Urban Libraries Meet Greater Demands with Fewer Resources


A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that urban libraries are experiencing increased demands for an ever-widening array of services, due in part to the poor economy. At the same time, libraries’ funding from local governments has been cut, leaving them with fewer resources, staff, and hours with which to meet these new challenges.

To understand how urban libraries are dealing with this pressure, the report from Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative compares library systems in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Queens (NY), San Francisco, and Seattle. (It also examines Philadelphia’s library system in greater depth to gauge how well it is meeting residents’ needs.)

Among the 15 cities studied, the number of library visits rose on average six percent from 2005 to 2011, while circulation of print and CD/DVD materials increased by 18 percent. Visits grew during that period by more than 20 percent in Detroit, Baltimore, Seattle, and Atlanta. Circulation of materials increased by 50 percent in Seattle, and more than 30 percent in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Brooklyn. 

The report, The Library in the City: Changing Demands and A Challenging Future, finds that libraries now often have a “shadow mandate” that involves supporting and complementing the work of other public agencies, effectively turning them into multipurpose community centers. Due partly to their role as society’s default provider of free computer and Internet access, they are helping residents—including those with limited incomes and educations—to find jobs, obtain health information, and connect to government services and benefits. They also are offering business services, tax assistance, safe after-school havens for children, and places where immigrants can learn English. They do all of this while still lending books, CDs, and DVDs.

A PDF of the report and an interactive Web graphic that allows users to compare all 15 library systems is available here

This article was adpated from a press release from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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