It’s easy to find articles that describe a decline in library usage. Recent years have also seen public library funding cuts. What is the relationship?
Not long ago, a newspaper columnist advocated shutting down libraries. After all, he claimed, no one goes there anymore.
If he had made the suggestion in his column, no one would have noticed. Newspaper readership has taken a much bigger hit. Instead, he used Twitter. And librarians and library lovers quickly made him retract.
Actually, the decline in library usage results from public library funding cuts. Unfortunately, the people who control the purse strings haven’t taken sufficient notice. It’s not so much that libraries have to educate the public about their programs as that the public has to educate elected officials. It seems to be happening.
Some statistics and their meaning
The Pew Research Center regularly studies Americans’ perceptions and use of libraries. Its reports always generate a lot of comment. I reported on the 2016 Pew survey last year.
Pew statistics show a fluctuation in Americans’ use of public libraries in recent years. In its 2012 survey, 53% of respondents reported having visited a library or bookmobile in the prior year. In 2016, it was 48%. More people visit libraries than use library websites or mobile apps. The 2016 survey shows a drop in both compared to 2015: 27% vs 31% before for websites and 8% vs 12% before for apps.
In 2015, the Pew had noted a decline in library usage, but would not say that it represented a real trend. The 2016 report certified that it is a trend. It also found that most Americans do not know what electronic services their library offers. For example, 90% of American public libraries lend ebooks, but 38% of respondents told the Pew either that they didn’t know if their library lent ebooks or that it didn’t. Therefore, the 2016 report attributed the decline in library usage to technological change.
The most definitive statistics on library usage, however, come not from the Pew, but from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
The one for 2013, the latest available, appeared early in 2016. It focuses on physical visits, circulation, attendance at library programs, and computer usage. It also tracks library revenues and expenditures.
By FY 2013, physical visits had decreased by 8.2% from the peak in FY 2009 while circulation declined by 3.6% from its peak in FY 2010. Use of the library’s computers decreased by 9.2% from FY 2010. Revenue trended downward, too. Program attendance, however, grew by 3.5% over the previous year and 28.5% over FY 2006.
A closer look
The Public Library Association (PLA) notes that the statics show an increase in both visits and circulation compared with ten years earlier. On that view, the decline in library usage appears to be an anomaly.
It also notes that the IMLS statistics for computer usage don’t measure libraries’ wireless and broadband services, but will in the future. Usage of library computers may have declined only because more patrons bring their own to use the library website.
Not every public library actually has a professional librarian on staff. After some recession-related decreases, staffing levels stabilized in 2013. The percentage of professional librarians had increased 6.1% over what it was ten years earlier.
The PLA also notes a correlation between library usage and funding. Libraries must invest in their collection, equipment, programs, and staffing. Library spending on physical collections declined 14.5% over a ten-year period, but spending on electronic collections increased 186.8% during the same time.
Let’s not forget that the Great Recession began in 2008. Economists have only recently declared it over. Public library funding declined for the same reason spending on nearly everything else did.
IMLS’s 2012 report explicitly noted that critical measures of public library revenue and public library usage trend in the same direction. When spending goes up, so does library usage. When spending goes down, so does library usage, but by a lesser percentage. People still use libraries as much as conditions allow.
When libraries have to trim their budgets, they can’t buy as many copies of best sellers. They can’t offer as many programs or retain as much staff. They may have to reduce their hours.
If a library has to start closing an hour earlier, it suffers 100% decline in visits during that time. People who normally visited the library then have to find some other time to go. And not all of them can.
Funding cuts that result in cutting public library hours therefore directly decrease usage.
The latest threat to public library funding
In March 2017, the Trump administration proposed to eliminate funding IMLS, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The library and educational communities naturally viewed the proposal with alarm and started a vigorous lobbying campaign.
The House of Representatives voted in September 2017 to keep full funding for all three agencies in the budget. A week earlier the Senate Appropriations Committee even voted to increase IMLS funding by $4 million. The full Senate has not yet passed its appropriations bills.
When it does, the two houses will have to reconcile their difference and agree on a single bill. Despite continued administration pressure, the lobbying effort led by the American Library Association had more weight. It appears that federal library funding is safe for at least another year.
Federal and state funding accounts for a small fraction of library budgets. The most serious public library funding cuts occur locally. The blitz of letters and petitions to Congress needs to be repeated to state capitals and municipal governments from coast to coast. And if the ballot includes a bond issue for the library, library lovers have to advocate and vote for it.
People want to use libraries. They can do so only if library revenues permit maintaining hours, programs, staffing, and collection development. Libraries are taking steps to fund themselves, but these stopgap measures can’t possibly make up for insufficient support from governments.
Are libraries doomed? How libraries are funding themselves / Kirsten Twardowski, Bookriot. April 26, 2017
Fewer Americans are visiting local libraries—and technology isn’t to blame / Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic. April 14, 2016
House votes to save library funding, NEA and NEH / Andrew Albanese, Publishers Weekly. September 15, 2017
Libraries 2016: Library usage and engagement / John B. Horrigan, Pew Research Center. September 9, 2016
Public library usage shows ten-year increase / Karen Pundsack, Public Library Association. June 10, 2016.
Senate boosts funding for IMLS, LSTA thanks to ALA grassroots / Kevin Maher, District Dispatch. September 8, 2017
Library patrons. Some rights reserved by liz west.
Bookmobile. Some rights reserved by Monterey Public Library.
Library parking deck. Some rights reserved by Jonathan Moreau
Family space. Some rights reserved by San Jose Library