Though libraries across the country have faced widespread funding cuts since the recession began in 2008, more people have come to depend on them for essential tools like computers access, according to a report released today by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The report, which surveyed library systems in 15 U.S. cities and focused specifically on Pew’s hometown of Philadelphia, found that over half of all Philly residents visit the library at least once a year, with 30 percent visiting at least once a month. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of households with incomes of under $30,000 said they rely on libraries for regular access to computers.
This speaks to the changing role of libraries in the digital age: Though most people still primarily use libraries for borrowing books and other media, many view them as larger community centers that work in conjunction with other public agencies, such as employment and education centers. With resources helpful to people of nearly all income brackets and education levels, libraries are perhaps most importantly public spaces where the digital divide can disappear.
Between 2008 and 2010, Philadelphia libraries faced a nearly one-fifth reduction in government revenue, worse than any other US city except Los Angeles. Visits, meanwhile, have increased by over 10 percent, underlining the paradox that as residents have come to rely more on libraries in times of recession, those libraries are now less equipped to accommodate them.
Philadelphia libraries also suffered a disproportionate amount of unscheduled closings, which in 2010 peaked at 8,000, over three-quarters of which were due to staff shortages. Compare that with 2008, when understaffing accounted for only 51 of the 690 closings that year. Full-time staff positions shrank by almost 15 percent during the same period.
Although frequent library use correlates to higher education levels, about 45 percent of people without high school diplomas use libraries. Even people who can’t read have a place, as libraries host literacy classes and provide resources for adults learning to read and their tutors. For a city like Philadelphia, with an adult illiteracy rate of 22 percent, keeping libraries open is vital.
Cities with high numbers of per-capita library visits, like Seattle and San Francisco, fared the best in terms of funding available resources. Libraries in San Francisco, for instance, actually enjoyed a small increase in funding from 2008 to 2010. On the other hand, cities like Charlotte, which made huge cuts to its library in 2010, found that it had misunderstood both the scope of services the institution provided, and how to best pay for them (detailed in a March 2011 report by Mecklenburg County).
For interested readers in the area, the Pew Charitable Trusts will hold a panel discussion on its findings next Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
An earlier version of this post failed to clarify that “over half of all adults visit the library at least once a year, with 30 percent visiting at least once a month” is a statistic specific to Philadelphia, and not necessarily applicable nationwide. The post has since been corrected.