Archive for February 14th, 2012

Public library openings and my problem with negativity

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Last November (November 25, 2011), I asked “How many US public libraries have actually closed?” Let me quote a little of that post:

When reading various posts and articles from various directions–some celebrating the promised end of public libraries, most bemoaning the decline of public libraries–I keep running into comments about so many public library closures.

LISNews, for example, seems to feature any story that suggests a public library might be in danger of closing, or that some source of funding has declined, and sometimes seems to have a “we’re all gonna die!” feel to it. It’s not the only one, to be sure…and I’ve noticed that threats or temporary closures seem to get a lot more coverage than reopenings, new library openings, or threats that were overcome. I know: “If it bleeds, it leads”: Journalism tends to emphasize the negative.

I got some interesting comments, but no real numbers, although there was one suggestion that the number was 0.4% since 2005.


Two months later (January 25, 2012), I posted “How many public libraries have closed? Redux.”

I noted the first post and lack of answers. I also noted that I’d asked the question again at LISNews in grumping about a story with the lead “In an age of library closings”–a fairly typical lead, since it appears to be common knowledge that public libraries are shutting down all over the place. Here’s what I said then:

Since you lead with that, I’ll repeat the question I’ve asked elsewhere (with no results): Do you–does anyone–have any actual data on actual library system closings? Not branches, not temporary shutdowns, but public libraries that actually disappear–or, let’s say, shut down for at least three years?

Has it been 1% over the last 10 years? 0.5%? 0.1%?

Have there been more public libraries (again, not branches–those are inherently more temporary) closed or opened over the last decade?

Or do we just conveniently talk about lots of library closures, despite lack of any real evidence that this is happening? I’m not trying to minimize the effects of branch “closures” or reduced hours, but I’d sure like to see some facts…

That question became a separate LISNews post. My dystopian friend Blake Carver came up with an “off the top of my head” list of closures and, as I would expect, his firm conviction that nearly all public library funding news is bad news. I quote:

Buffalo & Erie County Public Library closed a dozen or so branches 5 or 6 years ago.
Detroit Public Library is closing a bunch of branches.
That system in Texas is closing, or closed.
What’s the story in Chicago & Seattle? They are talking about closing branches?
UK libraries are in bad shape, I think they’ve closed a few, a few are being run by volunteers.
I’m pretty sure I just read a story about a place closing a branch in a mall someplace in the midwest.

As someone who scans maybe 100 stories about libraries a day I’d say the general trend is 90% terrible for budgets as reported in local news papers. I don’t know that there is a huge wave of closings though. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was one coming though. (Note: Huge Wave could mean numbers closer to 20, not 2,000)

That final paragraph is interesting. I believe most local news reporting is negative, because that’s the way news works.

A city increasing its funding for public libraries by 5% is not news; a city cutting its funding by 5% is news. Hell, look at the wave of stories and comments on the order of “OMG! California’s public libraries are all gonna’ close!” given the loss of somewhat less than 1% of public library funding…that is, what was left of state funding. The portion of those stories that followed the loss of $12.5 million with a note that California’s public library budgets total something like $1.3 billion? I don’t remember ever seeing such a story, actually…

Beyond that, we got Blake questioning my distinction between branches and library agencies, some interesting discussion of IMLS datasets, a pointer to an LJ site that really didn’t have any information on it, and some interesting refinements (that, sigh, I lost because my modem went down losing 15 minutes of work, work that I don’t intend to recreate at the moment).

Why do I care? Here are the last two paragraphs of the January 25 post:

But to me the primary effect of the “public libraries are closing all over the place!” meme is self-fulfilling prophecy and grist for the mill of libertarians and those who dislike public libraries: Oh well, they’re already shutting down like crazy, that’s just the way it is.

Which, as I suspected, is simply not true.

In other words, a consistent push toward negativity damages public libraries because it creates the perception that libraries are doomed anyway–that cities are already shutting them down.

 Some answers

So I went back to IMLS and looked at their annual publications, which actually do go back quite a ways.

If you’d like to look for yourself, go to the IMLS “Public Libraries in the United States Survey” page and click on “Publications” below that headline, not the Publications link on the left sidebar. As in the link pointed to below:

[Thank the Windows Clipping Tool for this–and my inability to draw a straight line for the funny-looking red arrow and sloppy highlighting.]

You should get a page titled “Public Libraries” with links for reports as recent as FY2009 and as far back as FY1989.

I looked at the reports for 2009, 1999 (a 10-year gap) and, given the suggestion that 0.4% of public libraries have closed since 2004, FY2004.

I also looked at three figures: Library agencies (“libraries”), Outlets (stationary, including branches) and Bookmobiles.

The number of outlets can be dramatically different than the number of libraries, especially in states like California that tend toward large agencies (and has 1,122 outlets as of FY2009, but only 181 libraries).

Here are the numbers according to IMLS, with my own totals:

Libraries Outlets Bookmobiles Total
2009 9,225 16,698 771 17,469
2004 9,198 16,543 825 17,368
1999 9,046 16,220 907 17,127

Do you see what I see? The 0.4% decline from 2004 to 2009…simply isn’t there. The overall trend of either libraries or branches (“outlets” is libraries and branches combined) shutting down…simply isn’t there.

Yes, there are fewer bookmobiles–6% fewer in 2009 than in 2004. But there are more libraries, more branches, and more total service points.

Actually, there is a number very close to 0.4% from 2004 to 2009: Namely, there are 0.58% more total service points in 2009 than in 2004. (Note that the “total” number adds Outlets and Bookmobiles, because Outlets already includes Libraries–except for those library agencies that are wholly bookmobiles.)

The 2009 IMLS report says that there are more libraries, right up front–but makes a point that the number of libraries hasn’t grown as fast as the number of people. That’s a much trickier discussion. Are people better served by lots and lots of very small locations or by fewer, larger, better-stocked, better-staffed locations? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Nationwide, there appears to be roughly one library outlet for every 18,000 people–but that’s one of those averages that is as useful as saying that a river with wide banks and a deep central channel is an average of five feet deep.

One point that surprised me a little: The IMLS definition of a library requires paid staff and public funding. Given that a number of small libraries appear to be entirely operated by volunteers, I assume they have some minimal stipend that qualifies them.

I do know that there are lots of libraries around that don’t meet these definitions. A family member even operates one of them–and it’s quite appropriate that it wouldn’t show up in IMLS reports, as it has no public funding of any sort and doesn’t pretend to be an actual public library.

My problem with negativity

I don’t believe it serves the library field to repeat the false notion that American public libraries are shutting down all over the place. (Note that qualifier “American”–I really can’t speak to the situation in the UK.)

For that matter, I don’t believe that always stressing the negative side of library budget issues is healthy.

For what it’s worth, the 2009 IMLS report does note that public library funding has grown in constant dollars since 1999…and the funding per capita has grown since 1999. No, it hasn’t grown as much as usage, but overall, libraries were better funded at the depth of the recession than they were ten years earlier.

I think that’s an important story. I think it’s important that Oakland, a city with enormous budget and other problems, made a point of not cutting library services in this year’s budget–but that story doesn’t show up in the library literature as much as any cut would.

I think that’s a shame. Building from strength works better than trying to stave off weakness.

That’s why this post’s title begins “Public library openings”–because, on the whole, more libraries and branches have opened than have closed.