At a time when library usage is on the rise, and when libraries are more and more serving the role of community centers, their budgets are being slashed as municipalities scrimp to make ends meet, says a recent report from the The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The report focuses on big-city libraries in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Queens, San Francisco and Seattle. As The Atlantic details, in 2008, Philadelphia officials proposed closing 11 of 54 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The branches remained open after communities protested but the result was that the libraries’ hours were drastically cut; the mayor has continued to threaten library closures.
The Pew Trust’s report (by Claire Shubik-Richards and Emily Dowdall) compares Philadelphia’s library system to those of the other fourteen cities in regard to library visits, material circulation, library spending per capita, changes in revenue over time and changes in full-time employment over time. All the cities except for Atlanta and Seattle saw their full-time staff decrease between 2008 and 2010. Every city except for San Francisco saw declines in public funding for libraries: Los Angeles and Phoenix’s budgets were cut 25 percent and Charlotte’s by 34 percent.
At the same time, total library visits increased in nine of the cities between 2005 and 2011. While 79 percent of visitors over the past twelve months to Philadelphia libraries were checking out books, computer use was the next most common activity, at 57 percent. Indeed, while there was only a 12 percent increase in the growth of the library’s circulation materials, the number of people using the library’s computers grew by 80 percent.
The Pew Trust study also notes that, according to a Philadelphia Research Initiative survey of Philadelphia residents, 51 percent had visited a library at least once in the past twelve months; 30 percent had gone at least once a month. 57 percent of library users said they had taken a child to the library and 91 percent said they felt that a “very important” function of the library is to be a safe space for children.
In urban areas, libraries have become key sites for those with “limited incomes and educations and resources” seek to “increase all three,” notes The Atlantic. As Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, says:
“…[libraries] really are supporting and complementing the work of other public agencies. In some sense, libraries have become community centers. A lot of this has to do with the internet, because in a lot of cities, libraries have become the default providers of internet access.”
The study also suggests, unfortunately, that the trend of cutting library budgets is likely to continue.
Municipal officials need to be aware of the numerous roles that libraries serve in their communities including not only serving as a local storehouse of information, but providing internet access. Having access to the internet has simply become a necessity today, not only to access information but to communicate and interact, to educate oneself, to search for jobs. We need to make sure that the leaders of our local communities know about these vital functions that libraries serve; that while libraries are the “place where the books are,” they do a whole lot more and are key to a community.
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