In the best of times, and especially in the worst of times, libraries around the country provide essential resources and services to people of all ages and means. They serve as a lifeline for low-income families, with regular educational programs for children and adult learning courses. They provide a social environment for the elderly, resources for students and teachers, and a vital connection to the internet for those in small or rural communities. Libraries have long served as a place to go for those experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and are one of the very few places you can spend a day without having to make a purchase.
As the recession took hold in late 2007, Americans in large numbers turned toward their local libraries for services such as job-seeking programs, resume building, technology training, and increasingly for services as basic as an internet connection, as many employers turned to online job boards to post openings. A 2010 Harris Interactive poll showed not only that library patronage has been on the rise for decades, but that library use surges during economic downturns. The results also indicated that some 223 million Americans feel that libraries are essential and make for better communities.
While these services are clearly essential to giving everyone a chance to succeed, library funding, especially in hard times, is in decline. A 2009 study by the American Library Association and the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland suggests a “perfect storm” of increased demand for library services and a shrinking pool of resources to meet that demand. Libraries across the country are funded in a number of ways, most commonly through state and local governments, but also receive money through the federal government, grants, referendums and levys. During the 2008 recession, the Maryland study found that 24 states slashed their library funding, while library use in many parts of the country was at an all-time high.
Budget cuts mean diminished resources, fewer staff members to keep community programs up and running, and even the closure of branches and whole library systems. In the late 2000s, state cuts to library funding were compounded by local budget cuts and cuts to state library agency budgets, as well as fewer donations from private donors. Even after making deep cuts to funding in 2008, states and local governments still had large gaps in the budget, which meant funding to libraries was still stagnant three years later in 2011. This created a long term effect on the services available to patrons and the hours library-goers had access to those resources.
No matter what the economy looks like, libraries provide Americans with a better quality of life and access to resources ranging from a free bathroom to books and movies in a variety of languages, to technology and skills training. All of these services and more provide a means to succeed for everyone, no matter age, ability or income. Public support as well as state and local funding are essential to keep libraries up and running in all seasons. As their relevance only increases with an uncertain future, support for libraries at all levels of government is critical to ensure a level playing field, and the opportunity to succeed for every American.
Catherine is an avid supporter of environmentalism and sustainability at home and worldwide. She earned her bachelor's in political science and journalism and loves to explore how social issues are shaped by law and politics. When she's not blogging for the Tangency Foundation, Catherine works in communications and public relations at a large, national law firm. You can find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Stolz.