Libraries in the Spotlight: Who's Stepping Up for More Than Books? /shutterstock

Long passed over in favor of more exciting and trendy areas of funding, libraries have traditionally had a hard time attracting enough funds from private donors. That's ironic, since one of the most famous episodes in the history of philanthropy is Andrew Carnegie's gifts to build public libraries throughout the U.S. And yet, a century later, it's hard to think of many top foundations or leading individual donors who back libraries in a large-scale, ongoing way.

But the tide may be turning as more donors come to see the varied ways that libraries can advance a range of important goals. 

Marilyn Simons, president of the Simons Foundations in New York City, put the case this way:  

The library has such an important role to play in the community. In addition to its traditional role as a source of information and knowledge, the library provides access to space and resources that might not otherwise be available. I've been impressed by the library's increasingly important role as a provider of free, practical programs, such as English language classes, computer skills training, and job research, preparation, and placement services.

Simons made this comment in an announcement of a $25 million gift that she and her husband Jim, the hedge fund billionaire, recently made to the New York Public Library—among the largest in its history. This couple is best known for supporting math and science. Jim is a math whiz who turned to finance and the Simoneses have channeled the bulk of their giving into the Simons Foundation, which supports basic science research.

RelatedInside the Simons Foundation: Big Philanthropy on the Frontiers of Science

The new Simons money is funding the renovations of three library branches in the East Harlem neighborhood and to support other programs. This significant gift from the Simons couple will also help NYPL leverage the limited city and state funds for much-needed capital work at the 125th Street, Aguilar, and Macomb’s Bridge branches. Any leftover funds could go toward the expansion of library educational programs in areas like early literacy and immigrant services.

While this type of library support is new for the Simons couple, grantmaking in East Harlem is not. In the past, Jim and Marilyn Simons have given millions of dollars to the East Harlem Tutorial Program as well. Also, Marylin has been active in the East Harlem community as a board member of that particular organization and supporting various other educational efforts there.

Related: Why Is James Simons Giving Big to This Harlem Tutoring Program?

Overall, it’s been a good year for NYPL, as this is the third major gift that the library has announced already this year. Back in May, Katharine Rayner gave $15 million for research acquisitions, and in March, Merryl Tisch gave $20 million for library education programs.

Just a few months ago, we asked, "Why Aren't More Big Donors Giving to Public Libraries?" The picture is more hopeful today. These three gifts in private funding make up a combined $60 million for NYPL to spend and to keep the branches open and thriving. There are currently 88 NYPL neighborhood libraries throughout Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, as well as four research centers in Manhattan.

While it's not clear how, exactly, these big gifts happened, it's fair to say that NYPL's president Tony Marx has been having a nice run lately. A few years ago, Marx was mired in an seemingly endless controversy over a plan to renovate the library's flagship branch on Fifth Avenue. Now, under his leadership, NYPL is reeling in some of its biggest gifts ever for NYPL. 

A big theme in philanthropy this year is inclusion and making resources accessible for the less privileged. This often extends to topics like access to healthcare, affordable housing and equitable education. It makes sense that libraries would receive more attention as part of this shift. 

Public libraries, in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S., make knowledge accessible to everyone, regardless of economic status or level of education. Because libraries offer something different for everyone, it's easy for funders to give libraries support while staying within their niche. There is often an opening for foundations and donors of all sizes to make gifts to libraries that track with their larger priorities. As we've reported, there are also some interesting opportunities for funders to engage the public in such grantmaking, given the strong connection people often have to their local libraries. 

Related: In New York, Crowdsourcing Ideas for How Funders Can Help Public Libraries