U.S. Public Libraries Weather the Storm

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and the woman seated next to you on the plane could smoke her Virginia Slims all the way from Chicago to L.A., libraries were fully-funded and considered an essential for every community. Then came the financial crash, and the slash-and-burn began for library budgets. The American Library Association's handy infographic shows the impact that library budget cuts have on the communities they serve—and shows how libraries are weathering the storm.

Weathering the Storm

Read the 2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access study, produced by the ALA and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

— Judy Hoffman, Office for Research & Statistics, American Library Association


  1. My wife works at our small local library and I’m amazed at how little the local populace utilizes it. They have reading classes for children, computers, wifi, dvds as well as the obligatory books and magazines. Yet there are still days when the number of visiting patrons are in the single digits. Libraries have so much to offer and so few people take advantage of them.

    1.  Which is why we don’t vote to support them.
       I hear the hype about how important they are – but if the services are SO important, why are they so underused ?
      It’s pretty easy – the people who don’t have access to the resources a library provides also don’t have time nor reliable transportation.
       It’s not as easy “fund the libraries”.
      Even the well funded libraries are underused.
       It’s nice to say “Help the community” but if you build it and they don’t come…

      1.  Please let me forcefully state that mikedt’s wife’s library is not representative of the entire public library field.  I manage a branch in a large urban system, and our typical usage is 250 visitors per day; up to 400 on a very busy day; and just under 200 people on a slow day.  We’re only open 8 hours per day, and typically have only 2-3 library staff on hand to help kids find books for homework, help old ladies get their James Patterson fix, help the occasional college student begin her research, etc. etc.  Yes, there are a couple of slow hours in the week here and there – that’s when we reshelve the messes people made of the book/music/DVD collections.  We’re never NOT working.  I think the only business within 3 miles of us to see more people in a day is the 7-11, and they are not constantly updating all of the contact info for half of their customers, or helping them find each and every item on the shelves.

        Now here’s the clincher: I run the *slowest* branch on the whole northside of the city.  Branches on the lakefront and in yuppier/hipstery neighborhoods clock 2000 people per 8 hour day.  Instead of 2-3 library staff, they might have 3-4 on hand.  (I don’t even bother mentioning our central library’s usage, because that place is not understaffed so much.)

        1. Yep. I used to use the nearest public library in my city as the only source of internet at one point in my life and can vouch for the fact that it was always crowded as hell at the computers. I used it occasionally when I was in schoool too for books that were both locked up in the university library and too expensive to buy. Sometimes they have them actually.

      2. My city’s libraries get 12 million visitors a year, more than any other kind of institution does.

  2. I hate to be *that guy* (no I don’t) but until the early 1990’s, the libraries WERE Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, the interwebs. There were no kindles, mp3s and vast swathes of pdfs.  The needs and modes of information gathering and retrieval have shifted fundamentally away from hard copy, and libraries are not anywhere near as essential as they once were.  They are useful for some things, like on the infographic, as media centers that purvey information & services par-excellence over and above the normal person’s Internet capabilities.  But as places you just go to read a newspaper or a magazine or check out a book and hang out for the afternoon, they are an anachronism.  Not saying they’re obsolete.  But in the form they once were, yes, that time has passed.

    1. Well, I think they are working hard to make a digital transition though. In Chicago they are still providing a place for kids to do homework, people to get books, etc. but they are also providing internet services, as well as completely on-line rentals of ebooks and books on tape (well, books on mp3 or something, I guess).

      I think they also help people learn a way of understanding how information is organized other than the google results screen. That is valuable.

      1. True, and I also should add that there is NOTHING like a special collections.  Once I went into a college library and saw on a board, “New: pages from 12th c. illuminated manuscript.”  I was like, “Whoa, what?”  So the librarian just said, “Wanna see them?”  I said, “Whoa, really?”  She goes, “Sure, put these on.” (white gloves)  She brings a cart over and I flipped through a book full of various illuminated manuscript pages from the 12th century.  They were the most beautiful things on paper that I have ever held. Details that shimmered in gold, with birds and calligraphy and tendrils and tender loving care. Holy shit, that was cool.  So, there are some things online can never be.  And public libraries aren’t like this, except maybe Presidential libraries and the library of Congress.

          1. With limited privileges though. Great for research or viewing, not if you want to take something home.

          2. Wait, really? I thought most of them were limited to students/faculty. Was I wrong about this? Huh… I wonder if I can go visit the MIT library after work…

          3.  @ChicagoD:disqus Yes, limited privileges, because these libraries are intended for students, not the public. Students pay tuition and fees, and the college or university pays for the library out of its operating budget.

            Some college libraries have sharing agreements with their local library system, where borrowing privileges go both ways – a college library card allows public library access, a public library card allows college library access.

          4. @ChicagoD:disqus Depends on the University. Most public universities I know of do allow some public checkout of materials, given that they are partially funded through public tax dollars.

      2.  Well said D, and there are a ton of other interesting amenities and services that most people wouldn’t expect.  I’m thinking in particular of the piano practice and choral recording rooms at Harold Washington for example.  I remember reading that a guy recorded an album just by using these sound rooms from time to time.

    2.  You haven’t actually been to a library in the last four years have you? The specialized databases that your library has access to that you as a person could never afford dwarfs your entire “Ain’t they cuuuute” post.

    3.  Everyone (who doesn’t use the public library) keeps saying that, and yet our circulation of physical items – books, CDs, DVDs, comics – goes up and up every year.  From 46,000 items at my branch in 2008, to 64,000 items in 2011.  In that same period I went from having 12 hands on staff, to 5. 

      It’s so easy to proclaim that society has moved beyond, because you yourself have.  But the reality is that we live in a hyperliterate, multiliterate society now: more people who can read, more formats that they are reading in.  Boomers are retiring in massive numbers and have leisure time to kill; the next generation of kids (Gen Y or whatever) read more books than the previous generation.  “You know nothing, Jon Snow!”

      1. Society certainly has moved beyond what libraries once were: huge edifices with stacks and stacks of books, a copy machine with a slot for dimes, signs that say “quiet” and the nice lady who will help you find your book because the Dewey decimal system is inscrutable.  Things are totally different now.

        Because needs have changed.  The form and function of libraries has changed.  Perhaps this lamentation that funding has also has changed is a reflection of these other changes.  Perhaps the funding changes are extreme in some cases, but shrinking budgets are a reality all municipalities are facing now, especially when much of a library’s formerly manual labor functions have been replaced by computers. 

        I’m saying that perhaps it is correct in many cases that municipalities have shrunk their library budgets to make ends meet, due to all the other demands on budgets.  I can’t agree that any funding cuts at all to libraries are an affront to society.

        1. Nothing about how books are going into decline, because society has gone paperless? I’m a tad disappointed here.

          1.  Going paperless is like replacing all the locks on your house with hotel style card readers.  It is a change that is just useless  (Audio books, though, make sense.)

          2. I was being sarcastic. Nationwide, library use continues to increase, just as print publication continues to increase. “Society” may expect somewhat different services and resources from libraries, but there will always be a need for books. I seem to remember a  lot of goodwill toward the free mobile libraries that served the Occupy Wall Street movement last year. It’s weird and sad to hear so many people on BoingBoing complaining about paying for local public libraries.

    4. It is true that there is a much wider variety of information available to people  from a variety of sources today, but a lot of the information and access to it still costs money. That creates an information divide that libraries have been striving to bridge for many years now.  If you lose your job and can no longer pay a monthly internet bill, where will you go to file for unemployment and submit online resumes? If you need to repair your car in order to get to work but cannot afford the manual or a subscription to Chilton’s online where do you go? If you are a kid just getting into Sci-Fi but cannot afford a book or downloadable edition, where do you go.

      Of course this just addresses those with money and access issues. You correctly point out that people without those issues may not have as much of an incentive to use the library anymore. This is why libraries are changing focus, offering classes in sorting through the vast swaths of information available, teaching how to evaluate sources. And also becoming places where people can create information rather than just consume it. Did you know libraries are adding audio and video labs, makerspaces and more?

      Check out a few examples and then tell me again how anachronistic they are:
      http://www.tcpl.lib.in.us/theportal (personal plug)

    5.  I think the demographic of whom libraries are essential has change over the last couple of decades. I used to go to the library 1-2 times per week to read magazines and check out at least 4 books/month, but now the web and ebooks have made it so I use it less than once per month. But when I do go in, I see lots of people there, many using it for the free wifi and training, and their collections of kids books.

    6. Excerpt from a long letter in which The Chicago Public Library Commissioner utterly destroys a reporter and her “Do we really need libraries?” hit piece on our local Fox News:

      Last year, Chicagoans checked out nearly 10 million items from the Chicago Public Library’s 74 locations and the majority of those items were books. (Your ‘undercover camera” shots were taken in a series of stacks devoted to bound periodicals used for reference. Next time, try looking at the circulating collections throughout the building.) Especially in times of economic downturn, smart people turn to the public library as their free resource for books, information and entertainment in multiple formats – print, online, in person.

      And yes, we proudly provide free access to the internet because so much information today is found online, something you should know from your own work. In fact, the Chicago Public Library provided 3.8 million free one hour Internet sessions to the people of Chicago in 2009. The Internet has made public libraries more relevant, not less as your story suggests. There continues to exist in this country a vast digital divide. It exists along lines of race and class and is only bridged consistently and equitably through the free access provided by the Chicago Public Library and all public libraries in this nation. Some 60 percent of the individuals who use public computers at Chicago’s libraries are searching for and applying for jobs. We’re proud to continue to be able to use our resources to help them do so.


  3. Many have become ghost towns or homeless shelters (seemingly) but when I moved to Mobile, AL, I was amazed at how busy the library here is. And it’s very nice. If it’s hurting for money, you don’t easily see it. But they also do some things I’d never seen before: charging for new release DVDs and even recently-released “best seller” books. I’m serious; there’s a rental fee. At first, I thought this a little sad, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. And by making their DVD selection better than the now defunct video chains (there are HUNDREDS of titles), they see an actual demand for the product. It’s not an outrageous fee either (you can rent an entire season of show for a buck and keep it for a week).

    1. My library system (where I work) offers recent best-sellers for a rental fee. But the thing to note is that the rental system is a self-supporting venture.  The rental fees pay for additional copies of those bestsellers. This allows the library to buy more copies than they would have otherwise. The library still buys just as many non-rental copies that have no fees associated as they would have without the system. It’s just that there’s now an option for those people who don’t want to wait and don’t mind paying $4.

      1. I take frequent advantage of movies from the library. Embarrassingly, I once handed the librarian my Blockbuster card by mistake.

        1. Since the librarians at my local library seem to spend all their time checking out DVDs for clueless people, that seems perfectly reasonable.

        2. Last time I was at mine, I tried checking out a book with my credit card.  :/  It was Amazon’s credit card, too.  Ironic?

  4. This is one of the most terrible infographics that I have ever seen! Whatever it was trying to convince me of was lost deep in a sea of chart junk. Never mind trying to persuade anyone — who can make sense of all the disparate pieces of discrete information? This does a real disservice to the critical needs of libraries.

    Graphic designers: please go back and re-read Edward Tufte. Please quit designing for your own eyes–you are just giving ammo to those who oppose you.

    1. Edward, please don’t include a link to your website in your comments.  That should go on your profile page.

      1. “That should go on your profile page.”

        Another good & reasonable boingboing policy largely broken by the unfortunate decision to go with Disqus; that switch just looks like a worse decision every day, doesn’t it?

  5. I’d like to take this rare opportunity to brag on something in Alabama. Hoover Public Library: 
    http://hooverlibrary.smugmug.com/  http://www.hooverlibrary.org/about

    It has 1.6 million books in circulation, events for kids, a fully provisioned theatre, and, should you want it, a coffee shop. The science fiction section has its own room.

    Libraries are absolutely, positively not obsolete. They’re the highlight of the community. I live near Hoover rather than in it, and I recently voted for Mayor of my own town based on how committed the candidates were to constructing a larger local library.

    EDIT: Hey, Cullan Hudson beat me to it with another Alabama library! Reprazent!

    1. I live in Shelby Co, and pay the 50 dollar fee for out of county residents just to use the Hoover Library—well worth it. They also have a great audio selection both music and AudioBooks.
      In the past some of the Sci-Fi groups and gaming groups used to met there.
      Ahh..they still do Sci-Fi events with a Star Wars day.
      and a “geek day”.
      Which looks pretty cool, almost like free to the pubic “mini-con”.

  6. As great as it is for libraries to acknowledge how well they’re adapting one thing that always concerns me about the proclamations of “We’re able to do more with less” is that it can be used as an excuse by administrators to cut library funding.

    I know that in universities, colleges, and even cities there are high level people who look at libraries as a black hole that takes in funds and gives nothing in return. Saying “Libraries are doing fine in spite of budget cuts” gives people who see libraries as nothing more than a luxury an excuse to say, “Fine, so another round of budget cuts won’t hurt.” And there are library administrators who don’t challenge that view, who say, “Cut away, and we’ll adapt.”

    Instead of saying “Libraries can do more with less” they should be saying, “Libraries already do so much. Think how much more we could offer if you weren’t insisting we keep our budget flat or cutting it by 3-5% every year.”

  7. I run the Adult services desk at the main branch of small system near DC. To all of the people who consider library obsolete: I offer that not everyone in America is a privileged yuppie who grew up with parents buying them a new PC every two yeas who now reads tech blogs in his iPad.

    We serve lots of people from lots of socio-economic backgrounds. And for the record we offer thousands of ebooks and eaudiobook for instant download direct to your device, so don’t patronize us with your “ain’t you quaint” attitude.

  8. I attended a ‘Friends of the Library’ sale for the first time this spring.  The turnout of people who showed up at that sale was amazing; people were walking out with box loads of books.  Inside, the wealth of hard and soft-back books, children’s books and vintage books was heartwarming.  Our community is generous when it comes to donating to the library.

    I’ve assumed that the money from the sales has gone to bridge any shortfall in the library’s budget, but didn’t think to ask about it while I was there.  Can anyone here illuminate us on such sales in their area?

    1. Friends’ groups usually supply materials and equipment that taxpayers might grumble about if it came from the operating budget. Examples would include new couches or comfy chairs, popular DVDs, graphics novels, and so on.

      I’m an academic librarian and former Friends’ group president. In my time as president, we purchased a new couch, two chairs, several framed posters, a core collection of opera DVDs and CDs, and about 10 netbook computers for student use.  Other stuff too, but these are the large purchases that quickly come to mind.

      1. Thanks, Mongrove_Moone.  Our library is pretty comfy and I’d like to think that level of comfort and convenience for patrons was made affordable by the financial support provided through the sale of excess inventory.

        As to your question above about the decline of books . . . we have a whole room in our house dedicated to the display of books we couldn’t bear to part with, and there’s no e-reader or books on tape/disc.  Some treasured fiction on the shelves, but mostly reference books.  Until the information becomes obsolete, it’s hard let go of a good reference book.

        1. Actually, I was making a sarcastic response to awjt, who claimed that, “Society certainly has moved beyond what libraries once were […]  Things are totally different now. Because needs have changed. […] I can’t agree that any funding cuts at all to libraries are an affront to society.”

          It reminds me so much of the mid- to late-80s, where the promise of the paperless society would finally and at last free us from the tyranny of the printed page. 

          Books aren’t going anywhere, and neither will the need for libraries. Libraries are being cut to the bone (in some cases along with other public services, such as police / fire departments / public schools), but that doesn’t mean it’s the will of the people, nor does it mean that nothing of value was lost.

  9. The Public Library system in my city is fabulous.  Like many, it used to share funding and direction with the Public Schools – but State Law cut that connection.  Now, while it shares geographical boundaries with the local Public School System, it is independent and is funded by it’s own millage.  The State is cutting back right and left as Republican parsimony destroys any kind of civic pride or patriotism.

    My community knows and loves this library system.  The main branch and the 5 satellite branches are almost always busy.

    The main branch is in the heart of town.  It’s a destination that supports downtown by offering relief from business and commerce (does that make it un-american?)  The satellite branches have been moving from being embedded in shopping strips (where they rent space) to free standing buildings owned by the library.  The free standing buildings are well designed and beautiful – but usually not too close to any other destination.  It works out because on the periphery of the city, walking isn’t as important as driving.  Still, the one branch that remains embedded in a shopping strip helps make that strip a destination for me.

    WiFi is there (a convenience to me now, but I really needed it a few years back.)  I can check out DVDs for  movies – and given my erratic and infrequent movie habits, that’s a better deal than Netflix – much less cable TV.  (I’m buying Comcast Internet service – no TV.)

  10. I’m in Pittsford, New York. Our Fall sale is coming up in October. We have two major sales a year, and a couple of splinter sales, and the money goes to fund some of the equipment and events at the library. We have a listing of these events on the Friends’ web site, which I put together and update once a month (sometimes more, but only sometimes). Incidentally, I linked to this infographic this month. Thanks for the pointer!

    I like visiting other libraries in the local system. My card is good at all of them, and I can return items to my nearby branch.

    College libraries are great, too. When I was in Virginia, I spent a number of evenings and weekends at Swem Library at William & Mary, copying stuff out of their bound set of PM: my main focus was on the Dr. Seuss political cartoons, but I also got great stuff about the Disney animator strike (my scans — from photocopies — are being used at the Disney Family Museum now) and other amazing bits of ephemera. Now that I’m near Rochester, I can visit the music library for the Eastman School of Music, which has a phenomenal selection of piano transcriptions, for instance.

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