March 16, 2018

The Budget Balancing Act: LJ’s Budget Survey Shows Modest Improvement, and Signs of More To Come

Though there aren’t a lot of whoops and cheers to be heard, a cautious optimism seems to describe the 2012 library budget landscape, according to LJ’s annual survey. Some 60 percent of libraries increased their funding, while 36 percent decreased it. Only four percent stayed the same.

Overall, the 488 libraries responding saw an average 1.2 percent increase compared to last year, which saw a 0.7 percent drop. Since 2008, library budgets have remained essentially flat: minor seesawing from year to year has added up to a 0.7 percent increase. Inflation in the same period has increased 6.9 percent, meaning that in comparable dollars libraries have 6.2 percent less spending power.

The year saw some regional variation in library support. Libraries in the Northeast were the most likely to increase their library budgets, at 65 percent, yet those that saw cuts saw the deepest cuts of all: the region was the only one to notice a negative percent change overall. The South and the West hovered closely around the national average of 60 percent with increases, but the Midwest lagged—only 54 percent of libraries saw an increase in funding, and 43 percent suffered cuts. The total change was greatest in the West, however, at 2.5 percent—the only region to beat inflation.

Signs of change

There were happy developments and perhaps hopeful signs of more change to come on November’s ballot. Most notably, Multnomah County, OR, voted to create a permanent library district, a development foreshadowed by the county’s May levy victory by an 82 percent margin. “This wasn’t a narrow victory, it was a resounding victory,” says Jeff Cogen, Multnomah County commission chair.

Vailey Oehlke, director of libraries in Multnomah County, says, “What’s fabulous is that we are now in a position where we can restore services and think creatively about what we need to do for the future. We’ve been in a ­hunker-down mentality and that is very limiting in our sense of the future and of what’s possible and of what can be, but now, suddenly, the doors are open, and it’s a wonderful changing of the ­conversation.”

Nor is Multnomah an isolated case: bonds to benefit libraries passed at the state level in New Mexico, as well as in Fairfax County, VA, and Houston, TX; while Denver passed a tax hike to extend library hours, Ohio passed every library levy on its ballots, including a 45 percent increase in funding in Toledo–­Lucas County. Levies did well all around the country, in fact. However, the time is evidently not yet ripe for new library construction: funding for eight new libraries in five states was defeated, including Ann Arbor’s $65 million bond issue.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles was able to restore library hours, the second phase of renewed services enabled by the 2011 passage of Measure L; New York City avoided $90 million of a threatened $96 million cut to library funding; and the state of Georgia found funds to keep its archives opened after all.

Still, it wasn’t all good news. Among the many towns facing local cuts, budgets were so tight in Sunland Park, NM; Pomona, CA; and Dade County, GA, that all three locales were threatened with complete closure. The threat was averted, but barely: in Pomona, for example, the director laid off all employees, himself included, and went with a plan to staff the library with part-time support.

On the federal level, at least, it’s business as usual: President Obama requested $231,953,777 for FY13 for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which is the same amount as the agency’s current funding (including $184.7 million for the Library Services & Technology Act).

The state of the states

State funding was particularly hard hit this year. California governor Jerry Brown put forth a state budget with zero funding for libraries for the second year in a row; Louisiana eliminated state aid to public libraries; and Florida’s governor Rick Scott vetoed funding for the state’s regional multitype library cooperatives.

According to LJ’s survey, overall state funding fell 8.3 percent this year. Only 14 percent of libraries saw an increase in state funding. A plurality, 44 percent, saw a decrease, and 42 percent remained steady.

Says Lisa Loranc of Brazoria County Library System, TX, in response to the survey, “County government has been supportive…but the loss of practically all state funding has had to be absorbed by the materials budget.”

Changes in state funding varied dramatically by region: while the Midwest and Northeast saw single digit drops, and the South 10.3 percent, the West saw state funding for libraries fall by one-third (33.9 percent). California is the reason for the lion’s share of that drop: the 31 libraries responding from that state saw their state funding fall 63.7 percent. (Interestingly, though, other sources of funding were able to cover the shortfall: the same libraries saw their total funding rise 4.8 ­percent.)

Where the money goes

This year’s average total operating budget was $6,294,000, up a modest 1.2 percent over the previous fiscal year. Personnel remained the highest cost, at $4,052,000, a 2.2 percent increase, even though 28 percent of libraries surveyed had decreased staff. (Exactly half saw no change, and 21 percent increased head count.) Materials spending was essentially flat, dropping by 0.2 percent.

Of materials spending, by far the majority continues to go for print books, at 60 percent, compared to 2011’s 61 percent for print spending. For all the ink devoted to ebooks for libraries, only five percent of materials spending is currently used to acquire ebooks. While that shows growth compared to last year’s four percent, it is still less than half the 10.3 percent spent on DVDs and downloadable movies. Audiobooks split the difference at 7.5 percent. Other electronic products, including reference, garnered 8.3 percent. Music barely got a look at 2.7 ­percent.

Turning to advocacy

Many responding libraries cited advocacy as one of their most effective ways to cope with budget limitations. And 2012 offered several groundbreaking new advocacy resources for libraries. EveryLibrary, the first national library political action committee (PAC), launched, which will raise funds nationally and spend them on local library ballot initiatives such as tax rates, bonds, and other referenda. The organization is planning to build toolkits to help libraries make their own advocacy more effective and, in the long run, hopes to “have the staff who can help your library’s initiative from prefiling through Election Day,” according to founder John Chrastka.

In addition, the Neal-Schuman Foundation gave $75,000 to United for Libraries to develop the “Citizens-Save-Libraries” initiative (though the grant will be the last from the foundation), which will help libraries develop blueprints for advocacy campaigns. The Small but Powerful Guide to advocacy for rural libraries has been updated to include sections on social media and data collection, and Library Strategies, the consulting arm of the the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, has created Frontline Fundraising guidelines for the American Library ­Association.

Even before those tools became available, evidence suggests that library advocacy has been effective: nearly half of the libraries surveyed felt their local politicians were supportive and committed to the libraries value, at 48 percent; another 44 percent said theirs were somewhere in the middle. Only eight percent felt their local politicians were unsupportive of the library. In the community, the news was even better, with more than half, 55 percent, reporting strong Friends groups, foundations, or advocates, and another 42 percent saying they had some advocacy. Only three percent said their community was uncommitted to the library. (In 2011, the survey saw similar results.)

The bad news, of course, is that if politicians and communities are already supportive, conveying the libraries’ value more effectively may not do much to alleviate zero-sum budget pressures. As Patricia Conley of Washington County Library, MN, says, “It doesn’t work just to point out that libraries serve an important purpose—all county departments do!” Indeed, despite cuts, a large majority of the libraries surveyed—some 87 percent—feel they had been treated fairly compared with other governmental agencies.

Cutting to fit

Of the strategies cited for dealing with budget limitations, not surprisingly, cutting spending tops the list. Or, as Stephanie Loney of Chula Vista Public Library, CA, puts it, “Robbing library Peter to pay library Paul!” Cutting staff and/or hours; replacing retirees with younger, cheaper workers; replacing librarians with noncredentialed library workers; instituting furloughs; and cutting materials budgets were some of the many efficiencies cited by respondents.

Implementing new technology was also frequently mentioned, not only to replace manpower (such as self-checkout) but to collect data that helps library planners make such tough decisions where they will do the most good—or the least harm. “Do a quantitative analysis before heavy investment,” advises Hillary Theyer of Torrance Public Library, CA. “Make each database show use.”

Even the smartest cuts, however, can’t go on indefinitely without compromising services. “We’re masters of finding efficiencies, but I think we’re tapped out at this point,” says Jean Frazier of Beach Haven Public Library, NJ, echoing the sentiments of many in this year’s survey.

Thinking outside the levy

Many libraries said applying for grants was one of their most successful strategies. Linda Ballard of Chelsea District Library, MI, even hired a professional grant-writer, which “greatly improved” the percentage of grants the library won. “Grant-writing has allowed us to innovate. Local fundraising, not so much,” Nan Carmack of Campbell County Public Library System, VA, sums up. Grants received by this year’s survey respondents allowed them to become a public computing center, increase hours, improve their building, increase broadband speed, and more. However grants are aimed, as Carmack says, at innovation. What they don’t do is replace ongoing funding for established operations.

Looking forward

Overall, this year’s survey may be an early indication that America’s libraries have turned the corner after several years of recession-driven financial austerity. While the straitened budgets of the past few years have certainly not been restored in a lump, the numbers are looking a little healthier—and the mood of optimism is looking better yet. The 2012 election, with its significant victories for libraries, helped a lot to change the ­conversation.

Significant variables that could impact next year’s budget landscape still hang in the balance at press time. Regionally, while recovery efforts are well under way, the final toll of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on libraries in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic is still ­unknown.

Nationally, the impending “fiscal cliff” and lawmakers’ response to it are the unanswered $64,000 questions, as of press time. But if policymakers can find a way to walk the country back from the edge without massive cuts to public services, U.S. libraries appear poised for slow but significant progress in 2013 and beyond.

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

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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