Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

To Fund or Not to Fund

There’s a new Pew Study out about libraries discussed in this article, and what would we do without yet another Pew Study?

There’s some bad news and some neutral news, which is about as good as any news gets these days.

The bad news, at least for public libraries, is that public library use is down. Supposedly, “the study confirms that Americans’ usage of libraries is sliding down in real terms.” Remember, you read it here first. Or perhaps at the Atlantic. Or perhaps at the Pew website itself.

Anyway, according to Pew, “the decline in library use is driven by technological change, so the report implicitly recommends that more libraries publicize their non-print services.”

I don’t see how that is even possible anymore. It seems like all libraries do these days is publicize their non-print services.

“We’re not your grandparents’ library! We’re not about books anymore! We’re not dusty warehouses of old books, even though no library has ever been that!” The refrain would be deafening if anyone was listening.

But no, says the Atlantic! Pew can go stew, because “Pew surveys aren’t the document of record” regarding library use in America.

What is? IMLS reports. Also, enjoy them while they last.

The latest report “showed a long downward trend in revenues” from 2002-2013. “What do revenues have to do with declining use? Possibly everything.” And, of course, possibly nothing, but let’s not go there.

The claim in correlation is simple. “We found that as investments, such as revenue, staffing, and programs, increased, so did critical use measures, such as visitation and circulation. In the same way, as investments were reduced, mostly in reaction to post-recessionary budgetary reductions, we saw decreases in library use.”

Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it’s easy enough to believe that increased funding for public libraries means more people will use them, because they’ll offer more things that people who don’t normally use libraries might want.

For people who aren’t interested in books and reading, and that seems to be most people, libraries usually don’t have a lot to offer. Give them something else, and they’ll show up. Give them free pizza and beer, and probably even more will show up.

Except it’s complicated, even as presented in the article. For example, “another important finding is that even though investments might have declined, any decreases in use did not drop by the same magnitude. People continue to use their local public libraries—for access to books and information and for gathering as a community.”

So while library usage is correlated with library investment, it’s really only partially correlated. If investment goes up and libraries offer more things to do, usage goes up. But if investment goes down, then people still use the library, just somewhat fewer people.

All this is happening while the existence of public libraries continues to be popular, maybe, depending. Depending on the source, 90% of people think the local public library closing would have an “impact” on the community, whatever that might mean, even if fewer than half of people surveyed had actually visited a library in the last year.

It’s one of those situations where you have to decide that either people don’t know what they’re talking about or survey data isn’t all that great, or maybe both.

The article concludes that “if the public wants to reverse the trend [of declining usage] and make the local library more useful, it should do one thing that evidence supports: Fund it better.”

However, there’s another plausible interpretation. If library usage drops at a slower rate with less funding than it grows with more funding, why not just keep funding the same? People who want to use the library would still use the library and the community, or less likely now, the U.S. government, would save a little money.

The main argument for more funding seems to be to make the library more “useful” to people who don’t need the kinds of things libraries usually provide.

So getting people into the door becomes the rationale for increasing library funding. Good luck selling that one to a public that already pays to support libraries even if they have no personal use for them.



  1. Spencer says:

    Maybe I’m just lucky- but I’ve not worked in a library that is declining use. In our system, one branch has minimally declining circulation vs. last year, but that’s still up almost 20% from the year before- and computer use, room use, and door counts are still up. The other branch continues to break records month after month for circulation and other metrics, I’m not bragging (ok, maybe a little) but that’s not my point. At our libraries (and previous successful ones where I’ve worked) the thing we DID NOT do was over-invest in new techy gadgets and nonprint resources. We do not over promote them- we treat them as a niche and nice service we offer- but programs and books are our bread and butter. It’s pretty straightforward.

    • Joneser says:

      You mean, you’re not a “futurist” and a “change agent” who said 15 years ago that “libraries as a place are dead”? Me neither.

    • We’ve experienced declines from our peak 2008-2011 period. I think a lot of libraries saw huge increases in circulation and door counts due to the recession. I would say we’re back down to that 2006-2007 range. Door counts are the same (trending a bit upward). Print circulation is slightly down but the increases in digital circ have made for a slight increase overall.

  2. Considering that Pew puts out studies every few days, does a year-old article count as “new?”

  3. dan cawley says:

    Pew data sample from 2015. IMLS data sample from 2013. Perhaps some newer numbers are in order.

  4. Joneser says:

    “For people who aren’t interested in books and reading, and that seems to be most people” – really?? What study told you that?

  5. In my experience, when the local government keeps the funding flat, that means fewer services are rendered to the public. I had to contend with higher wages, higher health insurance rates (can you say 15% increases or more?), and other higher operational costs while working with a flat budget. And you know what happened? I couldn’t buy as many books, I couldn’t offer as many programs, and I even had to cut staff, programs, and operational hours in order to make up for those rising costs. You know what else happened? A lot of our metrics showed a decline because we weren’t able to maintain our level of service from previous years. So when libraries ask their local governments for more money, a lot of the time it’s simply to maintain their level of service while trying to keep up with rising costs.

  6. politically incorrect librarian says:

    I don’t have any experience working in public libraries, but it seems to me that what they’re measuring is wrong. Shouldn’t metrics measure the different communities/sectors that the library is serving? Shouldn’t the metrics measure the outreach and partnerships established with other civic institutions and groups? Those are two of the things that should be measured, and not simply circulation rates or how many people used “X” service. Who cares how many people came through the door or used X service or attended X event if those things don’t improve literacy in the community. Just my five cents.

    • anonymous coward says:


      Sure- but what’s the point of doing all those other things if the people aren’t using you? If you’re outreach is going right, and your partnerships, etc., the numbers follow. They are in indicator of success, not success themselves… but it’s bad news if they aren’t there.

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