Libraries See Light After Years of Cuts

  • June 03, 2014
  • By Marsha Mercer
© AP

Librarian Sandy Irwin displays e-readers that can be checked out of the Durango, Colorado public library. Libraries are struggling to be relevant to the public after suffering years of budget cuts.

When Louisiana eliminated state aid to public libraries in 2012, Mary Bennett Lindsey had one thought:  “How are we ever going to keep those computers going?”

Lindsey is director of the rural Audubon Regional Library—three small branch libraries and a 10-year-old bookmobile that serve 30,000 residents of two parishes about an hour’s drive north of Baton Rouge. The cut in state aid meant Audubon Regional lost $50,000, or 10 percent, of its annual budget.

“I went down to the legislature and said we needed the money put back,” Lindsey said.  At the budget hearing, though, all she heard were other stories of desperate need for state funds.  

“We were competing with autistic children, with residential care for adults who couldn’t take care of themselves – all good causes, all heart-breaking stories,” she said. Audubon would have to make do without state money for its 19 public Internet access computers, three children’s computers, 10 staff computers as well as 20 loaner laptops.

We’ve been fortunate to have a city that appreciates what we do. We’ve had the opportunity to bring in new staff and conduct marketing studies to find out what our community needs.Seattle city librarian Marcellus Turner

Buffeted by financial and cultural pressures, public libraries around the country are struggling to remain relevant and connect with patrons in the high-cost digital age. States, never a deep pocket for public libraries, have cut or even zeroed out aid, forcing libraries to rely more heavily on local funds. 

Reliance on Local Funds Grows

Overall, states slashed funding to public libraries 37.6 percent from fiscal 2001 to 2010, from $1.28 billion to $799.4 million, the Institute of Museum and Library Services reported in a survey for fiscal 2010 which was released in January. The institute is the primary source of federal funds to libraries and museums. (See the institute’s 50-state interactive here.)

Meanwhile, local revenue dedicated to libraries grew 23.5 percent over the 10 years, from $7.76 billion in 2001 to $9.59 billion in 2010.

States provide only about 7.5 percent of operating revenue for public libraries; local governments shoulder 85 percent. Gifts, fines, fees and grants contribute about 7 percent and the federal government just 0.5 percent, according to the institute.

States that fail to support their public libraries risk losing federal Library Services and Technology Act grants, which are part of the 0.5 percent federal contribution. The grants total $154.8 million in fiscal 2014. Designed to supplement, not replace, state library funding, the grants require a 34 percent state match. States can receive waivers from the requirement if they show that libraries were not singled out for budget cuts. Illinois, Louisiana and Texas received waivers last year. Nebraska applied for a waiver and was denied, reducing its grant funds. Michigan was denied a waiver and did not appeal. 

Besides Louisiana, 11 states provide no direct aid to public libraries, an American Library Association survey found. They are California, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Two Examples

In Seattle, voters agreed in August 2012 to a seven-year, $123 million local real estate excise tax in order to reopen branches and restore services of the Seattle Public Library that had been drastically curtailed during the recession.

Since the levy went into effect last year, all library locations are open on Sundays, more than 800 Internet-connected computers have been replaced, and 50,000 new e-books and e-audio files purchased.

 “We’ve been fortunate to have a city that appreciates what we do,” said Seattle city librarian Marcellus Turner.

“We’ve had the opportunity to bring in new staff and conduct marketing studies to find out what our community needs,” he said. The next project is drawing Seattle’s large population of 20-somethings to the library.

In contrast, funding for almost all public libraries in Kentucky is on hold as tea party activists challenge library local taxing authority in court. The lawsuits contend that jurisdictions improperly raised taxes for decades because they did not seek voter approval of tax changes.

Brandon Voelker, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said, “It’s not about the library. We’re all in agreement libraries are good.” But he said, “The government needs to ask for permission to raise taxes.” 

The tea party-backed lawsuit won in circuit court and awaits a ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

If the lawsuit succeeds, 99 library systems in the state could lose about $62 million a year, said Lisa Rice, director of the Warren County Public Library and chair of the Kentucky Public Library Association’s advocacy committee.

“Up to 78 percent of the libraries’ funding would be lost, and (the lawsuit) also opens the possibility of tax refunds,” said Rice. Library supporters had hoped the legislature would solve the problem, but it adjourned without acting. 

Changing Library Experience

Studies by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that Americans appreciate and support their public libraries.

“The vast majority of Americans use the library at some point in their lives, and over half of those 16 and older did so in the last year,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, Pew research associate. More patrons are visiting their libraries online, but 48 percent visited a library building last year, indicating that people value the physical space, even if they engage in digital activities once they get there, , she said. (Stateline is funded by Pew)

One key to libraries’ success is offering the public the “expensive and scarce resource,” Zickuhr said. While books once were expensive and scarce, people now seek a broader range of services such as laser cutters, 3-D printers and even recording studios. 

“You meet a need in your community that no one else is meeting,” said Kendall Wiggin, state librarian of Connecticut, and president-elect of the chief library officers group.  “When I was younger, it was framed art work. We loaned a lot of paintings.”

These days, libraries are meeting community needs with technology. The Westport Public Library in Connecticut invites sixth through ninth graders to “hang out and geek out” at the library on “Maker Mondays.” Each session features a different hands-on activity, such as stop-motion animation or making a Doodle Bot drawing robot.

In Tennessee, the Chattanooga Public Library became “a lab for the freelance job market,” said Corrine Hill, the library’s executive director. She said the library’s broadband access gives people the opportunity to take an idea “from discovery to traction.”

Hill said one father used a 3-D library printer to create a robotic device that allows his quadriplegic child to eat without assistance.

From Books to Seeds

Librarians help toddlers get ready to learn in school and seniors to apply for Social Security. If you need a checkup in Pima County, Arizona, the library has a full-time county health nurse. The homeless go for help to the San Francisco Public Library, which hired its first social worker five years ago. About three dozen libraries have started garden seed libraries; others loan power tools. 

“In the old days, we bought that set of World Book encyclopedias because people couldn’t afford it,” said Gina Millsap, chief executive officer of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. The library even loans cake pans.

Struggling with budget cuts in 2009 and 2010, Topeka & Shawnee cut its annual budget for books, films, music and other content by 50 percent – from $2 million to $1 million -- and cut staff 6 percent.  The library, which has no branches, kept the content budget at $1 million. When the financial picture brightened, it expanded services, including deliveries to work sites, retirement centers and nursing homes in its 550-mile service area.

The Topeka library loans digital cameras and teaches classes in video production.  A 3-D printer recently arrived for the digital media lab. The library checks out exercise kits as well as adaptive devices, such as magnifiers for those with macular degeneration, so that people can try before they buy.

Signs of Improvement

There are signs the slowly improving economy is helping libraries’ budgets. Revenue from all sources to the nation’s 8,956 public libraries ticked up slightly, from $11.3 billion in 2010 to $11.4 billion in 2011.

“There continue to be reductions in hours and flat budgets – but perhaps the constant budget cuts are leveling off for public libraries,” said the library association’s  report on its 2013-2014 survey of Chiefs of State Library Agencies. 

When they were surveyed last December and January, most state librarians believed their states’ direct aid to public libraries would remain the same or that it was too soon to say. Eleven chiefs expected their states to increase library funds by more than 10 percent. They were Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oregon.

In Louisiana, the good news at Audubon Regional is that the economy has improved, thanks to oil and gas production, and local tax revenues are up. The library’s current budget is just above $500,000, slightly higher than before the state cut off funds.

Six days a week, residents sit at library computers to fill out online applications for jobs, Social Security and other benefits. They use the free Wi-Fi – a big draw in a rural area with spotty Internet access – and check out DVDs, the latest books and laptops.  

“Once we get people into the libraries, they say, `Oh, wow!’” Lindsey said.

Explore