2012 State of America's Libraries Report

An economy still recovering from the Great Recession and stubbornly high unemployment rates continues to generate increased demand for the free and varied services libraries provide, even as many revenue-challenged state and local governments have considered libraries the low-hanging fruit at budget-cutting time.

Even the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) took a budget hit, and the Library of Congress lost nearly 10% of its workforce, offering targeted voluntary buyouts to 349 employees in response to a proposed 9% budget cut.

Despite budget pressures, or perhaps as the other side of a two-edged sword, public libraries in many major U.S. cities continue to see circulation rise. Seattle led the way with a whopping 50% increase in the past six years.

Public library usage trends in 15 cities, 2011

Public library usage trends in 15 cities, 2011
City % change in library visits
Library visits per capita
% change in circulation
per capita
Atlanta 21 4.1 35 4.6
Baltimore 25 2.8 –9 2.0
Boston –3 5.5 44 5.8
Brooklyn 13 4.9 31 8.1
Charlotte –24 3.7 –5 6.1
Chicago * 4.3 36 3.5
Columbus –14 8.3 –12 17.2
Detroit 28 6.9 * 3.6
Los Angeles –10 * 1 4.0
Philadelphia 11 4.0 12 4.7
Phoenix 2 3.0 13 9.6
Pittsburgh 16 4.8 7 7.5
Queens –9 5.7 9 9.2
San Francisco 8 8.7 46 13.2
Seattle 22 11.4 50 18

* Figure not available because table covers only top 14 in each category.
Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts, “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future, March 7, 2012.”

Americans are becoming ever more keenly aware that libraries are prime sources for free access to books, magazines, ebooks, DVDs, the Internet, and professional assistance. And “public libraries are also serving as a lifeline for people trying to adapt to challenging economic circumstances,” said Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association, “providing technology training and online resources for employment, access to government resources, continuing education, retooling for new careers, and starting a small business.”

Molly Raphael, American Library Association presidentALA President Molly Raphael

Libraries are so essential for learning and for life,” Raphael said after being inaugurated as ALA president at the 2011 Annual Conference in New Orleans. “Libraries will not just survive but will thrive when those who use and value libraries join with those who work in libraries to sustain the critical roles of libraries in our society.”

With that in mind, Raphael is concentrating her presidency on advocacy and diversity. “Why Libraries Matter: Empowering Community Voices” will focus on how librarians can engage their communities to speak out more effectively for libraries of all types—not just during times of crisis but throughout the years. The diversity initiative will build on the effort to significantly increase funding for the Spectrum Scholarship; it will also promote inclusiveness in library leadership development efforts to help make sure that the library leaders of today and tomorrow are as diverse as the communities they serve.

In addition, Raphael pledged to continue to defend vigorously intellectual freedom, the right to privacy, and open access to information.

“We must continue to be vigilant and watchful, for those who wish to restrict access to information remain unrelenting in their quest,” she said on her website. “People across this country and, indeed, around the world have witnessed the impact of ALA’s leadership in protecting intellectual freedom, privacy, and open access to information. We must continue to build coalitions with those individuals and institutions, both in the United States and globally, that believe in the fundamental right and value of the free flow of ideas and an individual’s right to privacy.”

Help for libraries and librarians in Haiti and Japan

Petit Goave Library in Haiti after 2010 earthquake.

Public library in Petit Goâve after 2010 earthquake.

Despite numerous local and national challenges and opportunities, American librarians still found time to reach out internationally. Two years after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated the already impoverished island of Haiti in 2010, the American Library Association had raised $55,000 for Haiti library reconstruction, much of which had already been dispersed to specific building projects:

  • The Bibliothèque Nationale received$20,000 for a new library in Petit-Goâve, a town that was nearly leveled by the quake.
  • The Haitian foundation FOKAL (Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty) received $10,000 to buy property for the construction of a new facility for the Centre Culturel Pyepoudre Community Library in Port-au-Prince.
  • And the Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Pères du Saint-Esprit Libraryreceived $5,000, which helped build a temporary facility to house its archives, all of which were salvaged although the building was irreparably damaged. Founded in 1873, Bibliothèque Haïtienneis the oldest library in Haiti and holds resources documenting the nation’s history.

“Our dollars are making a difference,” ALA’s Leonard Kniffel said after a visit, “but the need is so vast that we have to focus our efforts on sustainable projects that will advance the nation’s recovery from one of the largest natural disasters on record.”

The ALA and other librarian groups worldwide also responded to Japanese libraries following the almost unimaginable destruction caused by a massive 9.0 undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11, 2011. Nearly 20,000 people died, and libraries in the Tohoku region suffered the same fate as many other buildings. The Minami-Sanriku Town Library disappeared without a trace, and the chief librarian was killed. Rikuzen-Takata City sustained catastrophic damage, and all library staff there were killed or were missing. Seventy out of 355 public libraries in five prefectures are closed, and others are serving as shelters for those who have lost their homes.

The ALA set up a Japan Library Relief website to help take in donations from the United States for the Japan Library Association.

Similar efforts were begun after a huge earthquake and tsunami struck Chile on February 27, 2010; the ALA is still accepting contributions for aid to Chilean libraries through its donation website.

And at a glance . . .

  • Free speech and the freedom to read remain at the top of librarians’ agenda, and readers across the United States and around the world made their case by participating in the first-ever virtual read-out of banned and challenged books during the annual­ Banned Books Week (Sept. 24–Oct. 1, 2011).
  • Social media and Web 2.0 applications and tools continue to gain currency among librarians, who are using a wide range of methods to connect with customers. Facebook and Twitter in particular have proven themselves as useful tools not only in publicizing the availability of online collections, but also in building trusted relationships with users.
  • What color is a library? Increasingly, it’s green, as newly built and renovated library structures feature 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. 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.
  • The federal government in Washington, operating (or not) in a state of near paralysis, held extensive discussions in 2011 on such topics as ebooks, digital libraries, library lending models, and orphaned works . . . but passed relatively little legislation. But Internet-age versions of copyright and piracy issues remain at the fore as the library and First Amendment communities debate copyright-related issues.