Difficult Chapter

02.16.13

Can Libraries Survive in an Era of Budget Cutbacks?

They are more in demand than ever in this digital age. But across the country, budget cutbacks are forcing many of these community resources to close their doors.

Middletown Township’s main public library will soon be its only library. After extreme budget cuts and plunging revenue ravaged the New Jersey institution, all three of its branches will be shuttered for good next month.

“Our municipal appropriations in the state of New Jersey have gone down since 2009, we’ve lost several hundred thousand dollars in funding from the township and at the same time, the township has charged us for an additional $300,000 in insurance, which is an annual cost,” says Susan O’Neal, Middletown’s public library director.

In addition, part of the libraries’ plight stems from Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the property tax revenue that helped keep the shelves filled with books.

Area residents didn’t take the proposed closures lightly, organizing town-hall meetings and drives to keep the institutions open. Despite the support, the libraries still lack the necessary funds.

“The storm just gave us a heads up on what’s going to happen in the future … We think we are going to be hit even harder,” O’Neal says.

Libraries nationwide are facing cutbacks and shutdowns. Like those in Middletown, most are also facing a Catch 22: the stagnant economy blew a hole in their budgets. At the same time, as people look for low-cost access to information and entertainment, it has also boosted their demand.

Essentially, libraries are closing down just when their communities need them the most.

According to a 2010 study from the Online Computer Library Center, 81 percent of Americans who have been “economically impacted” by the recession have a library card, compared to 68 percent who have not.

“Lots of libraries provide income-tax assistance, financial literacy, and reading literacy. They are helping people solve their problems in their daily lives as well as providing resources at no cost,” says Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Many libraries offer small-business classes, job-application assistance, and access to online job-search centers. Between 2010 and 2011, 88 percent of libraries provided access to job databases and resources and 72 percent offered patrons staff assistance.

Essentially, libraries are closing down just when their communities need them the most.

“Particularly in the last four or five years we have been doing tremendous amounts of work helping people to apply to jobs, most of which is done online and helping with résumé and interview skills,” Hildreth says.

DeKalb County Public Library in Decatur, Georgia, began experiencing a strained budget in 2009, after the financial crisis. Its collection funds, which went toward purchasing reading materials, were the hardest hit, with cuts reducing its annual endowment from $2.2 million to $100,000.

But despite the cuts, the demand for the libraries’ services kept mushrooming.

“There is an increase in need. Our services are free so people who are out of jobs come to use library resources to look for a job. A large number of people are coming to use our computers and families are bringing their children to our free programs. So the demand has certainly gone up while our resources have gone down,” says Janet Florence, a spokeswoman for the libraries.

Public libraries and branches are also increasingly becoming victims of hard economic times.

A Funding and Technology Access study found that in 2011, 60 percent of libraries reported flat or decreased operating budgets, up from 40 percent just two years earlier. In addition, a recently released study by IMLS found that 274 public libraries closed between 2009 and 2010.

Library budgets are often slashed when squeezed states steer funding to services deemed more vital.

“Our libraries are funded primarily with local tax dollars. I think that those local choices can be challenging when you have to determine whether you are going to fund your police and firemen or garbage waste disposal,” Hildreth says.

Libraries are on the back burner in numerous states. Last year, Texas issued across-the-board cuts in library funding, reducing the budget by 64 percent. The overall state library budget is expected to shrink from $19.8 million annually to $7.2 million. In Michigan, many libraries folded under budget constraints. The state reported more than 20 closures last year.

Although there isn’t yet a light at the end of the tunnel, Hildreth hopes libraries will survive because of the public need and the funds that have already been invested in them.

“When you think about libraries in general, they are a huge public infrastructure that is already out there,” she says. “The country has invested and communities are very proud of these buildings and they don’t want to let them go.