Public Libraries

Family at library

The public values libraries’ deepening community engagement

The transformation of America’s libraries is not going unnoticed by the people they serve. A great majority of Americans “strongly value the role of public libraries in their communities, both for providing access to materials and resources and for promoting literacy and improving the overall quality of life,” according to a report issued in December 2013 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “Most Americans say they have only had positive experiences at public libraries, and value a range of library resources and services.”

An astonishing 95% of the people ages 16 and older polled in the survey said that public libraries play an important role in their communities and that the materials and resources available there “play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.” As further strong evidence that public libraries are actively engaging with the communities they serve:

  • 95% of respondents said public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading.
  • 94% said having a public library improves the quality of life in a community.
  • 81% said public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.

The survey also showed that most Americans feel that libraries have done a good job embracing new technology, though many noted that being connected to the internet means that they can find “most information” on their own.

And what would life without the public library be like? “Some 90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a ‘major’ impact,” according to the Pew report. “Asked about the personal impact of a public library closing, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families, including 29% who said it would have a major impact.”

Or as  Robinson Meyer put it in the Atlantic: “Using exclusive and highly accurate statistical analysis techniques, I [determined that] public libraries not only rank more highly in the American psyche than Congress, journalists, and President Obama, but they also trump baseball and apple pie. Public libraries are more beloved than apple pie.

A range of services elicits a range of responses

Americans strongly value library services such as access to books and media; having a quiet, safe place to spend time, read, or study; and having librarians help them find information, the Pew survey found. Other services, such as assistance finding and applying for jobs, are more important to particular groups, including those with lower levels of education or household income.

Women, African-Americans, Hispanics, adults who live in lower-income households, and adults with lower levels of educational attainment were more likely than other groups to declare all library services “very important.” Adults ages 30–64 were also more likely than younger or older respondents to say many of the services are “very important,” as were parents with minor children.

“Libraries are also particularly valued by those who are unemployed, retired, or looking for a job,” the Pew survey found, as well as the disabled and internet users who lack home access:

  • 56% of internet users without home access said public libraries’ basic technological resources (such as computers, internet, and printers) were “very important” to them and their family, compared with 33% of all respondents.
  • 49% of unemployed and retired respondents said they found librarians’ assistance in finding information to be “very important,” compared with 41% of employed respondents.
  • 47% of job seekers said help finding or applying for a job is “very important” to them and their families.
  • 40% of those who are disabled said help applying for government services is “very important,” compared with 27% of those without a disability.

Writing in Forbes, David Vinjamuri calls public libraries “dynamic, versatile community centers.” More than half of young adults and seniors living in poverty in the United States used public libraries to access the internet, find work, apply to college, secure government benefits, and learn about critical medical treatments. “For all this, public libraries cost just $42 per citizen each year to maintain,” Vinjarmuri says.

Internet gains as a way of visiting the library

More than half (54%) of Americans age 16 and older have used a public library in some way in the past 12 months, according to the Pew survey, whether by visiting in person or using a public library website. Internet traffic to public library websites is in fact increasing: 30% of Americans visited a public library website in 2013, up from 25% in 2012.

The survey also indicated that 72% of Americans live in what it considers a “library household.” Additionally, among parents with minor children living at home, 70% say that a child in the house has visited a public library or bookmobile in the past 12 months.

Taken all together, this means that 72% of all Americans ages 16 and older have either used a public library in the past 12 months or live in a household where another family member or a child is an active recent user of the library.

And for most, it has been a positive experience. Among all Americans who have ever used a public library:

  • 94% said that based on their own experiences, they would say that “public libraries are welcoming, friendly place.”
  • 91% said that they personally have never had a negative experience using a public library, either in person or online.
  • 67% said that the public library nearest to where they live could be described as a “nice, pleasant space to be”; another 22% say it’s an “okay space, but could use some improvements.”

In Kentucky, tax rulings pose a grave threat to library funding

Rulings by two county judges in Kentucky in 2013 threw into doubt funding for local libraries when they ruled that county library systems hadn’t followed the law when raising revenue through property taxes in the past 34 years.

The rulings, by Kenton County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Summe and Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward, spiked fears across the state that libraries could be in serious financial jeopardy and drew a strong reaction from the ALA. The rulings resulted from a challenge brought by members of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, according to Library Journal.

Dave Schroeder, executive director of the Kenton County Public Library system, said many counties are looking at 60%–70% cuts and that some would have to take an 80% cut in funding if the rulings stand. “If this ruling stands, it would, without a doubt, close some library systems across the state of Kentucky,” he told the Kentucky Public Library Association’s annual conference.

Jeff Mando, attorney for the Campbell County Public Library, said the effect of the rulings, if they stand, would be drastic.

“If we have to roll back the tax rates in Campbell County to the level of the rate set when the library was formed in 1978, it will go back to three cents for every $100,” he said. “The annual budget will go from $4.6 million to $1.5 million. They will have to close branches, terminate employees, [and] eliminate programs for kids and seniors.”

Officials and attorneys with the Campbell and Kenton library systems say they have followed the state’s advice for 34 years, which was that a 1979 law gave them the same authority to raise taxes as any other special district, such as a fire district. “For 34-plus years we’ve followed the advice and instructions from the state on how to set the rates, and for 34 years no one complained, not a member of the General Assembly, no one,” Mando said.

The rulings are under appeal. Campbell County won a temporary reprieve in September when a Kentucky Court of Appeals judge ruled that its tax rate can stay the same until an ongoing lawsuit winds its way through the appeals process, according to Library Journal.

Are libraries becoming scapegoats for concerns about property taxes?

The Kentucky case “may indicate that a trend is under way where public libraries are targeted as scapegoats for concerns about high property tax bills,” Maureen Sullivan, then ALA president, wrote in an op-ed that appeared in June in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“This would seem to be a rather antithetical—and draconian—solution to saving tax dollars, which are ultimately reserved to serve the state of Kentucky. For no public service meets the Kentuckians quite like the public library—a net gain that . . . far exceeds the investment,” Sullivan said.

“More than one million Kentuckians depend on their libraries for job searching, internet access, and other essential services,” Sullivan said. “In libraries throughout Kentucky and in more than 16,000 public libraries across the U.S., people find a lifeline to technology training and online resources for employment, access to government resources, continuing education, retooling for new careers, and starting a small business.

“More than ever, libraries are community hubs, operated by librarians who work to maintain a safe harbor for teens, a point of contact for the elderly, and a place to nurture lifelong learning for all,” Sullivan said.

In 2011 and 2012, for example, the Kenton County Public Library provided 7,076 programs that reached 129,069 children, both in the library as well as through outreach services and programs offered at daycare centers, community centers, early learning centers and public, private and parochial schools, Sullivan said.

If the rulings are upheld, Kentucky libraries will be forced to reimburse funds collected above the original tax rate and resume business at 1978 funding levels, decisions that would ultimately shutter the library doors, Sullivan said.

But elsewhere, libraries fare well in local funding referenda

The public’s positive feelings about their libraries often found expression at the polls: About 60% (41 of 69) of local library funding funding referenda passed in 2013, Kathy Rosa, director of the ALA Office for Research and Statistics, reports in American Libraries magazine.

Perhaps the biggest winner was the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, where a $59 million bond referendum received a whopping 66% yes votes in November. In an era when new taxes are considered anathema, Richland County homeowners bit the bullet and will see a maximum increase of $12 to $14 per year in their property taxes for a $100,000 property. The bond proceeds will be used for extensive renovations to several library buildings and will fund two new branches, Rosa reports, adding that “since 2009, the number of people visiting the library has gone up 20%, and the number of items checked out has increased 38%.”

Local library referenda also met with success in:

  • Wasilla, Alaska, where city voters passed a 1% increase in the sales tax that will raise $15 million toward funding construction of a new, 23,500-square-foot Wasilla Public Library that is to include multipurpose rooms, study rooms, a teen area, storytime space, and a business center.
  • Round Rock, Texas, where voters approved a $23.2 million bond proposition that will be used to build a 60,000-square-foot main library and an additional branch. The measure garnered 60% of the votes.
  • Tolland, Connecticut, where a “YES for a better library” campaign run by the Tolland Public Library Advisory Board, assisted by the Friends of Tolland Public Library and the Tolland Public Library Foundation, resulted in passage of a bond issue that will provide $2.6 million for a library expansion project.

Funding referenda also passed in California, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

And in Florida, in a surprise last-minute move, Miami-Dade commissioners decided in September 2013 to raid rainy-day reserves to avoid laying off 169 library workers and slashing library hours in the coming budget year. Although the action will save the jobs of employees who turned out in force at a public hearing, it has created a huge $20 million budget hole in FY2015 to fund the county’s 49 branches at the same level.

Modest increase reported in funding for state libraries

The funding picture also seemed to be improving at the state level in 2013, though the increases reported were on the modest side.

Of the 23 states reporting increases in an ALA survey of state library agencies, 10 (43%) reported gains of 1%–2%, and six reported budget increases greater than 10%. For state libraries reporting decreases—seven in all—the budget changes ranged from 1%–2% to the more than 10% decrease reported by Kansas.

The ALA’s online survey of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies included questions about public library funding on the state and local level, reductions and closures, outreach and communications, and broadband concerns. Forty-eight states responded; Ohio, Virginia, and the District of Columbia did not.

Asked about prospects for funding for state libraries in upcoming budgets, the state officers’ responses ranged from cautious to pessimistic. “Most respondents anticipated that their budget for the State Library would remain unchanged or that it was too soon to know the shape of the next year’s budget,” according to the ALA’s 2013–2014 COSLA Survey Overview. “Only two states felt that the budgets would decline in FY 2015.”

But Kentucky State Librarian Wayne Onkst probably spoke for a number of his colleagues in other states when he said that “while state funding stabilized this year, funding cuts from the previous five years continue to impact service. . . . The outlook for state funding in the future is uncertain at best.”

State library funding for local public libraries also a mixed bag

Twenty states said there had been no change in the amount of state funding for public libraries in FY2014, and 14 said that funding had increased. In FY2013, 10 of 46 states had reported decreases in direct aid to public libraries; in FY2014, only two said direct support would decrease.

For states with public libraries with increased funding, most (11 states) indicated that the level of state aid would increase by more than 10%. Montana’s state librarian commented that “direct aid for libraries quadrupled,” and in Colorado, the state librarian told us that “our state went from $0 state aid for libraries to $2 million in FY2013–2014,” according to the ALA survey.

On the other side of the equation, two states were experiencing funding decreases, and Louisiana’s direct state aid for public libraries was “eliminated entirely.” Eleven states (not including Louisiana) have no direct aid to public libraries.

“As with state aid for state libraries, most state librarians felt that funding would remain unchanged or that it was too soon to project the state of direct aid to public libraries,” the ALA report said. “Most states indicated . . . that the state library’s ability to support public libraries is unchanged. Compared to FY2013, four more states indicated that the state has been impacted positively by state budget changes, and two fewer states indicated that the state library had been hindered by budget cuts.”

Other facts gleaned from the ALA report:

  • Ten states reported public library closures, but of fewer than five libraries in each case. That figure is similar to the previous year’s report, in which 11 states reported library closures.
  • Twenty-two state librarians were aware of libraries in their state that reduced hours.
  • More than half of the respondents were concerned about public libraries statewide lacking adequate bandwidth to meet patrons’ needs.

Rural and small public libraries provide critical services and resources

The Institute of Museum and Library Services notes in a research brief (PDF) that small and rural libraries make up a significant majority (80.5%) of the public library systems in the United States.

“Rural and small public libraries provide a variety of critical services and information resources to meet the needs of residents across the United States,” the brief says.

Some highlights from the brief:

  • Although most rural libraries are small, only half of small libraries are located in rural areas.
  • States have varying levels of challenges when meeting the needs of rural residents. The percentage of rural public libraries in a given state varies widely—from 3.6% to 83.3%.
  • Small and rural libraries continue to provide substantial electronic and digital resources for patrons through access to ebooks and publicly accessible computer terminals.
  • Although per capita revenue has decreased over the past three years, visitation and circulation have increased for both small and rural libraries.

The IMLS brief contains a wealth of data on small and rural libraries. Libraries with a legal service area population of 25,000 or less were categorized as small libraries. “Rural” encompasses three zones, depending on how far the library is from an “urban cluster” or “urbanized area” (generally more than five miles from an urbanized area).

Digital Public Library of America opens access to millions of items

Conceived in 2010 by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the Digital Public Library of America, launched April 18, 2013, is a project to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge. The DPLA website encourages visitors to “browse and search DPLA’s collections by timeline, map, virtual bookshelf, and faceted search; save and share customized lists of items; explore digital exhibitions; and interact with DPLA-powered apps in the app library.”

“More impressive than the quantity of material, though, is how much thought has gone into how it’s made available,” writes Scott McLemee  in Inside Higher Ed. “DPLA is the work of people who understand that design is not just icing on the digital cake, but a significant (even decisive) factor in how we engage with content in the first place.”

Or as  Robert Darnton wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Speaking broadly, the DPLA represents the confluence of two currents that have shaped American civilization: utopianism and pragmatism.”

HathiTrust, a large-scale collaborative repository of digital content from research libraries, will partner with the DPLA to expand discovery and use of HathiTrust’s public domain and other openly available content.

The State of America's Libraries 2013