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Larry Eichel

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Urban Libraries in 2012: Under Pressure and In Demand

Posted: 03/13/2012 3:23 pm

Big-city public libraries have rarely been as popular as they are today and rarely as besieged.

The hard economic times of recent years have generated increased demand for the free and varied services that libraries provide, even as revenue-challenged local governments have cut back on contributions to library budgets. All of this comes at a time when libraries are being asked to perform a new and changing range of functions.

Due partly to their role as society's default providers of computer and Internet access, today's urban libraries do much more than lend books and DVDs. They help city residents--including those with limited incomes and educations--find jobs, obtain health information, and get connected to government services and benefits.

In so doing, libraries are fulfilling what has been called their "shadow mandate," supporting and complementing the work of other public and quasi-public agencies. City residents have come to see libraries, particularly neighborhood branches, as multipurpose community centers, offering business services, tax assistance, safe havens for children after school, public meeting spaces, and places where immigrants can learn English.

All of this helps explain, as city officials across the country have learned, why it is so hard to close a library branch. The public pushback, which has come in the form of protests, demonstrations and lawsuits, is just too strong. In Detroit recently, a plan to close six branches became a plan to close four, then three, and finally just one. City residents are passionate about their libraries.

Our new report, "The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future," looks at the recent experiences of 15 big-city library systems across the country. From 2008 through 2010, when the recession took a big bite out of local government revenues, the libraries saw their government funding cut by an average of 10 percent. These cuts resulted in roughly proportional reductions in staff and hours. And yet, in 13 of the 15 systems studied, library use is higher today than it was six years ago in terms of visits, circulation or both--as this interactive graphic shows.

Much of the increase in library visits has been driven by people coming in to use computers. In Philadelphia, where library visits have risen 11 percent since 2005, the number of computer sessions has increased by 80 percent. Free Internet access has turned libraries into places where city residents, often with help from librarians or dedicated computer assistants, can accomplish tasks that otherwise would require trips to the unemployment office, the health clinic, or City Hall. Said one Philadelphia librarian: "People just think of the library as the first place to go."

In addition, partnerships have sprung up between libraries and other agencies and organizations. In Chicago, the local Federal Reserve System and several banks work with the library to provide adult and youth financial-literacy information. In Queens, in conjunction with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the library offers health-literacy classes and information at the branches where the need is biggest. In Philadelphia, Project H.O.M.E., a service provider to the homeless, operates a café and conducts homeless outreach at the main library.

The urban libraries that have shown the biggest growth in usage tend to be the ones that have been the most aggressive in adapting to the needs of their populations. And that goes beyond providing more computers.

At the Brooklyn Public Library, where circulation rose 31 percent from 2005 to 2011, officials point to investment in children's materials and programming as one driver of their institution's growing popularity. Baltimore and Seattle, where visits were up 25 and 22 percent respectively, benefited from opening new or refurbished neighborhood branches.

Other library systems have created centers for teenagers, a group previously considered beyond their reach, or have extensive weekend hours in place. Some cities, including Seattle, have built new flagship facilities that allow them to better address the way people us libraries today. Others, such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore, have radically reconfigured existing spaces for the same reason.

In the early days of the economic downturn, many city and county officials saw library spending as a place to cut, figuring that library services were not as essential as such municipal basics as public safety. Those cuts are continuing in some cities. But when advocates have managed to get library-funding measures on the ballot, those measures have been approved by huge margins--in Columbus (OH) in 2010, and in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in 2011.

The changes that have swept urban libraries are sure to continue in the years to come, with technological transformation at the forefront. There may come a day when Internet access becomes nearly universal and the urban poor no longer rely on libraries as their portals to the online world; some library systems already are seeing a leveling off in demand for public-access computers. Over time, more and more of the books, information and services offered by libraries will be accessed remotely, raising questions about the need for bricks and mortar.

As libraries struggle to keep up with changing demands in an era of limited resources, officials will have to make tough choices about which services to add and which to discard. They will have to be flexible, creative and nimble, striking an ever-changing balance between the old and the new.

"We will survive as institutions," Mary Dempsey, who ran the Chicago Public Library until earlier this year, said when her system faced budget cuts. "But the question is: What will we look like when this is over?"

 
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