Librarian instructing two children at computer


Public libraries weather storm; school librarians under siege

Most U.S. public libraries have weathered the storm of the Great Recession, maintaining their role as a lifeline to the technological skills essential to social inclusion and full participation in the nation’s economy, according to Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2011–2012 (PLFTAS).

The outlook for school librarians, on the other hand, is much less positive. Their numbers declined more than other school staff from 2007 to 2011, with the exception of instructional coordinators and supervisors, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The total number of school librarians fell steadily each academic year from the 2006–2007 school year through 2011.

And the outlook for 2013 was plunged into further uncertainty when the federal budget cuts known as sequestration kicked in on March 1, 2013. The full effects of sequestration on libraries and their patrons will become more apparent as time passes, but some effects were already clear. The budget for the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), for example, has been cut by about 5%, which means that state programs will also be cut. And as federal aid to states shrinks, the flow of state dollars to schools—and their libraries—will also be reduced even more than they have been already.

Even the generally positive PLFTAS report underscores the competing concerns that face America’s libraries: cumulative budget cuts that threaten access to libraries and services, increasing demand for technology training, and the chronic presence of the digital divide.

Some highlights from the 2011–2012 PLFTAS, based on survey responses from 7,252 public libraries:

  • 62 percent of public libraries report that they are the only source of free public access to computers and the internet in their communities.
  • 57 percent report flat or decreased operating budgets, while 60 percent report increased use of public internet computers.
  • 76 percent offer access to ebooks, an increase of 9 percent from the previous year.
  • 39 percent provide e-readers for checkout by patrons.
  • 91 percent provide free Wi-Fi, and 74 percent report that use of Wi-Fi increased in 2011.

Even with signs of economic recovery in the United States generally, many libraries across the country continue to be faced with budget cuts, branch closings, and reduced staffing and hours, the report said. As a result, many libraries are placing increased dependence on Friends groups; however, many of these groups report that their membership is “aging out,” with most of their active members more than 65 years old, said Sally Gardner Reed, executive director of United for Libraries: Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends, and Foundations.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates that the largest cohort of volunteers in the United States overall are 48–66 years old—in other words, the Baby Boom generation. United for Libraries is working with existing Friends groups to help them restructure their volunteer opportunities to match the new requirements of a new generation of volunteers. 

As ebook reading surges, publishers and libraries seek middle ground

As ebook reading continues to surge, the library community and publishers continue trying to find equitable middle ground that will allow libraries to purchase and lend ebooks while allowing publishers to realize a fair profit.

Underlying the dialogue was a Pew Internet and American Life report published in late 2012 that showed that the proportion of all Americans age 16 and older who read ebooks had increased by half, from 16 percent to 23 percent, while the proportion of those who had read a printed book in the previous 12 months slipped from 72 percent to 67 percent.

The American Library Association met with publisher groups throughout 2012 to try to work out the copyright issues that have bedeviled the dialogue to date. This in turn led to a broader examination of the entire publishing ecosystem, including not only publishers and libraries, but also intermediaries, authors, and even literary agents. The refusal of some publishers to even sell ebooks to libraries was a painful sticking point.

“It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is ‘no good here,’” ALA President Maureen Sullivan wrote in a September 24, 2012, open letter regarding the refusal of Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin to provide access to their ebooks in U.S. libraries. “Publishers, libraries, and other entities have worked together for centuries to sustain a healthy reading ecosystem—celebrating our society’s access to the complete marketplace of ideas. Given the obvious value of libraries to publishers, it simply does not add up that any publisher would continue to lock out libraries.”

Louisiana cuts almost $1 million in state aid to libraries

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal excluded $896,000 in aid to libraries when he signed the state budget in June 2012, and legislators failed to find funding for libraries during the regular session. The governor’s chief budget aide said in a statement: “In tight budget times, we prioritized funding for health care and education. Operations such as local libraries can be supported with local, not state dollars.”

The distress felt in tiny Concordia Parish was typical. Concordia (population 20,876) formerly received $12,000 a year from the state, which it used to maintain its 52 personal computers and buy new software equipment.

“There’s no longer a food stamp office; there’s no longer a social security office,” Amanda Taylor, library director for the parish, said in the June 28, 2012, Library Journal. “In our rural parish a lot of our people have low literacy skills and very few computer skills. They come to the library because all of that has to be done online. There are some offices in some bigger areas but there’s no mass transportation and a lot of our people do not have transportation to a place that’s two hours away. . . . And almost all of the companies require you to do a job application online, even if it’s just for a truck driver who doesn’t need to be great at computer skills, so it is very important that we offer this service.”

Future maintenance costs will come out of the books and materials budget, Taylor said.

The governor of Georgia, on the other hand, announced on October 18, 2012, that the state, which had been criticized by ALA President Maureen Sullivan and others after eliminating funding for the Georgia State Archives, would provide enough funding after all to keep the archives open through June 30, 2013, and that they would be transferred to University System of Georgia on July 1.

Most state libraries manage to hold the line

The Chief Officers of State Library Agencies were surveyed in November and December 2012. The results showed that state libraries did well to hold the line from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2013:

State Library Funding Fiscal Year 2012-2013
Response Number of State Libraries* Percentage of All Responses
State funding increased 9 19.6%
State funding decreased 17 37.0%
No change 17 37.0%
Too early to know** 3 6.5%
*Georgia, Massachusetts,Rhode Island and Wisconsin did not participate.
**State aid had not yet started FY 13.
Source: ALA Office for Research and Statistics


The survey also covered direct state aid for public libraries in fiscal 2013 vs. fiscal 2012:

State Aid for Public Libraries Fiscal Year 2012-2013
Response Number of State Libraries* Percentage of All Responses
State aid increased 6 13.0%
State aid decreased 10 21.7%
No change 16 34.7%
Too early to know** 3 6.5%
No direct aid to public libraries 11 23.9%
*Georgia, Massachusetts,Rhode Island and Wisconsin did not participate.
**State aid had not yet started FY 13.
Source: ALA Office for Research and Statistics


Other facts gleaned from the 2012 survey:

  • Eleven states (23.9 percent) reported that they were aware of public library closures in their states in the past 12 months. This was about the same as the previous year, compared with 17 states in 2010. All participating states reported closures of five or fewer outlets.
  • Thirty states (65.2 percent) reported public library hours had been cut in the past 12 months due to funding cuts, compared with 82 percent the previous year.
  • Texas noted a 65 percent reduction in state funding.

The battle against censorship rages on

Librarians and other citizens continued to battle against censorship in the past year, and some of the combatants were quite young.

Amanda Wong, 17, a student at Rocklin (Calif.) High School and a member of the materials reconsideration committee, was the lone dissenter when the committee voted at the beginning of the 2012–2013 academic year to remove the Stephen King novella Different Seasons from the school library’s shelves. Wong continued to fight the ban and spoke against the decision at a later school board meeting. After hearing her concerns that the removal “opens a door to censoring other materials,” the district superintendent overturned the committee’s decision and returned the book to the library’s collection on November 2, 2012.

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom keeps track of such matters and each year puts together a list of the Top 10 Banned Books. Here’s the 2012 list, as compiled by the OIF from 464 recorded challenges:

Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books in 2012:

  • Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
  • “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie
  • “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher
  • “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E. L. James
  • “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  • “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini
  • “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green
  • Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
  • “The Glass Castle,” by Jeannette Walls
  • “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison

Daunting dilemmas yield surprising solutions

Through it all, libraries continue to adapt and sometimes amaze.

  • When a Walmart in McAllen, Texas, moved to a larger location, the city transformed the space into a 123,000-square-foot main library that the McAllen Public Library system says “may very well be the largest single-floor public library in the nation.”
  • When the Seattle Public Library closed for a budget-driven unpaid week’s furlough in August 2012, activists put together the “Seattle People’s Library” on the steps of the Douglass-Truth branch, including not just books but computers with internet access, free public Wi-Fi, music, and storytime readings.
  • The Tulsa (Okla.) City-County Library’s Central branch now has a case worker from the state’s Family and Children’s Services department on hand four hours a day, five days a week, to assist homeless and indigent visitors.
  • And where would you expect the largest culinary library in the South to be located? Right! Served up by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum as a branch of the New Orleans Public Library, the new building, scheduled to open in spring 2013, will house thousands of volumes of cookbooks, menus, recipes, archival documents, and other literature about the food and foodways of the South. The collection will not circulate but will be open to the public.

Other highlights from this report

Elsewhere in this report on The State of American’s Libraries, you will find that:

  • Public and academic librarians’ salaries remained basically flat, according to the 2012 ALA-APA Salary Survey: Librarian—Public and Academic, which shows aggregated data from 11,315 individual salaries of librarians with an ALA-accredited master’s from 618 libraries, categorized by region and state.
  • The proportion of readers who owned either a tablet computer or an ebook reading device such as a Kindle or Nook grew from 18 percent in late 2011 to 33 percent in late 2012, according to a Pew Internet and American Life report published in late 2012.
  • Even as technology marches relentlessly on and communication and marketing rely more and more on social media, “library programs continue to matter, not only for the cultural health of communities but for children gaining literacy, adults finding literacy, [and] adults finding work,” said a longtime library observer.
  • Library construction has continued apace in the past year and is becoming “greener” and more innovative all the time. The emphasis, however, shifted somewhat from new construction to renovation projects.
  • The library community debated a difficult First Amendment point: When does filtering turn into censorship? In 2012, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee addressed the issue in a major revision to its “Libraries and the Internet Toolkit (PDF).


The State of America's Libraries 2013