Urban libraries struggle to keep up in recession
When Philadelphia librarian Regina Johnson talked to researchers about what her job is like now, it was an eye-opener. She described helping a woman who was trying to get recertified for welfare but didn’t know how to use a computer. Then, there were two weeks “we were inundated” with people trying to apply online for subsidized housing. Add to that the steady stream of people who Johnson says come to the library for help getting unemployment benefits.
It’s a wonder Johnson has time for more traditional library duties, like checking out books. But the wide-ranging activities Johnson describes have increasingly become routine for urban public libraries, according to a report, “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future,” issued by Philadelphia-based The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The report compared the Free Library of Philadelphia with libraries in 14 other metropolitan areas, including Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; New York; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; San Francisco and Seattle. The report found that since 2005 urban library visitation increased on average 6 percent, and service offerings have increased.
It amounts to a “shadow mandate” for libraries, says Claire Shubik-Richards, one of the authors of the report. “The mandate is because patrons are coming in and demanding these services,” she says. “Patrons are coming in and expecting the library to provide job searching help, to help patrons apply for government services, to provide resources and programming for GED and English as a Second Language (ESL). And it’s a shadow because often the library has taken on this mandate without that being reflected in its budget.“
That conflict is playing out in Philadelphia, where the $63.6 million library system has struggled to meet growing demands in the face of deep budget cuts. The Philadelphia library “both financially and psychologically took a big hit during the recession,” says Larry Eichel, project director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative.
The system’s problems include a bitter fight over a proposal to close 11 library branches to save money, a plan that failed after widespread protests and a lawsuit. Still, the library budget was cut by $7.4 million. Staff shortages led to an increase in unscheduled library closings.
Meanwhile, demands on the library have grown. Use of library computers in Philadelphia has risen by 80 percent in the last six years, a trend that the Pew study found common in urban libraries.
To make up for staff shortages, Philadelphia uses more than 1,700 volunteers to answer computer questions, help seniors and other assignments. The system also offers career assistance, computer training and meeting space for ESL and literacy classes.
The task for Philadelphia and other urban libraries, Eichel says, is finding a way to bridge the gap between demands and resources. “There’s not going to be a lot more money for most library systems,” he says. “What they have now is what they’re going to have. The issue is deciding how to use it and making the tough decisions.”