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 -- apply for 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.
This helps explain, as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter learned a few years ago when he proposed closing 11 of the city’s branches, why it is so hard to close libraries. The public pushback, often in the form of 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. In Philadelphia, none were shuttered.
From 2008 through 2010, when the recession took a big bite out of local government revenues, the Free Library of Philadelphia took a harder hit than most of the other systems studied, losing 19 percent of its government funding, 14 percent of its staff, and 12 percent of its scheduled hours. In Nutter’s proposed budget for Fiscal 2013, the city’s operating-fund contribution to the library is slated to go down slightly, although the drop is accompanied by a new $7-million, three-year, Neighborhood Library Improvement Program.
Despite the financial setbacks, library use is higher today than it was six years ago in most of the systems we studied, the Free Library included, in terms of visits and circulation -- as our interactive graphic shows
Much of the increase in library visits has been driven by people coming in to use computers. In Philadelphia, where visits have risen 11 percent since 2005, the number of computer sessions has increased by 80 percent. Free Internet access has helped turn 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.”
The urban libraries that have shown the biggest growth in usage tend to be the ones that have been the most aggressive—more so than the Free Library on some fronts -- 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 use libraries today. Pittsburgh and Baltimore radically reconfigured existing spaces for the same reason.
During the economic downturn, many city and county officials around the country saw library spending as a place to cut, figuring that library services were seen as more expendable than such municipal basics as public safety. Those cuts continue 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. This has not been tried in Philadelphia, a city with little history of dedicating tax revenues to specific purposes, other than committing part of the property tax to public schools.
Our report identified five policy challenges that the Free Library will have to confront in one way or another in the years to come:
- Prioritizing services to bring them more closely in line with public demand
- Reevaluating branch hours to help increase library use
- Making the main library, Parkway Central, a more welcoming place better suited to the way libraries are used today
- Securing sustainable funding or at least identifying what the funding level is likely to be moving forward
- Simplifying the Free Library’s complex governing structure
As libraries struggle to keep up with changing demands in an era of limited resources, officials constantly will have to make tough choices. They will have to be flexible, creative and nimble, striking an ever-changing balance between the old and the new. It will be extremely challenging, in Philadelphia and throughout urban America.
LARRY EICHEL is project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. The library report is available here. Send feedback here.