The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future

The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future

Big-city public libraries have rarely been as popular as they are today and rarely as besieged. The hard economic times of recent years have generated increased demand for the free and varied services libraries provide, even as revenue-challenged local governments have cut back on contributions to library budgets. All of this comes at a time when libraries are being asked to perform a new and changing range of functions.

The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future” looks at how Philadelphia is faring and the challenges facing urban libraries across America. It examines The Free Library of Philadelphia's operations and compares them to those of 14 other library systems.

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Explanations & Notes

The report finds that The Free Library, a $63.6 million system that has been weakened by budget cuts over the last few years, is struggling to keep up with this broad and growing range of demands. Other big-city library systems are struggling, too, although there are some success stories to tell.

Read the full report for detailed information on these and other findings:

  • Philadelphians use their libraries less than their counterparts in most of the 14 other urban communities studied.
  • On a per capita basis, the Free Library of Philadelphia is below average in circulation and visits, even though it ranks relatively high in terms of branches per capita. Its recent growth in both circulation and visits has been in line with the other cities.
  • Use of library computers in Philadelphia has risen by 80 percent in the last six years; the Free Library ranks 11th of the 15 systems in the number of public-access computers per capita. 
  • One factor contributing to Philadelphians' relatively low use of their libraries has been the extraordinary number of times that branches have experienced temporary, unscheduled closings in the past few years.
  • Overall library spending in Philadelphia, at $43 per resident in 2011, is slightly below average for the communities studied. Between 2008 and 2010, when municipal budgets were hit hard by the recession, the Free Library experienced larger cutbacks than many of its counterparts.
  • In a Philadelphia Research Initiative survey of Philadelphia residents, 51 percent visited a library at least once in the past 12 months, and 30 percent of all respondents went at least once a month.
  • Among library users, 57 percent report having taken a child to the library. Ninety-one percent say the library's role as a safe space for children is a “very important” function.



The following errors were found subsequent to the release of the report. They have been corrected in the online PDF.