Libraries in Economic Bad Times: Public Libraries

Aug 08 2009 Published by under libraries

Public libraries are incredibly important in economic bad times. Things people just bought for themselves without thinking, they now borrow if they can. People need emergency assistance with housing or medical or childcare and they don't know how to find an appropriate agency or charity. People are looking for jobs and need assistance finding listings and to use the computer to fill out the application or complete a resume.  Even people with jobs and computers might not be able to afford internet access and so come to use the free wireless or computers.

Public library funding depends on where you are. A very small portion comes from the federal government and private organizations. The majority comes from state and local taxes (somewhat dated source says 90%). I seem to remember my local public library got only 30% of its funding from the state, but I can't find a citation for that now. In Maryland, most of our public libraries are county systems. As go the property taxes, so go the libraries as county agencies.  Maryland, in general, is probably doing better than other states, but there are massive gaps. Libraries are really valued in Maryland, so they are cut later, but there is only so much that can be done.

Here are some of the steps I'm seeing public libraries take:

  • shortening hours open, not opening in the evening, not opening on Sunday
  • collections budgets are slashed, things with subscriptions are not being renewed (fewer multiple-year contracts in public libraries, from what I can tell), fewer books being purchased (reference books being held for longer, no new editions except for medical, fewer copies of popular books)
  • hiring freezes
  • furloughs (5-10 days)
  • library closing on holidays like Columbus Day when they were typically open
  • some reductions in force, layoffs, or firings
  • short staffing desks (to you people who have no freakin' clue why this matters - come to my county sometime and watch the lines at the desk)
  • taking away age-level specialists to move them to generalist positions


Facility renovations are usually capital funds. The catalog can be capital funding because it's so expensive. So these things are in a separate pool. Sure, there are grants, but you can hardly run a system on grants - regardless of what anyone tells you.

What have I forgotten?

2 responses so far

  • Jeff Scott says:

    Some are adjusting hours (not losing hours) to save energy costs. Don't forget technology or worn out equipment. That can be capital though instead of operational.
    Thanks for the post. That's a great summary.

  • Jack Vinson says:

    The local library in Arlington, MA was able to _add_ Sunday hours through a local donor, who wanted it to be.
    And on a positive note, the local newspaper had a piece on people using the library for job hunting. (Can't find the article.)