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A ‘perfect storm’ of growing demand and shrinking resources

As one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression maintained its steely grip on the economy, Americans have continued to turn to their libraries in increasing numbers in the past year for access to resources for employment, continuing education, and government services. The local library, a traditional source of free access to books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs, also became a lifeline, offering technology training and workshops on a wide range of topics, from résumé-writing to job-searching and interviewing skills.

With more than 16,600 locations serving people of all ages in communities of all sizes, the nation’s public libraries have a wide reach and a vital mission to connect people with the resources they need. As early in the recession as January 2009, KRC Research, a national firm, found that more than 25 million Americans reported using their public library more than 20 times in the past year, an increase of 23 percent from 2006—a trend that persisted through the rest of the year.

Seventy-one percent of the respondents in the 2009-10 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study report that they’ve also witnessed increased use of the library’s wireless Internet access. More than 82 percent of public libraries currently offer wireless access, up from 76 percent the previous year. Similarly, close to half (45.6 percent) of all public libraries reported increased use of their electronic resources (which encompass a range of Internet-based services, including jobs databases, online test preparation services, investment tools, reference sources, and downloadable books and audio), and more than one-quarter reported increased use of patron technology training classes.

Research conducted by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland suggest a “perfect storm” of growing community demand for library services and shrinking resources to meet that demand. The study found:

  • More people are relying on public libraries for technology use, particularly to find employment and connect to online government services, which are now often available on line.
  • Almost all public libraries support job-seeking with specialized electronic resources, software, and assistance from library staff.
  • A majority of states report cuts in state funding to public libraries and to the state library agencies that support libraries and statewide library programs.
  • The top challenge affecting public libraries’ ability to help job-seekers is a lack of adequate staff.
  • Almost 15 percent of public libraries report operating hours decreased from the prior year.


State and local libraries face growing funding challenges

But as demand for critical library services has increased, many state and local libraries are facing growing funding challenges. As part of the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, the ALA surveyed the 51 members of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (50 states and the District of Columbia) in November 2009. Some results:

  • Twenty-four states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010. Of these, nearly half indicated that the cuts were greater than 11 percent—almost four times the number that reported this was the case in the previous fiscal year. Also:
  • Seven states and the District of Columbia do not provide state funding.
  • Eleven states reported there had been no change from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010.
  • Three states reported an increase in funding.

For many states, fiscal 2010 cuts come on top of state funding cuts made from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009. In January 2009, 41 percent of responding states reported declining state funding for public libraries. Georgia, for instance, has seen state funding reductions of more than 7 percent each year for the past three fiscal years.

Cuts at the state level frequently were compounded by cuts at the local level and cuts in the state library agency budget. When considering current local funding to public libraries, a majority of state libraries reporting decreases noted that they were in the five-to-ten percent range. Seventeen states reported that they believed a majority of libraries in their states had received less funding in fiscal 2010 than in the prior fiscal year.

Case in point: Washoe County (Nev.) Public Library, which has lost nearly 40 percent of its operating budget over the past two fiscal years. The county is reporting declines in property and sales taxes, and the Nevada State Library and Archives reports state funding decreases of more than 11 percent in each of the past two fiscal years. As a result, Washoe County Public Library has cut its operating hours 25 percent, and staffing was cut by 30 percent.

Nor is the Nevada State Library unique: Almost three-fourths of state library agencies reported reductions in their budget.

The 2009 national survey of public libraries also found a significant increase in the number of libraries reporting that they are open fewer hours each week. Nearly one-fourth of urban libraries and 14.5 percent of all libraries (up from 4.5 percent the prior year) reported that operating hours had decreased since the previous fiscal year. Nationally, this translates to lost hours at more than 2,400 public library branches, and the trend will probably continue unless funding is restored or new funds are identified

(See next section, “ Libraries and the Recession.”)

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Americans value libraries of all sorts

Regardless of the recession, the value of libraries to American households is unquestioned. The survey conducted by KRC Research found that:

  • More than 217 million Americans agree or strongly agree that the public library improves the quality of life in their community, an increase from 209.8 million reported in 2006. The number continued to rise: In a January 2010 Harris Poll survey, 219 million reported they agree.
  • More than 222 million Americans agree or strongly agree that because it provides free access to materials and resources, the public library plays an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed. This was an increase from 216.6 million reported in 2006 and was, once again, confirmed in the January 2010 Harris Poll survey, when 223.7 million Americans reported they agree.

For their part, school libraries received a solid “A” in these categories, according to the study:

  • School library programs are an essential part of the education experience because they provide resources to students and teachers—97 percent of Americans (224.5 million people) agreed.
  • School libraries are important because they give every child the opportunity to read and learn—96 percent of Americans (222 million people) agreed.
  • School library programs are a good value for the tax dollar—92 percent of Americans (213 million people) agreed.

When asked about academic libraries, 95 percent of Americans (220 million people) agreed that college and research libraries are an essential part of the learning community, and 97 percent (224.5 million people) agreed that college and research libraries connect users with a world of knowledge.


Job-seeking takes center stage—and is often done on line

With more businesses—including most of America’s leading retailers—requiring applicants to apply on line, job-seeking resources are among the most critical and most in demand among the technology resources available in U.S. public libraries. Two-thirds of public libraries help patrons complete online job applications; provide access to job databases and other online resources (88 percent) and civil service exam materials (75 percent); and offer software or other resources (69 percent) to help patrons create resumes and other employment materials. Forty-two percent of urban libraries report offering classes related to job-seeking, and about 27 percent collaborate with outside agencies or individuals to help patrons complete online job applications

As with business, so with government. Many government agencies are eliminating print forms and even closing satellite offices, and public libraries find themselves connecting more and more people with essential government resources. Continuing a trend begun with the 2006-2007 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, libraries report providing an increased range of e-government services for patrons. Almost 79 percent of public libraries report providing assistance to patrons applying for or accessing e-government services, a 23 percent increase from the prior year. Two-thirds of public libraries provide assistance to patrons completing government forms; and one in five is partnering with other agencies to provide e-government services, half again as many as a year before.

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Help for both the workforce and small businesses

 Libraries continue to support workforce development, small business creation, life-long education, and access to government resources. The ALA filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission in December 2009 on the importance of public-access computers and broadband access in libraries; the filing was in response to an FCC call for comments regarding the relationship between economic development and broadband. 

A few of the major points in the ALA comments:

  • Public libraries serve as community hubs, playing a key role in creating and supporting economic opportunity. Library services commonly include job training and continuing education, résumé-writing, career counseling, and basic information literacy training, including digital literacy; these services usually require access to robust broadband.
  • While libraries serve the information needs of the public, many in effect also operate as a small businesses—and as such have broadband needs that are unique when compared with those of other types of small businesses.
  • Libraries are critical institutions in supporting regional economic development. Libraries that partner with local or state economic development agencies greatly increase the reach and impact of these agencies’ efforts. At the same time, libraries are reducing the operation costs and broadening the outreach of other local workforce development agencies, contributing to a stronger community network for job readiness and worker “retooling.”
  • Information literacy skills are critical to navigating online social benefit forms. Many libraries report that the official websites and the forms required for government services are often so complex that many patrons cannot successfully complete an application. This problem is probably exacerbated in vulnerable populations that may be accessing the Internet for the first time when filing for social services.
  • Librarians are experts in search technique and know that with the move to online resources, individuals seeking employment, business information, and skills training may need added assistance. Specific populations, such as people recently laid off from long-term employment, non–native English speakers, the older workforce, and new graduates often need targeted support. Libraries not only provide access to federally supported job training and placement programs, they are also creating locally relevant employment services, often in conjunction with local or regional employment and workforce development agencies.


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