Public library “closures” sometimes aren’t at all

If you have not yet read the April 2012 Cites & Insights, this post may not make a lot of sense.

The lead essay involves original research to attempt to determine how many public libaries (not branches!) actually closed in 2008-2009 and remained closed. My final number was 17, with two crucial caveats. Here’s what I say before discussing each of 20 apparent closures:

I’m not certain any of these libraries are actually closed. Some could be open but no longer meet IMLS requirements for being listed as a public library (e.g., paid staff and public funding) and others may be open but have no web presence.

And at the end, after reducing the list from 20 to 17 (because three of the 20 were pretty clearly still operating):

Some of these libraries may, in fact, be open but flying under the radar, with no current web presence: That’s not unusual for very small libraries. This is the maximum number of still-closed public library systems first reported closed in 2008 or 2009; the actual number may be slightly smaller.

South Dakota: Cleanup, Not Closures

I received the following on Friday, March 30, 2012, from Dan Siebersma, State Librarian of South Dakota, who’s given me permission to post it:

Thanks for the excellent article about public library “closings.” You are so right that our profession’s constant harping on the “Libraries are closing!” meme simply serves as fodder for those who want to see libraries as obsolete anachronisms.

To add another wrinkle to your story, I need to point out to you that the “nine libraries in small South Dakota communities [that] apparently closed in 2009” didn’t really close at all.  In the past, the South Dakota State Library had a tendency to count every collection of publicly-accessible books in every small community as a ”library.”  It didn’t matter whether there was a staff, a board, or any of the other technicalities of being an actual public library.

A few years ago, we decided to clean this up and made a concerted effort to differentiate between legal public libraries (those meeting the state’s legal definition) and simple “reading rooms” (community book collections in mostly very small towns). Because reading rooms don’t meet the legal definition of a library, and because they often don’t even have a staff, and because they invariably don’t have the resources to participate in the annual public library survey (which provides the data used by IMLS), we chose to drop these collections from the list of libraries we submit annually to IMLS.

So, those nine “libraries” didn’t necessarily close, the State Library changed their designation from “public library” to “reading room” and dropped them from the IMLS Public Library Survey.  Most of them are probably still operating in exactly the same fashion as they’ve always operated, though one or two may have actually closed because “the lady who took care of the books left town” or something similar.

At any rate, we do not count these as “closed” public libraries, so your count of closed libraries has just been halved…and South Dakota’s public libraries remain strong and stable!

I had originally planned to include my specific suspicion that South Dakota’s large number of closures in a single year was actually a cleanup effort, but failed to do so. I thank Dan Siebersma for this clarification. It doesn’t quite cut the 17 in half (I’d already flagged two of the nine South Dakota “libraries” as still operating in some manner), but it does cut it down to ten. For the entire United States. For two years.

I’d guess some of the remaining ten are also cleanup efforts, that is, libraries that simply don’t meet IMLS standards but may still be operating as community reading rooms.

Now, back to the ten-year study…which will, of course, only yield a “maximum possible closures” count, not a “definitely still closed” count. It’s not going to be a huge number–that much I already know.

2 Responses to “Public library “closures” sometimes aren’t at all”

  1. Michael Golrick says:

    Here is my concern about “library closures.”

    Many communities have multiple library locations (branches or, in IMLS terms, outlets). Most of the general public does not understand the subtle distinctions of library governance (city versus county versus “system”), and only think of their local public library branch as their library. Unfortunately, the press takes this same view. That means that for the public, closing a branch is closing their public library.

    I know this because I lived through it as a City Librarian. We had a branch in a building which was literally unsafe for the staff to work in. We were working on funding for a major renovation (we eventually got it, but that took over 10 years of hard work by 3 City Librarians!). We did not have the money, but we did find a temporary location. Well, that did not really work out. After a while in that location, we closed it. The staff was re-deployed around the system (to fill the holes created by the city-wide hiring freezes), and the books were put in storage. What I consistently heard from the residents of that “neighborhood” was that I had closed their library. Never mind that the central facility was less than 5 miles away, they would not “go Downtown.”

    I think that is what even the library press talks about when they talk about library closures.

    What will be most interesting is to look at some of the data on number of hours of service provided (it is a data element), and see how that has changed over time. That will reflect the closing of branches, and will most likely be tempered with the replacement branch openings.

  2. waltcrawford says:

    With ongoing funding and a reasonable home for such data, that study (the last paragraph in your comment) would be interesting–but it’s not one I’d undertake on my own, just as a full analysis of outlet closures is too big, given the complex reasons for branch closures in some cities.

    I would note that the table in my article (and a previous post) does show outlets as a separate column–and here again, the total number is higher in 2009 than in 1999: not only have public library (agency) opening over the decade outnumbered closings (by about 180), branch openings have outnumbered closings (by about 290)–although that’s way too simple. (Bookmobiles, on the other hand, have declined over that decade.)

    Will Kurt’s Library Data includes a post on year-by-year closures of both agencies and outlets; closures of all outlets show a similarly declining pattern over the years. Which is of no particular help to those whose friendly neighborhood branch just shut down, of course: I recognize that public libraries are primarily local affairs in the U.S., which I regard as a strength.