Libraries and the recession

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Tax revenues plunge, and libraries feel the pain

The worst recession since the 1930s has caused the steepest decline in state tax receipts on record, with obvious implications for public, school, and academic libraries.

Even after making deep cuts, states continue to face large budget gaps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. New shortfalls have opened up in the budgets of at least 41 states for fiscal 2010, which began July 1, 2009, in most states. Initial indications are that states will face shortfalls as big as or bigger than they faced this year in fiscal 2011, according to the center, and states will continue to struggle to find the revenue needed to support critical public services for a number of years

In fact, when the ALA surveyed members of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies in November 2009, the public-library funding landscape continued to look bleak. Of states reporting decreases in local funding to public libraries, the majority were in the 5-10 percent range. Seventeen respondents reported they believed a majority of libraries in their states had sustained cuts in local funding in fiscal 2010, compared with fiscal 2009, while only two reported that a majority of libraries in their state had received funding increases.

State libraries also reported that state funding, usually in the form of state aid packages, had also declined. Twenty-four respondents reported cuts in state funding for public libraries from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010, 11 states reported that there had been no change, and three reported an increase in funding. Seven states and the District of Columbia do not provide state funding.

“As the economy has worsened . . . people are coming to libraries to look for jobs, they’re coming to libraries to access government services and government assistance, and they’re coming to libraries because libraries are a great deal for people that are trying to stretch a dollar,” ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels said in AL Focus in May. “So we have a situation nationally where we’re seeing library usage increasing 10 percent, 20 percent, in some instances almost 30 percent, while at the same time, library budgets are threatened and library budgets in some instances are being reduced.

“At this point, this is the dilemma we face—libraries are being more heavily used than ever,” Fiels said. “At the same time, library budgets are more threatened than ever.”

The 2009 national survey of public libraries ( Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study) also found a significant increase in the number of libraries reporting a decrease in the hours they are available to serve their communities. Nearly one quarter of urban libraries and 14.5 percent of all libraries (up from 4.5 percent the previous year) reported that their operating hours had decreased since the previous fiscal year. Nationally, this translates to lost hours at more than 2,400 public library branches.

As one South Florida man discovered, canceling his home Internet access and taking advantage of the free Internet service offered at his local public library could save his family over $700 a year, according to an article in the Huffington Post.

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School literacy grant program eliminated in new federal budget

In what one writer called “a slap in the face to school librarians,” the Obama administration, in its fiscal 2011 budget proposal, eliminated the Improving Literacy for School Libraries grant program, which was designed to boost academic achievement by providing students with access to up-to-date school library materials.

Although the budget includes $400 billion for education, it makes no mention of federal funds specifically geared toward school libraries.

The president “is proposing to take away the last access to literacy for these kids in high-poverty areas,” Cassandra Barnett, president of the American Association of School Librarians, said. The program, which the AASL says has been shown to be effective in raising literacy levels in poorer schools, was funded at $19.1 million in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2008, and $19.5 million in fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2007.


Public library budgets squeezed at state and local levels

The financial woes that are constricting state budgets nationwide loom large over local library systems as they face the threat of devastating reductions in services, according to a September roundup in American Libraries magazine. While in most cases the cuts, which would include closures and mass layoffs, have yet to be implemented, the final resolutions of the budgeting processes are likely to unfold in unexpected ways as fiscal 2010 wears on. Ohio, for example, was facing a reduction in library funding of as much as 25–30 percent compared with the previous year.

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Libraries as sources of information and help

At least 90 percent of public libraries now offer formal training or information-technology assistance in using computers and online resources, a service that has gained prominence as the media have reported on the surge of job-seekers and others who are turning to libraries for help. In fact, 22 percent more public libraries reported that providing services for job-seekers is critical to their role (65.9 percent in 2008-09, compared with 44 percent in 2006-07). Despite American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, particularly around public access computing centers, lost tax revenue and subsequent cuts in government services are translating into staff layoffs and reduced hours of service, just when libraries are needed most.

In an indication of the extent to which libraries became involved in helping the public through the recession, ALA Editions in late summer 2009 released Crisis in Employment: A Librarian’s Guide to Helping Job Seekers, by Jane Jerrard, which offers advice and methods for providing appropriate training and education to job-seekers.


Top three worries at academic libraries all center on budget

According to more than 2,400 academic and research librarians surveyed by the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the ALA, in May 2009, managing funding constraints and budget cuts and demonstrating return on investment are the leading issues facing academic and research librarians. Respondents indicated that shrinking budgets affect everything—from staff to collections, equipment, and facilities. One respondent indicated that “budget cuts have created a culture of fear at my institution,” while another commented that “budget cuts/hiring freezes have resulted in an inability to pursue desired projects/materials due to lack of funds, and more work for us as vacancies are not filled.”

According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) studies, academic library expenditures increased 26 percent from 2000 to 2008, and salaries and collections expenditures represented 87 percent of total library expenditures during this period.

“Acquisitions budgets are taking a big hit this year, too, along with staff and operations,” Charles Lowry, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in November.

In an effort to cut costs and consolidate services, many research universities closed small special branch libraries. The University of Washington closed several libraries early in the year. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology closed two special science branches. The University of Iowa announced that closing its mathematics, psychology, geoscience, and physics libraries would save about $1 million a year. And the University of California at Los Angeles was considering closing its art library

As ALA Executive Director Fiels commented on AL Focus: “Libraries provide essential services but they don’t always receive the recognition for the essential services that they provide. We’re an essential part of education, we’re an important part of our democracy, and a driving force in the economy. Unfortunately, when it comes time to cut budgets, often libraries are first to be cut.”

Research universities have responded to budget pressure with resourcefulness and imagination. More than 40 percent of academic libraries are willing to consider offering print-on-demand services for their digital titles to generate non-traditional sources of revenue, according to a recent survey. At the same time, academic libraries continue to tackle the challenges of e-books, including multiple platforms, rights restrictions, delays in publication, and high costs. Thirty-five percent of academic libraries have active digitization projects, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. George Washington University has begun experimenting with robotic book digitization.

The Mellon Foundation awarded a planning grant to a West Coast academic library consortium to explore the idea of a “shared print repository infrastructure“ serving the Western region of the country, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in November 2009. Cornell University and Columbia University also received a Mellon Foundation grant for “2CUL” (pronounced, “too cool”), a partnership in collaborative collection development, acquisitions, and processing designed to improve quality and eliminate redundancies.

The ALA Office for Library Advocacy released a Web-based toolkit, “ Advocating in a Tough Economy,”designed to help library advocates make the case for libraries during times of economic downturn. The ALA and its divisions also released toolkits specific to public libraries, school libraries, academic libraries, and youth services.

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The year in headlines

The following headlines from 2009—chosen from among hundreds of possibilities—bear witness to the slumping economy and the effect it had on libraries, large and small:

  • " Recession has many running for the library" (CNN/KCAL-TV, Los Angeles, Feb. 11, 2009);
  • “Gov. Perdue Announces Library-Based ‘JobSearch Help Desk’” (Office of [North Carolina] Gov. Bev Perdue, Press Release, Feb. 13, 2009;
  • “Downturn puts new stresses on libraries” ( New York Times, April 1, 2009);
  • “Economy pits Clearwater budget vs. library fans” ( St. Petersburg [Fla.] Times, Sunday, April 19, 2009);
  • “Libraries, municipal arts agencies are hit in L.A. budget proposals” (Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2009);
  • “Job seekers without Internet access stretch libraries’ computers” (The Oregonian, May 21, 2009);
  • “Budget cuts put brakes on Medina Library’s Bookmobile.” (, posted Aug. 23, 2009);
  • “Lexington Public Library to cut budget” ( Lexington [Ky.] Herald-Leader, Sept. 10, 2009);
  • “Library to close for 10 days after holidays; Declining property tax revenue prompts Sonoma County [Calif.] to shut all 13 library branches from 2 p.m. Dec. 24 until Jan. 4” ( The Press Democrat, Nov. 4, 2009);
  • “State slashes library funds. MIDYEAR BUDGET CUTS: North country facilities likely to lose $40,000” ( Watertown Daily Times, Dec. 6, 2009);

On the other hand . . .

  • “Library funding saved” ( St. Augustine [Fla.] Record, May 4, 2009);
  • “City to [use federal stimulus funds to] cool down library” ( Galveston (Tex.) Daily News, June 27, 2009);
  • “Calcasieu Parish (La.) overwhelmingly renews library tax” (American Libraries Online, posted May 4, 2009);
  • “Brooklyn public libraries to open on Sundays, return to a seven-day schedule” ( New York Daily News, Sept, 16, 2009);
  • “Speaker Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg Announce Budget Agreement [maintaining city-wide, six-day library service]” Office of Communications, Council of the City of New York, June 15, 2009);

Even in dark days, humor shines through

Jeremy Aldrich reported from the Shenandoah Valley that budget cuts meant that the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg, Va., would only be open for “five frenzied minutes” a week. Library director Susan Stimley is reported to have said that said the library board had to choose between being open for five minutes a week or for one hour every 12 weeks, and that since books are only checked out for two weeks at a time, the choice was obvious. Furthermore, use of the library’s computers would be limited to one minute per patron per visit, and Children’s Story Hour would be replaced with a hastily recited nursery rhyme.

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