Local Libraries Weather Threat of Cuts in Internet Age

Local libraries have fought back against budget cuts and adapted to new technology at a time when more are seeking information online.
by | January 18, 2012
Chris Devers/Flickr CC

Now that most citizens enjoy access to seemingly infinite amounts of information online, one might assume library staffing levels and use of services have declined.

Data, though, suggests otherwise. Census Bureau surveys of local governments show full-time equivalent employment for libraries swelled 35 percent from 1993 to 2010. Local library staffing levels, in fact, grew faster than most other areas of government surveyed.

The Internet and new reading devices have pushed libraries to adapt, expanding their roles in communities. Along with serving as cultural hubs, many libraries now provide computer training and assist unemployed workers in their job search.

“Libraries have recognized that change is essential to how they thrive in their communities,” said Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association. "Libraries have shown an amazing adaptability in their communities over this past 15 years."

The Census Bureau estimates local libraries employed more than 90,000 full-time and about 98,000 part-time employees in 2010. Staffing levels only recently dipped, along with nearly all other areas of local government.

At time when cash-strapped governments struggle to reduce costs, libraries become easy targets for officials eyeing potential cuts. Attempts to scale back library services, though, are often met with fierce opposition from library boosters.

“The pushback from the community can be very strong,” Raphael said. “It almost always results in less drastic cuts.”

Library supporters in Oakland, Calif., launched an online campaign and organized read-in protests last summer after one budget proposal called for shuttering 14 of the city’s 18 branches. In the end, city officials passed a budget preserving funding for every branch.

Ohio voters passed 30 of 38 library ballot initiatives, aimed mostly at offsetting reduced state funding, in the 2010 elections. In Pittsburgh, voters approved a dedicated tax for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh by a 72-28 percent margin in November, and another dedicated tax proposal passed by a similar margin on the opposite side of the state in Whitehall Township.

Historically, data indicates library staffing levels keep pace with other areas of local government. The Census Bureau estimates local libraries employed 130,477 full-time equivalent workers in 2010, a 35.3 percent jump from 1993. Total public employment at the local level also grew during the same time period at a slower rate, 27.8 percent, to accommodate increases in population.

Still, local libraries aren't immune to recent cuts. Funding from state and local government has dwindled, and libraries ranked second on a list of the most common cuts in a 2010 Harris Interactive survey of U.S. mayors. Library hours, staff or services had been slashed in 39 percent of municipalities, according to the survey.

The cuts come at a time when demand for library services has escalated.

Residents living in library service areas visited a public library an average of 5.3 times during fiscal year 2009, according to an Institute of Museum and Library Services survey released in October. That's up from about 4.3 visits per capita in fiscal year 2000, with library visits steadily climbing over the decade.

Raphael said libraries serve as a public safety net, particularly for economically disadvantaged families or those lacking Internet access. Library visitation typically rises when the economy worsens, she said.

"The need for libraries is even greater than it was before," Raphael said.

Job seekers flock to libraries as they hunt for employment and, according to an ALA survey, about 72 percent of library staff assist patrons in applying for jobs online. The vast majority of libraries also provide formal or informal computer and software training.

At the Hartford Public Library in Connecticut, more patrons are receiving training for word processing software, social media and other tools. Matt Poland, the library system's chief executive officer, said staffers, volunteers and contractors also help job seekers hone their resume-writing and interviewing skills.

"Our library has become a career and jobs center for many people," Poland said.

With high demand for free Internet access, finding a seat at one of the library system's approximately 400 computers is not easy. To accommodate patrons, Poland said branches adopted a scheduling system where they are placed in a queue.

In many areas, public libraries remain the only source of free Internet access. Some library systems take their roles a step further, posting local data and related resources online.

The Hartford Public Library created HartfordInfo.org, a portal with an extensive collection of documents, crime data and interactive maps. Library staff manage the site and respond to patrons' questions.

Poland said the site receives about 15,000 unique visits per month, mostly from government, nonprofit or research professionals.

"The 21st century library is really one that is about engaging people and engaging citizens of communities to make sure they have the tools they need," he said.

It’s this type of innovation that Poland and other library directors believe will enable libraries to continue to thrive. Even with the growth of the Internet and newer ways of accessing information, they don't expect older, brick-and-mortar libraries to disappear anytime soon.

“People are learning to read on a Nook, Kindle or IPad," Poland said. "For a library, the important thing is that it's reading.”


View employment and payroll data for local libraries, as compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. Totals reported from the Census of Governments are listed for 1997, 2002 and 2007; other yearly figures represent survey estimates.


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