February 17, 2018

The Road Back

While every library hopes to see good news for its budget, of late, many will happily settle for no bad news. The year 2012 was marked by modest gains in library budgets and a stemming of the bleeding caused by cuts in the wake of the collapse of the financial sector and accompanying recession. As the economy continues its slow recovery, libraries, too, are managing to claw back some of the losses they’ve been asked to endure over the past few years. While gains are being made, though, they’re small ones and often hard fought.

Nationwide, dozens of measures aimed at funding libraries appeared on ballots in 2013. Proposed by libraries large and small, in bustling cities and quiet towns, each levy and bond measure has its own unique story and circumstances. But taken together, their successes and failures paint a picture of the current state of library funding. While the image that results is not as dire as the one that’s been seen in recent years, it also shows that most systems have yet to make up enough ground to return to the funding levels they saw prior to the economic collapse of 2008.


Budget watchers looking for a representative case study could look to Dallas, where the library system saw its budget get a boost to $22.4 million for the coming year. While that marks the second straight year of financial gains for the system, which saw most of its branches keep their doors open just 40 hours a week in 2013, it’s still $10 million shy of the prerecession budget of six years ago in absolute dollars.

Other systems are recovering from the budget blows they absorbed more quickly than anticipated. After libraries in Los Angeles faced a series of budget cuts that forced layoffs and cuts to hours across all branches, the budget has seen a turnaround: a four-year plan passed in 2011 intended to restore weekend service hours in some libraries is moving forward ahead of schedule, with hours that were not anticipated to be restored until 2015 now returning this year.

John Chrastka, director of the library budget political action committee Every Library, says that the modest gains made in 2013 are an important building block for further growth going forward. Chrastka says that the end of the housing crisis was good news for many library budgets. Increased rates of home sales and homes coming out of foreclosure mean more money for local municipalities, which provide the lion’s share of library funding and count on property taxes for a big chunk of their own revenues.


“The crisis of 2008 is working itself out in a couple of different ways, Chrastka says. “Houses that were in foreclosure are being sold, and the fact that they’re back on the property tax rolls is a good thing.”

From a random selection of 1,900 libraries nationwide, LJ heard back from 528, who let us know what their budget situation looked like. Nearly 7 out of 10 (68 percent) respondents reported that they had been able to increase their operating budgets in 2013.

Spending on staff

We can view 2013 as a people year: taking care of employees took precedence over growing collections. Staffing was the most popular service to receive more funding in 2013, with 49 percent of libraries surveyed reporting that they spent more money on staff in the last year. Increasing staffing dollars was a particularly high priority in suburban libraries, where 58 percent of respondents reported spending more on staff, while only 42 perecnt of urban libraries put more funding into staffing.

Strangely, that money didn’t necessarily result in many new library employees. From 2012 to 2013, staffing LJ140101budgetwebchart3rates stayed more or less static. More than half (55 percent) of respondents to LJ’s survey reported that they had hired no new staffers during the last year, and there was no overall net change in staff size year over year. Instead, libraries spent those dollars that went into staffing to pay current staff who, in many cases, had been toiling under stagnant wages for years, while hiring freezes often meant more responsibilities being heaped on their shoulders.

“This year, we focused on salary increases for staff,” said Laurel Best, a librarian at Huntsville Madison County Public Library, AL, in response to our survey. “Over the last five years, we had a [reduction in force], a retirement buyout, a hiring freeze, and no raises. This year we gave graduated raises of one to six percent and brought everyone up to 70 percent of market.”

Despite new money being added to staffing, many library systems still feel understaffed after several years of cutbacks that saw librarians laid off or positions eliminated through attrition. When librarians were asked what they would do if their library received more funding than they expected, the most popular answer was that they would add more staffers or restore eliminated positions. That answer was especially popular in rural and small-town libraries, both of which ranked increasing head count as the number one thing on which they would spend unexpected budget dollars. But libraries of all sizes ranked buoying their staff budgets, either to add new librarians or offer better wages to current ones, as a high priority. Brad Allen of the Lawrence Public Library, KS, typified the response, saying that the first thing he would do with an unexpected windfall would be to “increase staff salaries to promote better recruitment and retention.”

For many respondents, bringing in more staff would be a way to keep libraries open longer hours. LJ’s survey found that in an average week, libraries are open about 50.4 hours. That number is in line with recent trends, which have seen average open hours fluctuate in the past four years. It also represents a nearly 16 percent cut from the 2007 high point, which found libraries open to patrons an average of 59.7 hours every week. Many of the survey respondents who said they would use extra money in the budget to stay open more hours were looking to restore their libraries to earlier service levels, such as Mary Ellen Firestone of New Jersey’s East Brunswick Public Library, who said she would use unanticipated funding to restore “the hours we lost in 2012.”

The second most popular place to boost spending this year was increases to materials budgets. Some 50 percent of librarians surveyed reported an increase in their materials budget, while more than a third (35 percent) told LJ that their materials budget had decreased since 2012. While materials budgets were the most likely to take a hit in 2013, more libraries (43 percent) increased their materials budget than decreased it.

Local funders step up

While state funding for libraries remains in short supply, the continuing economic recovery has seen communities step up to reaffirm, and in some cases even raise, their financial support for local libraries. That includes some systems that have moved their funding out of a general municipal account, creating dedicated property taxes for libraries in an effort to stabilize levels of funding.

Size mattered, too, and this year it was best to be in the middle of the pack. Medium-size to large library systems serving populations of more than 10,000 and less than one million patrons reaped the biggest budget windfalls in 2013. Overall operating budgets for these libraries rose between 3.8 and 4.1 percent in 2013. Our survey showed that while smaller libraries still saw their budget situation improve, the average increase was just 2.1 percent, or just a little more than half the raise their larger cousins netted. Small libraries still did better than their relatives in the big city, though. Despite a good year for budgets in general, metropolitan libraries serving populations of more than a million actually saw their budgets fall slightly, off by 0.3 percent.

In New York, the New York Public Library (NYPL) staved off $47 million in proposed cuts that would have seriously affected services and could have forced some branches to close, only after more than 190,000 citizens sent in letters expressing their support for libraries. In the end, NYPL’s budget stayed flat, rather than seeing the bump that many others experienced in 2013. Though considering the sort of drastic cuts the system was facing, standing pat in this case looks like a victory.


Location, location, location

Perhaps reflecting such victories, in libraries serving large communities, the budget numbers are at odds with librarian perceptions of the support they get from local politicians and the community at large. In communities of under one million, where library budgets saw increases of between 2.1 and 4.2 percent in 2013, just 50 percent of librarians surveyed by LJ said local elected officials were supportive of libraries. Whereas in libraries serving more than one million, which saw their average budgets trimmed by 0.3 percent, librarians rated local politicos as supportive at a staggering 92 percent rate.

Geography also played a role in how much community support librarians perceived their institution to have. Ratings of strong community support remained largely flat around most of the country, with the Northeast seeing another of the small, gradual improvements that have been its hallmark in the last four years, and the Midwest seeing a slight drop-off. Meanwhile the West, which consistently reports the highest levels of community backing, maintained that lead, even after that number dropped precipitously from 80 percent to 67 percent in 2013, suddenly erasing the results of three years of steady upticks in that rating.


Geography mattered to funding levels this year as well. Our survey found that respondents in the Midwest and the South were the least likely to see budget cuts in 2013. In the Midwest, only 13 percent of respondents reported budget cuts, and only nine percent of respondents in the South saw their funding reduced, though the high-profile Atlanta-Fulton Public Library system may see its budget reduced by $7 million.

In the Northeast and west of the Rockies, though, that number was much higher; respectively, 24 and 26 percent of libraries in those regions suffered budget losses. The North Olympic Library system on Washington State’s peninsula suffered a three percent cut, its third budget trim in as many years. In Taos, NM, meanwhile, the city council experimented with the idea of making residents who live outside of city limits pay for library cards to fill impending budget gaps. A test of the idea went over like a lead balloon, and now the city council is back to square one, trying to find a way to bolster local libraries.


Chrastka also pointed out that library leaders, from directors to board members, have to be vigilant in watching local budgets as the economy continues to recover. Libraries also have to refuse to be shy about going out and getting funding. “If places have additional revenues,” advises Chrastka, “we need to focus on getting back from the givebacks. We’ve been told over the last few years to give back or do without, and we need to get that money back.” Otherwise, libraries could find the new lower funding levels they’ve had to cope with over the past few years becoming the new normal, paving the way for budget problems and staffing shortfalls that could linger long after the recession has passed.

“Just as with the economy in general, people are wondering whether this is the new normal,” says Public Library Association president-elect Larry Neal. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Neal points out that while library budgets this year aren’t perfect, many districts across the country have stabilized their funding—albeit at a lower level than they would like—or started to see small increases. Librarians and their allies are also being more proactive about asking for the help they need. “We’re also observing significant requests for funding,” Neal says. “Libraries are going back to the community and in many cases are being successful, so that’s encouraging.”

In anticipation of a brighter future for funding in coming years, as local economies continue to recover from the financial bust, Chrastka advises that this is a year to spend money if it’s available. “I’m loath to tell people to put anything into a rainy-day fund right now, because it has been pouring for years,” Chrastka says. “My strongest recommendation to any management at a library is, if you have surplus going out of 2013, address the things you’ve been deferring since 2008, like raises or repairs.”

For Neal, though, the important thing to remember is that, while budgets can feel like a yearly battle, funding a library is a long-term concern. “If you’re not thinking long term, you’re not going to be successful,” he says. “Today’s city council members are tomorrow’s state legislators; building lasting relationships with them can really pay off.”


  • The LJ Budget Survey was distributed to a random selection of 1,900 U.S. public libraries.
    The survey was faxed to a random sample of U.S. public library directors on October 21, 2013, with a reminder fax on November 12. The fax list was obtained from Market Data Retrieval. Seventy libraries whose faxes failed were mailed a print copy of the survey. A drawing to win one of five $100 gift certificates was offered as incentive.
  • The field closed on December 13, 2013.
  • A total of 532 libraries responded for an overall response rate of 28 percent.
  • The data was weighted by population served to even out fluctuations in respondent sample sizes in each group.
    Weighted percentages and averages are shown for total sample results only. Data appearing for specific population groups is unweighted.

Data was analyzed by Laura Girmscheid, LJ research manager.

This article was published in Library Journal's January 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.



  1. Good article. I am dealing with a few of these issues as well..