Reuters

A new report focuses on the dire situation in 15 big cities, and highlights the changing role of the public library.

It's an all-too-familiar cycle in municipal budgeting: the city's on the verge of going broke, officials propose cutting funding to libraries, community members protest. It's happened in countless cities, especially since the onset of the recession. In Philadelphia, the record seems to be skipping: that city's libraries have been the recurring focus of proposed and realized cuts. When officials proposed shuttering 11 of 54 branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia back in 2008, outrage followed, community members pushed back, and eventually the branches were spared. Though the closures were prevented, cutbacks were not. Hours were slashed. And the drama has waged on over the years, with the mayor periodically threatening to close down or severely constrict the city's libraries.

Things are bad in Philadelphia, thought Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. But are they this bad everywhere else?

"We knew that there were lots of attempts to close library branches in a lot of cities, but in most cases those closures didn't happen," Eichel says. "Library budgets were cut, substantially in some cases, but library branches weren't closed."

Eichel wanted to know how cutbacks have affected library users not just in Philadelphia, but nationwide. He led a Pew study looking at big city library systems to see how they've fared in recent years – before the recession, during, and throughout the recovery. The report, The Library in the City, compares Philadelphia's system to those of 14 other large cities in the U.S.  –  Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Queens, San Francisco and Seattle.

The report, authored by Claire Shubik-Richards and Emily Dowdall, compares library visits, material circulation, library spending per capita, changes in revenue over time and changes in full-time employment over time.

Overall, library systems across the country have been hit hard by the belt-tightening of city and state budgets. All but two systems – Atlanta and Seattle – saw reductions in full-time staff between 2008 and 2010, ranging from cutback rates in the low single digits to 25 percent in both L.A. and Phoenix and 34 percent in Charlotte. Every city except for San Francisco saw decreases in public revenue dedicated to libraries.

But at the same time, total library visits between 2005 and 2011 were up in 9 of the cities, with double-digit increases in 7 of them. Despite cuts, people seem to be using – and in need of – their local libraries more than ever. And if numbers from Philadelphia can be seen as a proxy for what's happening in other cities, it isn't just story time and research papers that are bringing people to these libraries.

Eichel's research found that 79 percent of visitors over the last 12 months used the Philadelphia library to do the usual: check out books. The second most common activity, though, is computer use, at 57 percent. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of people using the library for computers grew by 80 percent. Growth in the use of the library's circulation materials, on the other hand, grew by just 12 percent.

"Libraries, particularly branch libraries and particularly those in low-income communities, are being asked to perform a number of functions that most people probably don't associate with libraries," Eichel says. "They 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."

And this is what makes it such an unfortunate time for library systems to be facing such deep cuts. Now is the time when libraries are most needed by people with limited incomes and educations and resources looking to increase all three. The Pew report highlights this state of affairs, but recognizes that until city and state budgets become less contentious, the trend of pulling funds from local libraries is likely to continue.

Photo credit: George Frey / Reuters. Charts courtesy Pew Charitable Trusts.

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