Hard economic times have put urban libraries under pressure: More people need a wider array of services from them, but budget-strapped libraries have fewer resources to meet those needs. That is the conclusion of a new report, “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future,” from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The report looks at how libraries in 15 metropolitan areas compare in visitor numbers, circulation rates, budgets and other factors, emphasizing changes since the start of the recession. The systems studied include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn (New York), Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Queens (New York), San Francisco and Seattle.
The report found that city libraries are serving more people – visits rose on average 6 percent from 2005-2011 and more than 20 percent in some cities – and doing more things, such as providing tax assistance, English language classes and GED instruction. At the same time, the libraries face budget cuts averaging about 10 percent from 2008-2010, resulting in cuts in staff and library hours.
In the distressed economy, according to the Pew report, libraries often take on a “shadow mandate” for society’s needs, such as functioning as the default provider of free computer and Internet access that residents need to find jobs and connect to government services and benefits. Most libraries report that the demand for computer time far exceeds the supply. Increased demand for children’s programming is also boosting library visits.
“It is the ability of libraries to perform so many functions in response to people’s needs that makes city residents value them so highly,” said Larry Eichel, project director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative. “The question is whether libraries will have the resources and the flexibility to keep adapting to changing circumstances and technologies in the years ahead.”