Executive Summary

Meeting at a library

Libraries continue role as transformative institutions

As libraries continue to transform to meet society’s changing needs, 90% of the respondents in an independent national survey said that libraries are important to the community, and 76% said that libraries are important to them and their families.

At the same time, school libraries continue to feel the combined pressures of recession-driven financial pressures and federal neglect, and school libraries in some districts and some states still face elimination or deprofessionalization of their programs.

Some of the key findings of the national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project were detailed at the 2014 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in Philadelphia in January. These included:

  • Ninety-six percent of those surveyed agreed that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading. The same number agreed because libraries provide tech resources and access to materials, and a majority view libraries as leaders in technology.
  • While the overall number of visitors to a physical library or bookmobile dropped five percentage points from 2012 to 2013, from 53% to 48%, there was an equally significant increase in the number of users of library websites. Particular increases were noted among African Americans, Hispanics, those age 16 to 29, and those with some college education.
  • More than 75% of the survey’s respondents want libraries to play an active role in public life. Seventy-seven percent want libraries to coordinate more closely with local schools in providing resources to children, and the same proportion want free early literacy programs for children. People look to libraries to help fix struggling schools and to help children learn to navigate new technologies and become critical thinkers.

An earlier Pew study, released in May 2013, showed that most parents highly value one resource for their children: libraries.

School libraries continue to bear the brunt of budget cuts

But public schools continued to struggle in 2013 with the impact of funding cuts, and for public school libraries, this means that professional staffing has been targeted for cuts nationwide. For example:

  • The  Sarasota County (Fla.) School District eliminated all high school and middle school library media specialists for the 2013–2014 school year.
  • Also in Florida, the Marion County Public Schools cut 15 of its 30 elementary-school librarian positions for 2013–2014.
  •  New York State mandates that middle and high schools of certain sizes have certified librarians, but enforcement is difficult, and the New York City Department of Education has requested permission to offer fewer librarians in schools, citing funding challenges and technology changes. Librarians are not required in New York elementary schools.
  • Recent data from the California Department of Education confirm the ratio of school library media specialists to students to be about 1:7,000.


A report (PDF) from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released in August 2013 showed that school library spending on books and audiovisual materials decreased by an average of 10.5% ($760) from 2007–2008 ($7,260) to 2010–2011 ($6,500). Part of the decrease may have reflected a shift toward the purchase of digital resources such as software and licensed databases, which accounted for an average expenditure of $2,840 during 2010–2011.

The NCES report also indicated that more than 90% of traditional public schools have a school library, while fewer than half (49%) of public charter schools have one.

ALA advocacy campaign sets goals in five critical areas

The ALA is on the forefront of efforts to shore up support for school libraries.

“On one hand, budget and testing pressures have led to decisions to eliminate or deprofessionalize school libraries,” writes Barbara K. Stripling, ALA president. “On the other hand, the increased emphasis on college and career readiness and the integration of technology have opened an unprecedented door to school librarian leadership.”

Stripling and the ALA are undertaking an advocacy campaign for school libraries that sets goals in five critical areas: literacy, inquiry, social and emotional growth, creativity and imagination, and thoughtful use of technology.

The task for school librarians, Stripling said, is to fulfill the dream that every school across the country will have an effective school library program.

With transformation, libraries deepen their engagement with their communities

The ALA has made transformation a top priority. As libraries continue to transform in 2014, they deepen engagement with their communities in many ways, addressing current social, economic, and environmental issues, often through partnerships with governments and other organizations. Moving forward from being providers of books and information, public libraries now respond to a wide range of ongoing and emerging needs.

This can include helping communities cope with the unexpected. The rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act had many public libraries struggling to keep up with the demand for public computer terminals and with requests for help in using the Healthcare.gov website. And people left homeless by Hurricane Sandy filled libraries in New York and New Jersey, using library computers to complete federal forms and communicating with loved ones using the library’s internet connections.

And through it all, libraries continue to deal with societal issues and sometimes with problems—such as homelessness—that are familiar but nonetheless seem intractable. San Francisco Public Library’s outreach program to homeless users, for example, is staffed by a full-time psychiatric social worker and includes the services of five peer counselors, all of whom were once homeless themselves. The New York Public Library is reaching out to another at-risk group through BridgeUp, an educational and antipoverty program that provides academic and social support to at-risk 8th–12th graders at NYPL branches in underserved neighborhoods.

And sometimes the word “library” stretches the traditional definition of “library.” The Lopez Island (Wash.) Library, offers musical instruments for checkout, and the Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, New York, lends out plots of land on which patrons can learn organic growing practices. (“Anyone can ‘check out’ a plot!” says the library’s website.)

Targeting readers before they are readers

Some libraries even target readers . . . before they are readers. The national organization Family Place Libraries promotes a model for transforming U.S. public libraries into “welcoming, developmentally appropriate early learning environments for very young children, their parents and caregivers.” Family Place Libraries help transform parents into first teachers, and the program addresses the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of child development “to help build a foundation for learning during the critical first years of life.”

Family Place librarians collaborate with local service providers and early childhood educators to enhance the community environment for families with very young children and to reach new and/or underserved audiences. Thus, community agencies, educators, and family services providers also benefit from having a strong community partner able to reinforce or enhance their missions, share resources, and develop cooperative services.

Begun in 1996 at the Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, New York, the program now includes some 435 libraries in 25 states.

Digital reading brings a tangle of legal issues for publishers—and libraries

The proportion of adults who read an ebook in 2013 rose to 28%, up from 23% in 2012, but “print remains the foundation of Americans’ reading habits,” a Pew survey found: More than two-thirds (69%) of Americans reported reading a book in print in 2013. More generally, 76% of adults said they had read a book in some format in 2013, and the “typical American adult” read or listened to five books in 2013.

And after years of conflict, ebook publishers and libraries made peace in 2013… sort of. The year ended with all the major publishers participating in the library ebook market, though important challenges, such as availability and prices, remain.

  • By year’s end, Macmillan had expanded its library ebook offerings to include its full ebook backlist of more than 11,000 titles.
  • Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, ran two pilot programs during the year, one with the requirement that libraries offer patrons the option to buy ebooks alongside the borrowing option and the other aimed at making 450 of its most popular children’s and young adult titles available for use in school classrooms as ebooks.
  • Penguin Book Group (USA) ended its embargo policy so that all ebook titles would be available to libraries at the same time as in the consumer market.
  • Hachette Book Group made all its ebooks available to libraries at the same time as print books.

Random House and Penguin merged in July, though without any obvious changes in their respective ebook policies, so 2013 became the first year in which all of the Big Six (now Five) publishers were engaged with library ebook lending at some level. Apple, on the other hand, continued to try to overturn a federal district court verdict it had conspired with five publishers to fix ebook prices.

The impact of all this on public library collections “is enormous and will continue to mirror the public’s infatuation with e-reader technology,” according to Jeannette Woodward, author of a number of books, including The Transformed Library: E-Books, Expertise, and Evolution (2013).

A resolution, perhaps, to the long-running Authors Guild v. Google

And Authors Guild v. Google, et al., a case that questioned the legality of Google’s searchable book database, was dismissed in 2013 by U.S. District Judge Denny Chin after eight years of litigation. The decision protects the Google database that allows the public to search more than 20 million books. In his decision, Judge Chin referenced an amicus brief submitted by the Library Copyright Alliance, which is made up of the ALA, the Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries. The Authors Guild has filed an appeal.

A victory for the visually impaired and the disabled

Finally, in September 2013, the Library of Congress announced that those who are blind, visually impaired, or have a physical disability can download audio and braille books to their i-device if they are registered with the Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Yes, there’s an app for that, available free through the Apple App Store; it allows access through local cooperating libraries to almost 50,000 books, magazines, and music scores in audio and braille formats, with new selections added daily. “It’s a library in your pocket,” said National Library Service Director Karen Keninger.

The never-ending battle against censorship

The struggle against censorship continues unabated in 2014, and the ALA remains in the front lines. For example, Banned Books Week, sponsored each year 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 of Banned Books Week is the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, compiled annually by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF); the most-challenged works in 2013 included familiar titles and some new ones. Captain Underpants and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian held onto the no. 1 and no. 2 spots that they occupied last year; Fifty Shades of Grey and Looking for Alaska are also making return appearances. Toni Morrison finished in the Top 10 again, but with a new novel (last year it was Beloved).

Here’s the OIF’s “Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books” in 2013:

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
    Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  10. Bone (series), by Jeff Smith
    Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence

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

  • Public libraries’ use of social media continues to grow. Libraries increased their level of adoption of many Web technologies, with larger libraries doing so more quickly in 2013 than small libraries.
  • Current trends in library building and renovation include open-plan space, which provides flexibility for future modifications; semi-private space, which recognizes that open-plan space may not be appropriate for every activity or suit the taste of every user; and technology-rich space, which should permeate the library and enable users to be the best learners they can.
  • The transformation of libraries in terms of outreach and diversity takes many forms, with initiatives targeting an ever-wider range of underserved populations—including those who would become librarians.
  • Libraries’ scorecard in Washington was, as usual, mixed but did have some bright spots, such as restoration of some funding to the Library Services and Technology Act—the primary source of annual funding for libraries in the federal budget—that was dramatically cut in the 2013 fiscal year under sequestration.

The State of America's Libraries 2014