56% 44%
2021 64 94% 6% 22 77% 23%
2020 146 90% 10% 20 85% 15%
2019 124 93% 7% 24 71% 29%
2018 109 88% 12% 41 61% 39%
2017 85 98% 2% 39 72% 28%
2016 121 86% 14% 47 68% 32%
2015 123 94% 6% 21 43% 57%
2014 147 81% 19% 33 73% 27%
AVERAGE: 116 91% 9% 30 67% 33%




The needs of library patrons since the height of the pandemic are markedly different from those a decade ago, and will continue to change. In a civic and social landscape where libraries must continually adapt to meet community needs, pursuing new funding through referenda, levies, and bonds is more than a financial necessity; it’s a bold statement of belief and ambition. Libraries are dynamic organizations, and the cost of supporting innovative library services is always increasing. When a library goes to the ballot for new funding, it’s inviting the community to invest in a shared vision. Election Day is a call to action for voters to recognize the library as a vital resource worth nurturing and developing.


John Chrastka is Executive Director and Ashley Stewart is Campaign Strategist for EveryLibrary, the only national political action committee for libraries.

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