Executive Summary

2012 State of America's Libraries Report

As the national economy continues to struggle toward recovery from the Great Recession, 2011 was a year of grim headlines. The federal Library of Congress lost about 9% of its budget and 10% of its workforce. Detroit, a city in fiscal crisis, agonized all year over how many library branches to close. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a budget that would eliminate 268 currently vacant positions and lay off almost 300 from the library system. (After he was met by hundreds of protesters of all ages, including a group of fist-pumping preschoolers, the mayor backtracked…somewhat.) The Huffington Post took note of it all and started a series in November headlined “Libraries in Crisis.”

But there was good news as well. The Troy (Mich.) Public Library was saved from closing permanently after some 58% of voters, who had rejected two similar measures in the past few years, approved a five-year operating millage. In Los Angeles, voters in March approved by 63% a measure to increase dedicated spending for the Los Angeles Public Library system by $50 million over the next few years without raising taxes, allowing reinstated full-time hours for 73 branches.

And even some good humor emerged: The Gilpin County (Colo.) Public Library put up a roadside sign advertising “Free coffee, Internet, notary, phone, smiles, restrooms, and ideas” to all who entered.

Libraries continue to transform lives

What became clear through it all was that amid the shifting winds of an economic storm, libraries continue to transform lives, adapting to and adopting new and emerging technologies, and experimenting with innovative and transformational ideas to provide services that empower patrons. The public libraries in many major U.S. cities continue to see circulation rise, with Seattle leading the way with a whopping 50% increase in the past six years. The use of social media by libraries of all types increased dramatically, and the American Library Association (ALA), the world’s largest and most influential library association, continues to provide leadership in the transformation of libraries and library services in a dynamic and increasing global digital information environment.

The rapid growth of ebooks has stimulated increased demand for them in libraries. Nationwide, more than two-thirds of public libraries offer ebooks, and availability and use are up. But libraries only have limited access to ebooks because of restrictions placed on their use by the nation’s largest publishers. Macmillan, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster have refused to sell ebooks to libraries. HarperCollins imposed an arbitrary 26 loans per ebook license, and Penguin refused to let libraries lend its new titles at all. When Random House raised ebook prices, the ALA urged it to reconsider. “In a time of extreme financial constraint, a major price increase effectively curtails access for many libraries, and especially our communities that are hardest hit economically,” Molly Raphael, ALA president, said in a statement.

Taking the lead in the American library community, several ALA units are addressing the issue of ebooks and libraries, and of digital content more generally. An ALA-wide body, the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group, was created to develop strategy and policy, as well as provide advice to the ALA on a range of digital content issues. Sari Feldman, executive director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, and Robert Wolven, associate university librarian at Columbia University, were named co-chairs. (They have their work cut out for them. The definition of a book has expanded so much that the National Book Foundation in 2011 accepted its first interactive ebook as a submission to the National Book Awards.)

On another front, Raphael joined about 50 other invitees and steering committee members in March 2011 to discuss the scope and content of the ambitious Digital Public Library of America project. A formal two-year endeavor was launched in October to find ways to make the American cultural and scientific record available online by creating a portal to allow the public to obtain easy online access to collections held at many different institutions. Among the challenges Raphael noted was how to ensure that the voices of constituencies that were absent at the meeting — such as school librarians — would be heard.

Meanwhile, the American Library Association continues to play a leading role in the seemingly endless battle against censorship. Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the ALA and other organizations, celebrates the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted banning of books across the United States. A perennial highlight is always the Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books, compiled annually by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).

The suspect works in 2011 ranged from Lauren Myracle’s “ttyl” series to stalwarts such as Brave New World, which was published 1932 — 80 years ago! — but is still a regular on the list; from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to The Hunger Games (published in 2008 and made into a film that is now a smash box-office success).

Here’s the OIF’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books in 2011:

  • ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle 
  • The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
  • The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
  • My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  • Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
  • Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Librarians active from New Zealand to Zuccotti Park

Libraries were in the news in other ways that might have been unexpected . . . by someone unfamiliar with librarians:

  • Libraries and librarians worldwide shifted into relief mode after a series of natural disasters. Japan lost lives and libraries in a tsunami. New Zealand and Virginia endured earthquakes. Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee battered the East Coast. The ALA, other library associations, and library workers helped colleagues with funds and technical assistance.
  • More and more libraries are “going green” in both new construction and renovation.  Green roofs, solar panels, landscaping to manage storm water and other aspects of the local environment, and certification under the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program have all become more common. Geothermal well systems, which use the relatively stable temperature of the ground to heat buildings in winter and cool them in summer, are also gaining in popularity.
  • “Guerrilla libraries” sprang up in various camps of the Occupy movement, most notably in Zuccotti Park in New York City, where Occupy Wall Street protesters set up the People’s Library. By the time police cleared the park on Nov. 15, it held more than 5,500 volumes, showing that information is an essential ingredient to any community, however temporary.

Other key trends and events

  • Among the other key trends and events in the library community that are detailed in this report on the State of America’s Libraries 2012: 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 53 scholarships in 2011 to members of underrepresented groups to help them pursue master’s degrees in library science.
  • Belt-tightening at all levels of government presented school librarians with a series of challenges in 2011, and there was scant sign that the situation would improve in 2012. The budget-cutting began at the federal level in May, when the Department of Education eliminated fiscal 2011 funding for the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program, the only federal program solely for school libraries in the United States. The effects were soon felt at the state and local levels, although Senator Reed (D-R.I.) was able to get $28.6 million back into the Fund for Improvement of Education (FIE) and half of that was earmarked for libraries.
  • Academic librarians and their colleagues in higher education in the United States also continued to navigate a “new normal,” characterized by stagnating budgets, unsustainable costs, increased student enrollments, and reduced staff, and the pressure on higher education to demonstrate value took on new urgency and importance in 2011–2012.
  • U.S. libraries of all types are turning more and more to social media and Web 2.0 applications and tools, using a wide range of applications to connect with customers. Facebook and Twitter in particular have proven themselves useful tools not only in publicizing the availability of online collections, but also in building trusted relationships with users.
  • Topics such as ebooks, digital libraries, library lending models, and orphaned works were much discussed in a Washington driven by partisan politics. Little legislative action resulted. However, Internet-age versions of copyright and piracy issues shot to the fore as 2011 turned into 2012, and the acronyms SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act of 2011) became part of the vocabulary as the library and First Amendment communities took a strong stand against proponents of the legislation.
  • The American Association of School Librarians highlighted censorship awareness by designating Sept. 28, 2011, as Banned Websites Awareness Day in order to bring attention to the overly aggressive filtering of educational and social websites used by students and educators.