Executive Summary

the state of america's libraries 2011: a report from the american libary association

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A key resource for the jobless and entrepreneurs –– The Great Recession may have come to an end, but there’s no end to libraries’ key role in helping hard-pressed Americans find employment or launch a bootstraps venture.

These and other key trends in the library community are detailed in this report on the State of America’s Libraries, 2011. The trends are documented in a nationwide poll commissioned by the American Library Association (ALA) as part of a Harris Interactive telephone omnibus study conducted in January with a cross-section of 1,012 adults.

The library-use figures that emerged from the poll were up several percentage points from a year earlier, testament both to Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit and libraries’ role in nourishing that spirit.

Sixty-five percent of those polled said they had visited the library in the past year; women are significantly more likely than men (72 percent vs. 58 percent) to fall into this category, especially working women, working mothers and women aged 18 to 54. Overall, 58 percent of those surveyed said they had a library card. Among those with a card, the largest group was, again, women, especially working women and working mothers. College graduates and those with a household income of more than $100,000 were also well represented among card holders, according to the survey.

The Harris poll revealed that Americans value the democratic nature of libraries as places that level the playing field for all Americans in the provision of materials free of charge.

Thirty-one percent of adults –– and 38 percent of senior citizens –– rank the library at the top of their list of tax-supported services. Overall, the library’s most highly valued services pertain to the provision of free information and programs that promote education and lifelong learning. Ninety-one percent (up 5 percentage points from the previous year) place great value in the library’s provision of information for school and work.

And almost all Americans (93 percent) believe that it is important that library services are free.

Nevertheless, the past year showed that some state and local budget-cutters see libraries as easy targets. Media reports of cuts and cutbacks to library budget and services abounded in 2010 and early this year. U.S. mayors reported in November that hours, staff or services at local libraries was the No. 2 budget area that had come under the budget-reduction knife, second only to maintenance and services at parks and gardens.

The Troy (Mich.) Public Library was a particularly graphic example. In November 2010, the library lost a 10-year millage vote for the second time in less than a year. (The defeat in Troy came as Michigan’s 103 public libraries fought to get back $3.2 million in state aid that they were entitled to under state law.) In February, the subject of library funding was raised once again in Troy, but the mayor and city council members wouldn’t even discuss a resolution that cited $1.7 million in unused expenditures the city could use to operate the library. The council also failed to act on another option that would have raised a 1-mill tax solely to keep the library open.

The three-branch system is scheduled to close June 30.

Another study indicated that 19 states reported cuts in funding for public libraries from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011 and that more than half indicated that the cuts were greater than 10 percent. That study also found that cuts at the state level were often compounded by cuts at the local level. Library boosters have helped keep the vast majority of public-library doors open to accommodate millions of visitors seeking job-search assistance, storytimes, book clubs and other programming.

On the horizon is the phasing out of federal stimulus funds, which the National Association of State Budget Officers called the “cliff of 2012.”

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Libraries are a sound economic investment –– Still, libraries have found many new supporters even as questions have been raised by some about their value.

“Libraries seem to be losing out in the funding battles, due, in part, to the mistaken belief that they are somehow anachronistic in an age when so many Americans have instant computer access to information through the Internet,” Scott Turow wrote in the Huffington Post. “This . . . threatens to destroy a network of public assets that remains critical in our country.”

ALA President Roberta Stevens rallied many of the nation’s best-known authors to promote the value of libraries through public service announcements, op-ed articles and other activities. She also participated in media interviews throughout the year to drive home the impact libraries have on the public’s efforts to find jobs and help create a more literate society.

At the other end of the spectrum of opinion, several Fox TV affiliates aired a segment June 28, 2010, titled: “Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?”

Fox could have found the answer in Philadelphia, where a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government provided bottom-line evidence that the return on investment in library service more than justifies the costs.

The economic-impact study concludes that the library created more than $30 million worth of economic value to the city in fiscal 2010 and that it had a particularly strong impact on business development and employment. Among the study’s more astonishing findings: An estimated 8,600 businesses could not have been started, sustained or grown without the resources respondents acquired at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Direct economic impact: Almost $4 million.

“Until now, there hasn’t been a way to know exactly how much we help in dollars and cents,” FLP President and Director Siobhan A. Reardon stated. “Through this groundbreaking study we put a figure to our services, providing hard evidence that we are more than a nice community resource — we’re an integral economic engine for the city of Philadelphia.”

In addition, taxpayers “overwhelmingly entrusted their libraries with their tax dollars,” with support for operating revenue measures passing at an 87 percent rate.

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School and academic libraries do more with less –– In terms of funding, school libraries had mixed success in dodging the economic bullets of 2010. Most school districts managed to escape large cuts, but school libraries in high-poverty areas experienced big drops in spending on information resources and in collection size. Overall, school expenditures on information resources were down more than 9 percent from the previous year.

Total school-library staff hours declined, with an average of 2.4 fewer hours per week reported in 2010 than in 2009, according to an annual survey conducted by the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the ALA. The largest decreases were in the Northeast and the Midwest.

The average number of hours school library staff spent each week delivering instruction continued to increase in the past year, even though school libraries reported being open fewer hours than in 2009. School library collection sizes remained level, despite a 2.6 percent decline in the number of books.

The 2010 survey also noted that there were no significant changes in collection size for periodicals, video materials or audio materials. Schools had more computers outside the school library but with networked access to library services, and there was also increased remote access to school libraries’ licensed databases.

Many academic libraries, on the other hand, faced budget cuts and restructuring and planned to reduce spending on information resources and staffing. Nonetheless, academic libraries continue to evolve from primarily housing collections to becoming vital places to collaborate, connect and learn. The numbers are astonishing: During a typical week, academic libraries had more than 31 million searches in electronic databases, answered more than 469,000 reference questions, and made more than 12,000 group presentations attended by more than 219,000 students and faculty. Library websites received more than 722 million virtual visits from outside the physical library building, and visits to online library catalogs totaled more than 479 million.

The increased electronic and remote use of academic libraries challenges not only their physical capabilities but their ability to help students make the best use of rapidly expanding research opportunities. In fact, college students appear to be floundering in information overload, and helping them develop research fluency remains one of the most important roles for academic librarians. Publishers, too, are beginning to realize that they must add value by curating digital information and making it easier to discover.

The year saw more than 20 new, renovated or expanded academic library building projects completed, with improved library spaces integrating information management, technology and student-centered settings. Still, academic libraries nationwide grappled with the “new normal” created by budget reductions and the restructuring that resulted from them. More than 40 percent of U.S. university libraries reported budget cuts, and many planned to reduce spending on information resources and staffing.

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Technology’s challenges (and opportunities) –– The ongoing digital revolution is challenging librarians to keep up but at the same time holding out the prospect of future library services that incorporate new philosophies, new technologies and new spaces to meet the needs of all users more effectively than ever. In a sense, the technological advances of the past decade – or the past year –– are leading the library community to rethink the very definition of “library,” what one analyst calls “the sense of place, of service, and of community that has characterized the modern library for the last century.”

At issue are libraries’ changing needs in terms of physical space; what a book or a journal or a database looks like; how to organize, store and distribute information; and how best to promote information literacy in schools and other settings.

Not at issue is that librarians will continue to play a key role in the provision of these and other services. “The nature of the landscape may shift,” the analyst says, “but the need for a navigator will remain.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services acknowledged libraries’ evolving roles as it conducted a national campaign in 2010-2011 to help libraries, museums and civic leaders assess and meet the learning needs of their communities. The campaign, “Making the Learning Connection,” would promote the development of 21st Century skills, including “the ability to think critically about [the] information that is bombarding us from so many media sources every day, ” according to IMLS Acting Director Marsha L. Semmel.

In fact, libraries already are making good progress in the 21st Century. For example:

  • Computer usage at public libraries continues to grow.
  • The availability of wireless Internet in public libraries is approaching 85 percent, and about two-thirds of them extend wireless access outside the library.
  • Almost all academic libraries offer e-books, as do more than two-thirds of public libraries. For most libraries, e-books are still a small percentage of circulated items –– but represent the fastest-growing segment.
  • A battle over the future of widely used e-books was joined in March, when HarperCollins announced that it will not allow its e-books to be checked out from a library more than 26 times, raising the possibility that e-books that are not repurchased would be available at the library for only about a year. “People are agitated for very good reasons,” said ALA President Roberta Stevens. “Library budgets are, at best, stagnant. E-book usage has been surging. And . . . there is grave concern that this model would be used by other publishers.”
  • Libraries are also making voracious use of social media and Web 2.0 applications and tools to connect with patrons and to market programs and services. More than 90 percent of the respondents in a survey of library administrators/managers, librarians and other staff called Web 2.0 tools important for marketing and promoting library services. Social networks and blogs remained the two most popular, with many libraries also continuing to use photo-sharing tools and online video.
  • Facebook, Twitter and blogging tools top the list of Web 2.0 and social media tools in use by libraries, but as one survey respondent observed, even these “are only as effective as the user.”

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  • The battle against censorship goes on, and thousands of people read from banned or challenged books during Banned Books Week (Sept. 25–Oct. 2, 2010). Leading the Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books compiled annually by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) were “And Tango Makes Three” (by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson) and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (by Sherman Alexie). Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” a perennial “favorite” in this category, was No. 3; it has been stimulating would-be censors almost continuously since its publication –– in 1932.
  • In an era of body scanners at airports, hacked databases and involuntary disclosure for users of some online services, the OIF launched Choose Privacy Week, a national education and outreach campaign encouraging libraries to host conversations on privacy issues in their communities. Efforts by the ALA and the library community to protect the First Amendment also included weighing in on local book-banning controversies around the nation and ALA officials’ staging of a “Qur’an read-out” at ALA headquarters in Chicago in response to threats by the head of a small church in Florida that he planned to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, 2010.
  • The library profession continues its active efforts to make its ranks more accessible to members of ethnic and racial minority groups and to strengthen its outreach efforts to these underserved populations. The ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship Program, for example, awarded 75 scholarships in 2010 to members of underrepresented groups to help them pursue master’s degrees in library science.
  • In another outreach effort, 2009-2010 ALA President Camila Alire launched the Family Literacy Focus, an initiative to encourage families in ethnically diverse communities to read and learn together.
  • Library funding was caught up in partisan budget battles on Capitol Hill. In December 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Museum and Library Services Act, which includes the Library Services and Technology Act and reauthorizes all of the programs under the IMLS. The LSTA is the only federal program exclusively targeted for libraries.
  • At libraries of all kinds, technology continued to advance in high gear. Librarians labored –– largely with success –– to keep up with and to harness the power of social networking, which was also expanding and changing almost by the minute.

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