Friday, March 16, 2012

In the Trenches

By Matt Tester, Project Associate.

We talk about communities having to do more with less these days. Look no further than your local library to see what this looks like in practice. According to a March 2012 Pew report, “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future,” local libraries are providing an ever-increasing range of functions to an increasingly demanding public – even while budget cuts threaten their ability to maintain current levels of service. By tracking trends in 15 urban library systems across the country, the report reveals the deep impact they have on our communities and demonstrates the challenge of surviving fiscal cuts without undermining recovery.

Two clear overall trends emerge from the research: library usage has increased since the onset of the recession; and libraries had reduced revenue, staff, and hours during the recession. Between 2005 and 2011, 10 of the 15 libraries saw an increase in library visits despite decreased weekly hours in all but two of them. Some experienced drastic increases in traffic – Detroit, Baltimore, Seattle, and Atlanta all increased by over 20 percent). All but one library (San Francisco) saw a decrease in revenue and all but two saw staff reductions. Most experienced double-digit revenue reductions, with Los Angeles’ 34 percent decrease being the worst.

Responses to these trends vary across cities, but in many cases libraries have moved aggressively to position themselves at the center of community engagement and support. In addition to serving the obvious mandate to provide information access (which, by the way, has merely undergone a total revolution in recent years), libraries are opening activity centers for teenagers, offering programming for children (and serving de facto childcare roles), adding more public-access computers, providing health information, and broadening access for special events and meetings. They are more and more engaged in front-line community and economic development work.

Meeting the needs of a needier public with fewer resources, all while adapting to the breakneck pace of technological change – it’s hard work. So, thank your local librarians. And then invite them to your economic development committee meeting.

Check out the full report here.