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Thursday, February 17, 2011

How are public libraries faring around the country?

LJ's 2010 Budget Survey: Bottoming Out?

Severe cuts today put big question marks on the future
Jan 15, 2011 

Examining Library Journal ’s annual budget survey is like scanning a battlefield: there are bodies everywhere, the smoke and dust are blinding, and from over the horizon comes the unnerving sound of machines that promise either bitter havoc or sweet salvation.
The past year did give reason for hope. In November, voters in California and Colorado beat back by large margins ballot measures that would have severely damaged library budgets in those states. In Ohio, a bellwether state, 30 of 38 library ballot issues passed, including numerous local levies to bolster dwindling state funding.
Nonetheless, the overall trend in FY10 was a brutal grasping by money-starved government officials for the low-hanging fruit of library budgets: 72 percent of survey respondents said their budget had been cut, and 43 percent had staff cuts.
Among libraries serving populations above one million, these figures were even more acute, with 86 percent reporting budget cuts in their libraries and 93 percent reducing staff. They also reported a drop in service hours that on average equaled two branch closings.
A total of 3,036 public libraries were sent the survey in late 2010; 647 responded.
A cautiously optimistic outlook
Despite the cuts, a constructive spirit animated many of the survey’s respondents, with 62 percent saying they were optimistic about the future and only 18 percent pessimistic. The rest were neutral.
That overall optimism was reflected in budget outlooks for FY11. While budgets in FY10 declined 1.3 percent, libraries are projecting that FY11 funding will increase 0.8 percent.
The caution of the optimists and the gloom of the pessimists led both to make frequent reference to the need, in a penurious climate, to stay relevant to the community and to embrace technological innovations,
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such as ebooks and mobile phone apps.
“Technology is a big part of our future,” wrote Cathy Ziegler, director of the Plano Public Library, TX (pop. 290,000). “We need to reach and serve people where they are, and where they are is on handheld devices.”
Some warned that lack of money could derail the rapid adjustments necessary to remain relevant.
“Libraries have adapted in the past, but we may not have the resources to adapt quickly enough to survive in the [future], especially if the public goes elsewhere for the services we are accustomed to providing,” wrote John J. Callahan III of Palm Beach County Library, West Palm Beach, FL (pop. 840,821). “For example, DVD circulation can be as much as 35 to 40 percent of current circulation. What happens when video is only downloadable? How will libraries fit into that model?” he asked.
In California, where a cratered real-estate market has eviscerated budgets across the state, the mood for some was resolutely positive.
“Our community values the library and is vocal in [its] support,” wrote Paula Weiner of the Torrance Public Library, CA (pop. 149,717). “In response to community demand, the city council refused to cut back Sunday operating hours. If the economy turns around (and we believe it will), the library will continue to remain a vital force in the community.”
But Cathleen Russ of the Troy Public Library, MI (pop. 80,000), provided this sober caution: “Public libraries are not sacred cows any more, and librarians need to accept this and make their libraries viable to protect them against future challenges.”
The library in Troy lost a ten-year millage vote in November and is scheduled to close June 30, 2011.
Fighting to keep money
Thirty percent of libraries serving populations of 25,000 to 49,999 were pessimistic—they were the most gloomy bunch.
“Presently, there is a pervading feeling of uncertainty about funding and obviously the stability of employment with the local library,” Brian Dinwoody of Michigan’s Alma Public Library (pop. 40,000) wrote.
Michigan’s 103 public libraries have been fighting to have restored $3.2 million in state aid that was cut for FY11 despite a law that requires the state to pay the money to compensate property tax–dependent libraries for revenue lost through tax-free business zones.
Next door, Illinois’s nine regional library systems—which provide the integrated library system, interlibrary loan, and delivery service for all public libraries in the state—have been struggling to survive, as the state only provided in December the full funding for FY10, which ended June 30. The money for FY11 remains a question mark. Small libraries in particular rely on the regional systems.
“In Illinois, the loss of our library systems will have a huge, negative impact on libraries. We are strong and resilient and so will carry on, but this is a definite step backward for library service in Illinois,” wrote a librarian there who did not wish to be identified.
In addition, Illinois voters did not show much of an appetite for supporting library referenda: of the ten measures on the November ballot, only four passed.
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Mixed bag in Ohio
In some places, more positive election results propelled a hopeful outlook.
“Ecstatic today since our additional continuous levy (one mill) passed…and by 52.82 percent!” wrote Therese ­Feicht, Geauga County Public Library, Chardon, OH (pop. 85,322). “We can restore cuts, plan, and build the library our community wants going forward.... [The] next battle will be to keep public library funding in the state budget as it has been since the 1930s.”
Ohio libraries depend for much of their revenue on a percentage (1.97 percent) of the state’s total tax take, distributed through the Public Library Fund (PLF). As that base shrinks in the downturn, the success of local levies proves crucial to maintaining library services.
For example, a 1.8-mill, five-year levy voters approved in November for the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County will generate about $7.4 million annually. This will likely increase the library’s FY11 operating budget to $18.62 million, up from $11.69 million in FY10.
The value of library districts
Some 28 percent of survey respondents reported that they had no budget cuts in FY10. They frequently credited the existence of a library district, a dedicated millage, or a state “maintenance of effort” statute.
Overall, 28 percent of the survey respondents had an autonomous district, but in the Midwest, which includes Ohio, that number hit 47 percent. In the South, the number was only 12 percent. This may help explain why
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funding in the Midwest is higher per capita ($56.75) than in the Northeast ($46.84), the West/Mountain area ($46.66), and the South ($28.98).
“The library service district has a strong and diversified tax base,” wrote Wendy A. Phillips of Carmel Clay Public Library in Carmel, IN (pop. 80,000). “Revenue declines may be projected in the future, but [they are] delayed because we started from a healthier position.”
However, local property tax revenue, on which millages depend, can be a fickle funding base that varies from one locality to the next.
That’s good for some—“Revenues continue to exceed expenditures; less downturn in property values here than elsewhere,” wrote Jerry Meyer of Davis County Library in Farmington, UT (pop. 295,000)—but not for others.
For instance, the County of Los Angeles Public Library system, which serves 3.7 million people and is property-tax based, faces a structural deficit of $22 million a year for the next decade. This calamity is largely owing to the real estate bust in southern California that shrunk property-tax collections 3.2 percent in FY10, with a projected 4.4 percent for FY11.
The library commission there has recommended that the library pursue putting a measure on the ballot in 2011 to increase and broaden a special tax in order to avoid having to remake its service model to compensate for the deficits.
Also, statewide budget troubles in California have sometimes pushed communities into the waiting arms of Library Systems & Services LLC (LSSI), a private company that promises to run libraries for less money. For example, in October, Santa Clarita withdrew from the Los Angeles County system to sign a contract with LSSI. The decision further complicated the system’s finances and drew criticism.
“Libraries in California cannot fulfill [our] basic mission of providing materials with [the] pathetic per capitas available. The result is [a] predatory gobble up via privatization, which will downgrade the professionalism of libraries and provide minimal bookstore service via delivery from one vast warehouse à la Amazon,” wrote Clara DiFelice of the Beaumont District Library, CA (pop. 63,172).
California voters, however, did approve Proposition 22 in November, which will prohibit the state from either borrowing or diverting local taxes back to the California General Fund, thus protecting local revenues, including funding for libraries.
Nationwide, a too narrow tax base was also a concern for rural libraries striving to provide basic services.
“This lack of funding prevents [rural libraries] from having vital collections and from moving forward into electronic books and social media options for both service and library marketing,” warned Katherine Brown of the Sterling Municipal Library, TX (pop. 72,000). “Their users will move into more electronic uses and resources without the library maintaining relevance in their lives as a source of information.”
Spending/revenue will rise
The hopeful FY11 budget numbers noted are just a projection that could easily change, but for the 65 percent of survey respondents who said they were dependent on an appropriation from a government entity, there are some grounds for that optimism.
The National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) reported in November that 35 states had enacted an FY11 budget with general fund spending levels above FY10. The association forecasts that general fund spending will rise 5.3 percent in FY11. Even with that increase, state general fund spending would still remain 6.2 percent below the FY08 level.
In addition, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reported in a September fiscal brief that 40 states expect total tax collections in FY11 to be higher than in FY10.
Those upticks, however, will meet the coming reality that many libraries will ultimately have to deal with the ripple effect from the phasing out of federal stimulus funds, what NASBO called the “cliff of 2012.”
In November, for example, New York City’s three library systems saw their FY11 budgets cut a collective $16.5 million in mid-fiscal year in part because the city had to begin taking steps to replace $853 million of expiring federal stimulus funding.
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The political atmosphere
Many of the survey respondents pointed to heightened advocacy as a key to protecting library budgets, whether in Colorado, where three antitax propositions that would have gutted library budgets were defeated, or elsewhere.
“Our Friends group practices strong advocacy in many ways. This year, it took the lead to make fundraising for our new community library a priority,” wrote Carmen Martinez, the director of the Oakland Public Library
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(pop. 452,155). “It had never focused on just one issue before, and with its support we closed the $3 million fundraising goal under deadline.”
Some library officials said they did not have the wherewithal to blunt the budget knife.
“We do not have the political clout to withstand whatever lunacy may prevail at the polls, particularly the financial conservancy that pervades the current election season,” wrote a librarian from Kansas who wished to remain ­anonymous.
Some respondents said local authorities simply realized that libraries had already suffered sharp cuts in FY08 and FY09 and decided enough was enough. However, 18 percent said they had been treated unfairly, like “the village stepchild,” in relation to other government sectors. This feeling was particularly prevalent in the Northeast (33 percent).
“The libraries in Pennsylvania are funded under the Department of Education. While schools received a significant increase in funding, the appropriation for libraries was slashed 22 percent in FY09/10 and an additional 11 percent for FY10/11,” wrote Christine McIntosh of Bethel Park Public Library, PA (pop. 33,000).
Additionally, 19 percent of respondents were surprised by the severity of their budget cuts.
Coping with the losses
The budget reductions took a toll on library staffing. Overall, 43 percent of respondents reported a decrease in the number of positions, going on average from 85.7 FTEs in FY09 to 82 FTEs in FY10.
The libraries reporting no change in staffing (42 percent) were the smallest libraries, already often run by one full-time staffer, plus part-time employees and volunteers. The libraries serving one million or more on average lost 9.5 percent of their staff (74 employees)—far higher than any other category.
Lending books remained firmly ensconced as the most important library service, followed by computer usage, AV lending, programming, career help, and providing reference resources. But some respondents sense change coming.
“We are in the infamous ‘interesting times,’ ” Greg Mullen of Santa Monica Public Library, CA (pop. 92,703), wrote. “It is the evolution of library services and library resources that will make the years ahead challenging and exciting.”
From a total sample of 3,036 U.S. public libraries, 647 responded, for an overall response rate of 21 percent. Results are accurate to within +/-3 percent. Data appearing in total has been weighted to reflect the 2005 Public Library Data Service (PLDS) breakdown of public libraries by population served.

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