The American Library Association released a compelling infographic yesterday relating a number of unsettling facts regarding the current state of public libraries, which can best be described as "in turmoil," due primarily to budget cuts, but equally to the shifting trend toward digital distribution of books, with its requisite infrastructure requirements.
This has demanded an enormous expenditure of resources (both financial and logistic) in transitioning to the new mode of operations, exactly at a time when public funding has been cut due to the recent financial crisis - a crisis, by the way, which is in large part due to the electronic revolution itself: a large percentage of U.S. commerce now occurs online where little if any taxes are collected, thus lowering the pool of funds just such institutions as schools and libraries rely on.
Just ten years ago nearly all commerce occurred locally, or at least regionally, and people still asked questions like "is it safe to buy stuff online?" and "aren't you afraid someone will steal your credit card number?" When was the last time you heard that? The point is that buying online is now not only an accepted means of doing business, but very often the preferred one. Amazon's ongoing battles with state and federal governments regarding tax collections are just one part of this phenomenon. The other part of that equation is school and public libraries losing funds to stock their shelves.
For the past three years around 60% of U.S. public libraries have reported decreased budgets, while at the same time demand for services has risen proportionally: computer use is up 60% and Wi-Fi use up 74%. Anyone with a data plan knows what a 74% increase in bandwidth use can cost. An astonishing number to me was that 62% of public libraries are the sole provider of free public access to the Internet in their communities. And this is actually down from 73% in 2006. I guess a lot of towns still don't have a Starbucks yet.
The positive side of this equation is that 76% of public libraries now provide ebooks to their patrons - up from just 38% in 2007 - and a surprising 39% now offer reading devices for checkout. In addition, more and more resources are now found online, making equity of access to information and services a growing concern among rural and poorer communities without a strong digital infrastructure. And off course, all that new technology is putting an enormous drain on the shrinking budgets of libraries as they struggle to meet their patrons' needs.
As you can see from the infographic, providing training and online job searching is a fundamental service of public libraries, as over three-quarters help their patrons complete online job applications and 96% offer assistance in accessing online governmental services, such as unemployment and medical benefits. 90% provide technical training to help them do so (as in, how to use the computer and navigate the Internet).
It's surprising how many people just expect libraries to be there when they need or want them, but give no thought to how they're paid for. That's a statistic I'd like to see in an infographic some day.