Public Libraries

2012 State of America's Libraries Report

Job seeker at Pierce County Library system is aided by a library worker.A patron at the Pierce County Job and Business Center is aided by a library worker. Photo by Washington State Library.

Public libraries continue to be battered by a national economy whose recovery from the Great Recession is proving to be sluggish at best. While providing what many state and local governments view as an easy target for budget-slashing, “People depend on libraries now more than ever,” said Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. “Not only do visits and circulation continue to rise, the role of public libraries in providing Internet resources to the public continues to increase as well. . . .

“Despite this demonstrated ability of libraries to adjust to meet the growing needs of the public, many libraries across the country face severe budget cuts,” Hildreth said, commenting on a study of library use in the decade ending in 2009. “It’s important to remember that this data ends with 2009, before even more severe budget crises put so many libraries and library programs at risk.”

Today’s public libraries are grappling with a “new normal” of flat or decreased funding, paired with increased demand for public library technology resources. (Source: Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2010–2011)



Libraries persevere through cumulative, ongoing funding cuts

Overall, funding for public libraries continues to be suppressed in 2011–2012 budgets, with 5 % more states reporting decreased state funding for public libraries than in 2010–2011. The cumulative impact of cuts to public library funding at the state and local levels since 2008–2009 has led public libraries to continuous budget-rebalancing and tough choices regarding continuity of services.

An online survey of chief officers of state library agencies in November 2011 elicited responses from 49 of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Among the findings:

  • Twenty-three states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries from 2010–2011 to 2011–2012. For three years in a row, more than 40 % of participating states have reported decreased public library funding.
  • Only two states reported increased funding, but one did so with a caveat. This state had experienced two cuts the previous year, followed by a legislative action to reset its program to a lower funding level.
  • Seven states and the District of Columbia do not provide state funding.
  • Sixteen states reported there had been no change in funding from 2010–2011 to 2011–2012.
  • Only nine states anticipated decreased funding for 2012-2013 — 21 % of last year’s respondents, compared with 37 % of the previous year’s. That may be the light at the end of the tunnel . . . or a train coming. 

Cases in point:

  • California’s 2011–2012 budget contained a 50 % cut to the $30.4 million state-level support for public library programs, providing per capita allocations, support for interlibrary loan, and funding for literacy instruction. In December 2011, Governor Jerry Brown announced a mid-year adjustment that eliminates all remaining funding for these programs.  His first budget for 2012–2013 continues to eliminate all funding for public library programs and makes a $1.1 million cut to the State Library administration budget to reflect a decrease in anticipated administrative workload resulting from the previous year’s cuts. (Meanwhile, Los Angeles voters approved a ballot initiative that increases dedicated spending for the Los Angeles Public Library system by $50 million over the next few years without raising taxes.)
  • Texas lived up to its reputation for doing things on a grand scale, cutting state funding for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission by 64 % and funding for the agency’s library programs by 88 %. The overall state library budget will shrink from $19.8 million each year of the two-year budget to $7.2 million, while support for programs will go from $12.8 million to $1.6 million. The Library Development and Library Resource Sharing divisions are to be merged into a single division.
  • In Washington State, a special legislative session cut nearly $1.4 million from the state library’s 2011–2013 biennial budget, a 12.5 % reduction. Since 2008, the Washington State Library budget has fallen by 30 %, and staffing has decreased by 35 %. The State Library’s lobby is now unstaffed, and signs direct customers to the second floor, the building’s only service point.


Budget cuts measured at the state level were intensified by continued cuts at the local level. For the second year in a row, 42 % of states report that local funding for public libraries probably declined for a majority of libraries in the state. 

The November 2011 questionnaire again asked about the number of libraries that had been closed as a result of funding cuts. Fewer states this year (12, compared with 17 the previous year) reported that they were aware of public library closures in their states in the past 12 months. Most states reported that fewer than five public library outlets were closed, although New Jersey reported closures between 10 and 15 and Michigan reported that more than 20 were closed.

Percentage of Public Libraries Reporting Flat or Decreased Operating Budgets: FY 2009, 40%; FY 2010, 56%; FY 2011, 60%; F 2012. 65%Today's public libraries are grappling with a "new normal" of flat or decreased funding paired with increased demand for library services.
Source: Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2010-2011.

According to the 2010–2011 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study (PLFTAS), released in June 2011, for the third consecutive year an increasing number of libraries reported fiscal decreases. Nearly 60 % of public libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets in 2010–2011, up from 56 % in 2009–2010 and 40 % in 2008–2009. The study revealed that for many public libraries, the choice was not whether or not to make service cuts but where to make the cuts. Nationally, 16 % of local libraries reported decreased operating hours; and for the third year in a row, the greatest impact was experienced by those living in urban communities: nearly one-third of urban libraries reported reductions in hours.

Cases in point (a mixed bag):

  • The Detroit Library Commission in November approved the closure of four of the Detroit Public Library’s 23 branches. It could have been worse: the announcement followed almost a year of apocalyptic predictions that at one point included a threat (based on a botched budget projection) to close 18 branches. The closures were attributed to declining property values and shrinking city population. DPL, the largest library system in Michigan, is funded by a millage, but revenue has declined 12 % each year for the past three years and is expected to continue to decline for the next three years.
  • Like many other public libraries in Georgia, the DeKalb County Library System has weathered continuous budget cuts since the economic downturn. One of the greatest areas of impact has been the collection budget, which includes books (print and digital), databases, CDs, and DVDs. Since 2008, DeKalb has seen a 95 % reduction in the collection budget, from $2.2 million to $100,000.
  • On the other hand, voters in various Ohio communities approved 16 of the 17 public library issues on a May 2011 primary election ballot. Public library officials in Cuyahoga Falls and Hudson had explained to constituents that the levies would restore hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in state aid since 2007, with another 5 % cut possible in the year ahead.
  • And in Chicago, half a loaf was better than none: Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed off on a cost-cutting move to close libraries on Mondays, despite the library union’s refusal to make concessions. In February 2012, the city rehired some employees who had been laid off and reopened the branches on Monday afternoons from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. while school is in session.

On the technology front, a different picture

76.2%, Insuffucient number of public access computers; 70%, increased use of public ccess computers; 45.4%, Insufficuent internet cinnection speeds to meet demandPublic libraries are challenged to meet the increasing need of their communities for public computers and sufficient connection speeds for Internet access.
Source: Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study 2010-2011.

Despite real economic strain, libraries are still striving to fulfill the needs of their communities and provide technology services that range from basic computer skills to homework help, from career advice to assistance in applying for social services. A majority (70 %) of libraries reported increased use of public access computers. Yet, demand remains so high that 76 % of libraries report an insufficient number of computers to meet demand, and over 45 % lack sufficient Internet connection speed.

Hundreds of communities in 26 states have received an expansion of library services through funding from the federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) and Broadband

Public libraries are challenged to meet the increasing needs of their communities for public computers and sufficient connection speeds for Internet access. (Source: Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2010–2011)

Initiatives Program. The 33 grant awards secured ranged from $500,000 to more than $20 million. Funding provided infrastructure for essential expansion of broadband connectivity, new computers for public access and training for library staff for maintenance of the equipment, and a wide range of online resources for job seekers and students of all ages.

Case in point: In Idaho, where the unemployment rate increased more than 150 % from 2008 to 2011. In response to job losses in manufacturing, logging, mining, and construction, the unemployed are seeking general educational development (GED) degrees, computer skills, and new training to re-enter the workforce. Seventy % of public libraries in Idaho reported that they were the only free public Internet access point in their communities, but many said they were poorly equipped, with low bandwidth and too few computers. Thanks to the $1.9 million BTOP grant awarded to Idaho (and matching funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Idaho Public Television), 40 % of the state’s library buildings will increase bandwidth and the number of public access computers. Upon completion of the BTOP grant installations, bandwidth, computers, and Internet users are expected to increase by a factor of ten.

The need for speed and e-reads greater than ever

A 2010 national study by OCLC indicated that 4.4 million economically impacted Americans used the library for essential job-related activities. In response, libraries continue to increase their services to job seekers. Nearly 91 % of libraries provide access to online job resources, including software to help patrons create résumés and employment materials; and nearly 72 % of libraries help patrons complete online job applications.

Libraries provide a wealth of resources to support small business and entrepreneurs. According to the 2011 PLFTAS, services offered by libraries to develop business plans and other materials to support business start-ups increased by more than 20 % from the previous year.

Case in point: Arlington Heights (Ill.) Memorial Library. Meeting the needs of job seekers and entrepreneurs can be difficult with decreased local and state funding. Arlington Heights Memorial Library has been able to expand services through the support of community partners such as the Rotary Club, which has given the library grants totaling $8,000 since 2010. The wide range of job search resources and services includes a professional consultant that comes twice a week to review résumés, with appointments booked up to a month in advance. The local Chamber of Commerce recognized the library as the 2011 Business of the Year for its invaluable contributions to the business community.

The number of libraries providing ebooks continues to increase, supporting the exploding popularity of the format. More than 67 % of libraries report offering downloadable ebooks, up from 38 % just four years ago. Last year, nearly 28 % of libraries reported providing e-readers and other mobile devices for checkout to patrons.

Modest increases in per capita income — and some belt-tightening

The latest Public Library Data Service (PLDS) Statistical Report (published in 2011, reflecting data gathered in 2010) showed modest increases in average library income per capita ($49.42, up 2.8 % from 2009) and average library expenditures per capita were ($46.52, up 2.6 % from 2009). PLDS libraries spent an average of $7.88 per capita on materials. The top alternative funding sources reported were printing, overdue materials, replacement library cards, non-resident cards, and space rental.

The PLDS report is published annually by the Public Library Association, a division of the ALA. The 2011 report reflected data gathered from 1,461 public libraries (about 11 % of public libraries) in the United States and Canada. PLDS libraries served 91.9 million registered patrons

PLDS: Mean output per $1,000 of expenditures, all reporting libraries, 2010, 2011

Mean output per $1,000 of expenditures, all reporting libraries, 2010, 2011, from Public Library Data Statistical Report
Mean output per $1,000 of expenditures Number of libraries, 2010  Mean 2010 Number of libraries, 2011 Mean
Change in mean
Library visits 889 168.2 1,250 179.5 6.7%
Circulation 941 254.4 1,288 259.6 2.0%
Program attendance 906 10.5 1,215 12.1 15.2%
Reference transactions 871 26.9 1,165 25.3 -5.9%
In-library use of materials 377 49.0 464 47.2 -3.6%
Library registrations 841 18.5 1,152 20.0 5.4%

Source: Public Library Data Service Statistical Report, 2010, 2011


in 2010, 53.8 % of a total legal service area population of 174.0 million in the United States and Canada. The participants’ legal service areas ranged from 75 to more than 4 million people.

The PLDS data indicated that the number of items circulated, the number of reference transactions, and the number of patrons to whom programs were presented all declined about 24 % from the previous year. As in previous years, the %age of library registrations, per capita holdings, and library visits per capita greatly increased as the size of the population served decreased.

The PLDS data also indicated that libraries are continually trying to maximize their resources. The 2011 report showed that per $1,000 spent, libraries on average:

  • Received 179 library visits (168 in 2009, 149 in 2008).
  • Circulated 260 materials (254, 235).
  • Saw 12.1 patrons attend programs (10.5, 9).
  • Registered 20 new patrons (18.5, 17).

Only reference transactions and uses of materials within the library did not reflect the increased-output trend.

Some libraries look at merging . . . or privatizing

Some libraries responded to budget woes by merging. The five library systems serving libraries throughout northern Illinois, for example, combined to form RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Library System). The decision to combine the Metropolitan, Alliance, DuPage, North Suburban, and Prairie Area library systems was made in answer to ongoing financial woes faced by the state-funded operations.

Others considered privatizing. Commissioners in Osceola County, Florida, turned over management of libraries to a private company to save money. Maryland-based Library Systems and Services, Inc. (LSSI) began running the six branches in January; the county will pay the company $4.71 million during the first year of a five-year contract, which commissioners said would not result in reductions in operating hours or services. Savings-conscious administrators in Santa Clarita, California, also signed on with LSSI . . . but a new California law, effective Jan. 1, 2012, mandates that proponents of privatization make their case with hard numbers.

The American Library Association sounded a cautionary note on privatization and formed a Task Force on Privatization to grapple with the issue. “Experience has shown that privatization of public services has not necessarily produced substantial cost savings,” reads the introduction to the task force report, Keeping Public Libraries Public: A Checklist for Communities Considering Privatization (PDF 183KB). “As local officials review [their] choices, they should understand the full scope of services their libraries offer, and the impact that libraries have on their communities.”

ALA Editions issued Privatizing Libraries, a special report that provides an overview of the “privatization” of public libraries. Authors Jane Jerrard, Nancy Bolt, and Karen Strege provide background on the trend of local and state governments to privatize public services and assets and examine the history of public library privatization up to the recently introduced California legislation to restrict cities from privatizing library services.


From the Creative Responses Department:

The Adams Memorial Library in Central Falls, Rhode Island, closed in July due to a $5.6-million budget deficit — but opened its door three days a week in August, staffed by about two dozen volunteers. The Adams Library Trust’s $200,000 building endowment is being used to cover operating expenses (but that money cannot be used for salaries). . . . The Clinton Community Library in Rhinebeck, New York, opened a branch in a refurbished 1960s English telephone booth with 150 books and a solar panel installed on the roof that keeps a light on long enough for a patron to replace an old book with a new one. . . . The Potrero branch of the San Francisco Public Library has opened a seed-lending library at which patrons “check out” vegetable seeds to plant on their own. After harvesting the crops, they save and return seeds to be used in the next growing season. . . . And nationwide, advocates united to persuade politicians that libraries matter enough to fight for them: Zombies crawled in Oakland, California (“Zombies love brains”); cute kids and parents held read-ins from Chicago to California; and 200 folks held hands and hugged the New York Public Library.

It’s a fact: Grant supports information literacy

The ALA has received a $722,000 grant from the Open Society Foundations of New York City to fund an initiative intended to engage librarians, journalists, news ethicists, and students nationally in news literacy education and projects.

The goals of the two-year project, “News Know-how: Libraries and News Literacy for a Better Democracy,” are to raise awareness of the corrosive effects of the increased polarization of civic discourse; arm the public, particularly young people, against misinformation and deceptive media practices; increase the critical thinking and information-evaluation skills needed for informed civic participation; and create a global connection among librarians and young citizen journalists.

The program will create partnerships and collaborations for a nonpartisan, critical analysis of news and information across the political spectrum. High school students, with public libraries as their “newsroom,” will learn how to distinguish facts from opinions, check the source and validity of news and information, and identify propaganda and misinformation. The students will also apply the library profession’s information literacy principles to analyzing and thinking critically about the news in all formats.

The lead training organization for News Know-how is the News Literacy Project, a national nonprofit education program that is active in schools in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Bethesda, Maryland. The participants for the first round of projects are the public libraries in Chicago, Oak Park, Illinois, and Baltimore, and a group of rural and urban libraries working with the State Library of Iowa.

Technology footnote: Most PLDS libraries (95.8 %) had websites, with the most popular content being programming information, online catalogs, and community links. For the first time, the PLDS survey included social media usage questions and found that:

  • 68.3 % use Facebook.
  • 39.2 % use Twitter.
  • 34.3 % host a blog.
  • 29.2 % use some form of photo-sharing service.


(More in the Social Networking section)