October 3, 2010
It's a strange and challenging time right now for American public libraries. In the face of severe budget pressures and cutbacks, many libraries --long-cherished focal points for their communities -- have had to close their doors, cut their hours, fire staff or come up with other ways to trim costs or even raise money, all while demand for library services has climbed in this economic downturn.
Last year the Chicago Public Library, which has a budget of nearly $100 million and serves a community of about 3.5 million (not including Internet usage), was forced to implement shorter hours and lay off approximately 10 percent of its staff. "We've weathered the economy much better than many cities have," says Ruth Lednicer, director of marketing and press, "but our services are more in demand than ever. Mayor Daley's been adamant that now is not the time to hit people with new charges."
Some libraries have halted the purchase of new materials, including books, DVDs and CDs. They've also put off building upgrades and cut staff travel.
Two years ago, however, the Chicago library system did raise its daily late fees, from 10 cents to 20 cents a book, with the maximum fine for a late return doubling from $5 to $10. "We thought this would change our patrons' behavior," says Lednicer, "but we went from collecting $1.6 million a year to collecting close to $3 million."
The American Library Association recently reported that libraries in 45 states and the District of Columbia have been hard hit by "the continued erosion of local and state tax bases, in large part from the troubled housing market and declines in sales tax receipts." As a result, libraries like the Des Plaines Public Library in the Chicago suburbs have had to halt the purchase of new materials, including books, DVDs, and CDs. It's also postponed building upgrades and cut all staff travel to out-of-state workshops and conventions, according to library director Holly Sorensen. At the Patten Free Library in Maine, some staff members have lost their jobs, and in Alaska, the Anchorage Public Library has reduced its hours. Nationwide, more than half of public libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets in 2010. That's up from just over 40 percent who said the same thing in 2009.
Under Siege, But Fighting Back
In some communities, residents are now questioning whether money earmarked for libraries might be better spent elsewhere -- not something much heard in earlier decades, and definitely a sore point for many. Others are echoing the rallying cry of the website Losing Libraries, which charts libraries in peril: "Closing a library in a recession is like closing a hospital during the plague." The site features a map of the U.S. with markers showing in vivid, devastating color wherever a library has been lost.
All of which raises the question: Are libraries as we know them obsolete? According to, Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association, the traditional library "is changing dramatically, but that would happen whether or not there was a budget crisis, because of technological advances and the response to community needs."
Those needs are being driven by a struggling economy. People who once bought books and rented DVDs are increasingly getting them for free from their local library. Parents are bringing their children to free library programs as an alternative to paying for pricey movies. Other people are flooding into libraries to take advantage of their computer services and other technological offerings.
"A lot of us are seeing budget cuts at a time when more and more people are coming in with serious information needs," says Caplan. "People who have lost jobs need help with resumes. In many cases, they must apply online for jobs, and many patrons don't have computers at home, or they can't afford Internet service. Others don't even know how to use a computer, so we're teaching computer skills as well."
Some libraries have been experimenting with value-added services. Last spring, the Cuyahola County Public Library system in Ohio began offering passport processing , a service which may add as much as $100,000 to the library's annual revenue. The library charges a per-person fee of $25, the same as what's charged by the postal service.
Other budget-stressed libraries are charging nonresident patrons to check out materials. This November, residents of the Tolono and Mahomet library districts in central Illinois will have to cough up an annual fee of $200 to borrow items from the Champaign Public Library. Some libraries are also participating in a pilot program inaugurated by Library Ideas, a company that markets media products to libraries, in association with the DVD-rental company Redbox. The program places Redbox's kiosks outside the library.
"I've been in libraries for 17 years, and this is the toughest time I've seen," says Brian Downing, president of Library Ideas. "Libraries have to buy DVDS, they have to get them into their inventory and on the shelf, and then they have to have the labor to manage the transactions. Any activity at the library costs money. This is a way to help meet demand and save money."
The Paseo Verde Library in Nevada's Henderson County participates in the program. "We're experiencing all the recession issues," says Tom Fay, executive director of the Henderson Library system. "Since 2000, we've seen a loss of $2 million in a $9.5 million budget. [The pilot program] gives our libraries more flexibility to maintain services instead of cutting them."
In a revenue-sharing arrangement with Redbox, the library gets about 3 percent of each transaction, says Fay. "We may make $2,000 on the kiosks. That money goes back into buying more videos."
On the Academic Side of Life
The economy is also impacting academic and research libraries. "Our fates are very much tied to the states," said Lisa Janicke Hinchiffe, president of the Association of College and Resource Libraries. "State institutions rely to a certain degree on public and state funding, research institutions rely on grant funding, and private institutions are very tuition dependent."
Hinchiffe notes the inflationary costs of library materials. "The increases publishers are charging, particularly when you look at scholarly journals, have outpaced inflation. The same dollar buys even less when the price goes up more."
What all libraries have in common is the need to reinvent themselves to remain viable and vital. Those who claim that the traditional library is a dinosaur in this digital age should check out Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass. This September, the library at this private co-ed preparatory school will complete its two-year process of going completely digital. It's saying goodbye to its collection of more than 20,000 books (print materials are still used in classrooms).
"Our students don't share our generation's nostalgia for the printed book," says Cushing headmaster James Tracy. "They inhabit a 21st century world 18 hours a day. Too often we as educators force them into what is really a 19th century classroom for six hours a day."
The school, Tracy says, has spent about $500,000 on the digital transition. "We want to prepare our students optimally for going to the major universities. We thought it was worth a net cost to us to prepare them with better resources. As an affluent school, we can afford to be experimental and that's one of the things that make us want to be an incubator for public schools and less well-funded schools. After that initial cost, we're now spending what we used to spend per year. But instead of buying printed materials, we're buying databases."