Pew Study Finds Urban Libraries Struggle to Meet Greater Demands with Fewer Resources

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A new report and interactive Web graphic shows how urban libraries across America are struggling to keep up with the changing demands of city residents who have come to rely on their neighborhood libraries to perform an ever-wider range of functions.

An embeddable interactive Web graphic compares 15 big-city library systems across various measures

“It is the ability of libraries to perform so many functions in response to people’s needs that makes city residents value them so highly,” said Larry Eichel, project director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative.

A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that urban libraries are experiencing increased demands for an ever-widening array of services, due in part to the poor economy. At the same time, libraries’ funding from local governments has been cut, leaving them with fewer resources, staff and hours with which to meet these new challenges.

To understand how urban libraries are dealing with this pressure, the report from Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative compares library systems in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Queens (NY), San Francisco and Seattle (It also examines Philadelphia’s library system in greater depth to gauge how well it is meeting residents’ needs).

Among the 15 cities studied, the number of library visits rose on average six percent from 2005-2011, while circulation of print and CD/DVD materials increased by 18 percent. Visits grew during that period by more than 20 percent in Detroit, Baltimore, Seattle and Atlanta. Circulation of materials increased by 50 percent in Seattle, and more than 30 percent in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Brooklyn.

The report, “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future,” finds that libraries now often have a “shadow mandate” that involves supporting and complementing the work of other public agencies, effectively turning them into multipurpose community centers. Due partly to their role as society’s default provider of free computer and Internet access, they are helping residents—including those with limited incomes and educations—to find jobs, obtain health information, and connect to government services and benefits. They also are offering business services, tax assistance, safe after-school havens for children, and places where immigrants can learn English. They do all of this while still lending books, CDs and DVDs.

A PDF of the report and an interactive Web graphic that allows users to compare all 15 library systems is available here.

All but one of the cities studied—San Francisco—have experienced recession related library cuts since 2008. On average, public revenue decreased by about 10 percent from 2008 to 2010, and almost half of the libraries experienced further cuts in 2011.

Some of the report’s other findings are these:

  •     Among the cities studied, Seattle, San Francisco and Columbus have the highest per capita number of library visitors and circulation.
  •     Some of the drivers of city libraries’ increased popularity include investments in children’s programming, GED instruction, and central library renovations to make them more welcoming.
  •     The number of library computers available per 10,000 residents ranges from 3.5 in Phoenix to 17.1 in Seattle. Most libraries report that the demand for computer time far exceeds the supply.

Read more and access a PDF of the report on Pew's website.

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