December 7, 2016

LJ Index 2012: Surviving the Recession

While the effects of the 2007–09 recession were front of mind when we were designing the LJ Index, no one realized how long or how severe it would be. In our last article we examined pre- and postrecession patterns in library output statistics and noted the growth in public library visits per capita and circulation per capita—a trend that continues into 2012.

Nevertheless, based on the IMLS data from 2006 through 2010, public libraries as a group have weathered the economic downturn surprisingly well, suggesting that mobilization of support for public libraries has been reasonably effective. As Table 3 indicates, among all public libraries rated in this LJI edition (and which also reported 2006 operating expenditures data to IMLS), the median percent change in total operating expenditures increased in the positive teens in every LJ Index expenditure group. When adjusted for inflation, however, these increases hover in the middle single-digit percentages (as seen in the column labeled Median Adjusted Percent Change). For example, the typical inflation-adjusted growth for libraries in the $30M+ expenditure group has been 5.5 percent. Since this is a cumulative figure from 2006 through 2010, the median annual increase for this group has been about 1.1 percent per year, again, adjusted for inflation.

In groups of data, median values are equivalent to 50th percentiles. Thus, one-half of the libraries’ actual figures will be higher than those in Table 3, and one-half will be lower—leaving a lot of leeway for variation. This variation is illustrated in Figure 1 for all 2012-rated libraries in all expenditure categories, where a fairly even spread of positive and negative median expenditure changes from 2006 to 2010 is apparent. Three-quarters of all rated libraries had expenditure changes of 19.7 percent or less, while one-quarter had changes of -3.5 percent or less. The median change for all rated libraries is 6.8 percent. Not marked in Figure 1 is that 32 percent of all libraries had a five-year percentage change of zero percent or less.

Recession global, acting local

Useful as they are, statistical summaries do not sufficiently reflect economic realities at the local level. We became acutely aware of how the circumstances of local libraries can vary while speaking with John Spears, director of Naperville Public Library, IL ($10M–$29.9M). This is one of the libraries that earned 5-Star ratings in every LJI edition (see “5 Stars, 5 Editions“). From 2009 through 2012 this library lost 15 percent of its tax support, or $2.25 million. Like other large library systems, Naperville was forced to adjust quickly and deliberately. The library eliminated staff positions, froze salaries, cut training and materials expenditures, withdrew from OCLC, and reduced open hours. According to Spears, the difficult economy became an opportunity for the library to reinvent itself. This self-assessment led to redefined job roles, revised interdepartmental work procedures, and greater staff involvement in key decisions. In the process, the library set up two staff blogs as open forums for suggestions and comments and to keep communication lines open. This contributed to increased employee satisfaction (Naperville periodically conducts morale surveys) even during the salary freeze.

A financial crisis also had a profound effect on San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) ($30M+ category), except the crisis in question happened in the 1990s when city financial woes led to service and hour cuts at the branches. Deputy City Librarian Jill Bourne told us that, in response to these funding difficulties, San Francisco amended its city charter to establish the aptly named Library Preservation Fund. In 2007, San Francisco voters extended this funding for 15 years. It guaranteed the library a portion of city property tax (2¢ per $100 tax valuation) and a steady portion of general city funding. This sort of insurance along with San Francisco’s resilient economy explain the library’s ability to increase its expenditures from $59.6 million in 2006 to $81.9 million in 2010, a 28 percent increase when adjusted for inflation.

Now SFPL, which earned Star awards in three LJI editions, has been able to increase its hours steadily since 2007, so that it will soon have 16 branches open seven days a week and 12 branches, six days. More open hours mean more opportunity for SFPL to respond to the needs of patrons and especially local job-seekers. The library provides more free drop-in computer lab hours and classes, partnering in this effort with the California Employment Development Department as well as local technology firms. The library’s solid funding has kept its collections budget healthy at a time when collections expenditures have been the first thing other libraries have reduced. Also, the largest capital improvement program in the library’s history is nearing completion, with branch reconstruction and renovation work done in partnership with the city’s Departments of Public Works and Environment, making SFPL’s buildings energy efficient and sustainable.

Small changes still add up

There are likewise stories of smaller Star Libraries whose funding base and limited size have allowed them to weather the economic storm. One such library is Norfolk Public Library, CT ($200K–$399K category), which earned four or five Stars in each of the five LJI editions. Codirected by Robin Yuran and Rich Dann, the library is located in a town where the population nearly doubles in the summer from its roughly 1,600 off-season level. Home of the Yale University Summer School of Music and Art, Norfolk is a hotbed of cultural activities, and the library is at the center of many of them. For example, when we spoke with the directors the library had just hosted an authors fundraiser. Under a large, breezy tent, local authors discussed their works, read poetry, and signed books. (Yuran is a poet, by the way.) The library’s classic 1889 Victorian building serves as an inviting backdrop for the friendly services and engaging programs the library offers. Norfolk PL’s roughly $360K operating expenditures are funded through the library’s endowment, fundraising efforts, and a small amount of city funding. From 2006 through 2010, its operating budget increased by about eight percent, although adjusted for inflation this amounts to about one percent. Yuran told us a key ingredient in the library’s success is the loyalty and support of its local community of patrons.

Another solid example is Coal City Public Library District, IL ($1M-$4.9M category). The district library, which earned Stars in the 2011 and in this 2012 LJI edition, enjoys a tax base supported by the nearby Dresden Nuclear Power Plant. Still, the library actively solicits support from its community. Director Jolene Franciskovic recounted how responses to a recent solicitation of local business for prizes for an upcoming fundraiser tripled compared to past campaigns. Since Coal City library is descended from a reading room established in 1886, it has a history of strong community involvement. Operating as an all-volunteer library through the 1960s, it hired its first librarian in 1970. Located in a 15,628 square foot building opened in 1992, the library is now celebrating its 20th anniversary as a library and 25 years as a district. Its tradition of strong community support coupled with a solid tax base enabled the library’s expenditures to increase 43 percent (adjusted for inflation), from $717,498 in 2006 to $1.1 million in 2010. Franciskovic told us that the LJI Star awards are a great help in assuring residents that the library is a valuable community asset. “People who have moved away and return to visit Coal City tell us how they now realize what a great library we have here.” This library’s story illustrates the results that come from loyal community support and a library that delivers responsive, high-quality library service.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Ray Lyons & Keith Curry Lance About Ray Lyons & Keith Curry Lance

Ray Lyons ( is an independent consultant and statistical programmer in Cleveland. His articles on library statistics and assessment have also appeared in Public Library Quarterly, Public Libraries, and Evidence Based Library and Information Practice. He blogs on library statistics and assessment at
Keith Curry Lance ( is an independent consultant based in suburban Denver. He also consults with the Colorado-based RSL Research Group. In both capacities, he conducts research on libraries of all types for state library agencies, state library associations, and other library-related organizations. For more information, visit

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